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Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Significance of Kitsch in Modern Culture, by Jared Caldwell

What is kitsch? According to Clement Greenberg in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, kitsch is what is considered the “rear-garde” to the avant-garde. The avant-garde is considered to be at the forefront of advancement in the realm of art, exploring and furthering art in different ways that may be unconventional. If the avant-garde is considered to expand “high art”, then kitsch is the commercialized art that has become the rear-garde in the present, consisting of articles such as: Hollywood movies, magazine covers, pop art, commercialized music, etc.
Greenberg speaks of a time before this mass of commercialized culture “kitsch”was formed, when art was created for the high elite of society. During these times in history, there would be the few (the aristocrats) who were versed in reading, writing, literature, language, and art, and then there would be the many (the common peasants) who were subservient to the aristocrats. These commoners were not well educated, due to social class and the fact that there was no extra time to be had to learn and appreciate the arts. Therefore, “high art” was created for and appreciated by the aristocrats, and marveled after by the ignorant commoner.
In recent history, “global literacy” had reached out to most people, especially in the West. With literacy and education, the chasm between the upper class and the lower class had started to close drastically. The fact that the commoner could read, write, and had some education rendered the once prestigious position of being a well read, educated person an easy one to obtain. According to Greenberg, since the new lower class did not have the leisure of not working or living in an aristocratic environment, the appreciation of high culture and high art was lost on this new generation of “intellectuals”. This depreciation of the high arts created a demand for a new kind of culture: kitsch.
In Wallace Steven's “Art, Entertainment, Entropy” and in Greenberg's “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, both agree that imitation plays a big role in art. Greenberg states “that avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating”. Imitation to the avant-garde is the relationship that the artist forms with the medium he is working in. This imitation is based around the concept that art is created by the idea of creating art, and that art stands on its own without any other need. Steven's describes the rear-garde, kitsch, as an imitation of what is known. With kitsch, there is no exploration or development of new material. Everything that has passed as “culture” in previous history is rechurned and regurgitated into this “mass culture”. It is as if kitsch is being presented as a new cereal box, whose cardboard sides are made up of old recycled cardboard boxes. Even with a new logo and different colors, ultimately all that is still left is a cereal box. Stevens even quotes Krishnamurti, “'One of the fundamental causes of the disintegration of society is copying, which is worship of authority'”. What does this foreshadow for future generations?
In response to the authors, it would seem to me that this mass culture, kitsch, is the first part in a long cycle of culture development. Though I am no expert on the history of culture, nor the study of culture, “high art” and “aristocratic society” have not always been placed on a pedestal that it once was on years ago. Some of the earliest known works were no doubt performed by the first humans: gatherers, cavemen, wanderers. These paintings on caves and stones were not considered “high art”, but rather means of story telling. This time period was developed long before a high social order like the aristocrats of old were formed. Though social structures were formed for different reason then, later groups of people like the Native Americans didn't have that higher class to perform and study this “high art”. It seems likely that art and the exchange of ideas during these time periods could find some parallels with today's modern kitsch. Maybe when there are times of equalization, the rear-garde takes presidence over the avant-garde until an elitist class forms again. “High art” could then form again out of the mechanized “mass culture” when the masses are no longer in power.

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