Art and Social Change

Dan at Iconoduel and Miguel at Modern Kicks have been looking at the possible connections between the arguments in Greenberg’s early and important essay from 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch“, and Lyotard’s in The Postmodern Condition. This weekend I re-read the Greenberg essay and the exchange between T. J. Clark and Michael Fried focused (among other things) on “Greenberg’s Modernism”, an exchange published by Critical Inquiry in September 1982. I’ll set to one side, for the time being, Lyotard’s views on modernism, aesthetics, and the sublime. Its relevance to the arguments contained in A-G&K are not immediately obvious to me, but perhaps I need to re-read that work, as well. For now, I’ll start with some thoughts on the debate surrounding Greenberg’s early work.

Every time I read A-G&K, I’m struck not only by the clarity with which it lays out the foundation of Greenberg’s approach to art, but also with his insight into the historical conditions that have shaped and constrained artistic practice in advanced capitalist societies. One can argue with his historical account of the emergence of kitsch, the role of 20th century popular culture, and the precise nature of the relation of the avant-garde to the bourgeoisie. But that he puts his finger on one of the chief obstacles to progressive artistic engagement today — the extraordinary difficulty of finding a secure economic and political position from which to practice one’s art and from which to effectively engage and critique the “dominant culture” — is, it seems to me, beyond dispute.

Greenberg argues that when cultural forms lose the power to embody and express what’s at stake in a society, the standard artistic response is to rigidify (by means of “academicism”) the fine points of style and form, theme and variation. Beginning with the emergence of the avant-garde in 19th century France, however, Greenberg finds a more critical and progressive response to the crisis of traditional bourgeois art as modern artists struggled to create an art that would critique the values and contradictions found in their rapidly industrializing society. The nascent avant-garde, according to Greenberg, ultimately disengaged with society, eventually rejecting its political foundation in favor of a cultural goal — to move art “forward” on its own terms as “art for art’s sake”. This involved a belief in, and search for, “absolutes” beyond content.

Thus, Greenberg’s claim is that artistic practices in the modern world inevitably became reflexive — focused on the medium itself. Cutoff from the social world, art was to be justified in its own terms. In this way, art became the subject matter of art. Ironically, art for art’s sake itself often led to a kind of academicism. But the difference between the avant-garde and the degenerate academic forms of art is that the avant-garde “moves” (makes progress?) while the academic (or “Alexandrian”) stands still. In this sense, avant-garde method is vindicated.

Also, paradoxically, the avant-garde “belongs” to the dominant culture or ruling class. Culture requires support and, thus, the avant-garde maintains its connection (its “umbilical cord of gold”, to borrow a phrase from Marx) to the dominant culture. And since this “elite” audience was shrinking, the future of the avant-garde was endangered.

It seems to me the issue here is not so much, as Miguel suggests, in the opposition of realism and abstraction, but in the question of what gives rise to meaning and value in art. It’s obvious that modern artists gave unprecedented attention to the mediums in which they worked. In the 19th century, this constituted a radical move away from the tradition and conventions of the time. In challenging the standards for representation of the visual world and introducing spatial incongruities, abandonment of local color, dramatic emphasis on surface features and two dimensionality, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Derain, Kandinsky, and others rejected the decadent art of the bourgeoisie, disrupting the comfort associated with it.

So the question here is how and why particular art works, or the qualities common to a number of influential works, acquire significance and value. What did flatness, to use the most obvious example, represent and why did it have such compelling attraction for artists and critics in the 20th century? Or, to consider a related question, what was so important about “purity” in art? Why were so many drawn to it as a concept around which to organize a practice or interpretive approach to a body of work? And — here’s the question distinguishing Greenberg from Fried from Meyer Schapiro from T. J. Clark, etc. — with reference to what can these questions be answered?

These are some of the questions one must face when confronting the issue of art, agency, and social change — questions requiring the tools of the social scientist more than the philosopher, artist, or art critic.

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