Mugged and Murdered- The Hijacking of The Avant-Garde

Art critic Clement Greenberg’s historical materialism will not permit him to accept any version of the myth of universal human nature. Rather, consciousness is determined, for the Marxist Greenberg, by economic conditions. This become apparent in his discussion a peasant’s possible response to Art or Kitsch. Greenberg, in his essay of 1939, “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” attempts a brief foray into the mind of a peasant who stands, bewildered, before a cubist canvas. The problem Greenberg sees is that the peasant, even if he were to have the inclination to enjoy cubism, simply doesn’t have the necessary time, to say nothing of other resources, to develop anything other than a fleeting curiosity regarding high art. The material and social conditions simply do not exist under which it would be possible to dedicate himself to the prolonged intellectual study and practical experience requisite for a genuine and lasting appreciation of modern art. About this Greenberg is quite explicit.


Culture of the highest sort of one of the most fragile achievements of humanity. It does not simply emerge on its own and it requires constant vigilance and nurturing if it is to endure. It is for this reason that culture, in virtually every society we have ever known, has always been the province of the wealthy and leisured, and those few talented and determined individuals to whom the wealthy and leisured are willing to grant patronage. Those forced to work for their survival – peasants, factory laborers, bourgeois types, and even a majority of intellectuals, who these days are also worked to death – simply don’t have the available means whereby to cultivate a genuine sense of discernment. Increasingly, Greenberg adds, even the ruling classes, now that work and leisure have become ever more distinct from one another, are becoming excessively addicted to work.

The case cannot be otherwise in a capitalist society, because competition, which is a fundamental component of that system, requires that every one attempt to get ahead of everyone else. The moment anyone relaxes in any aspect of the total process of production, that person can rest assured that the competition will gain the upper hand. Capitalism, by definition, must constantly expand into new markets, creep into and colonize ever more minute areas of private life. Leisure time, to the extent it exists at all anymore, increasingly has come to mean idle time. Who today would ever consider spending not just a couple of hours but their weekend or summer vacation studying difficult philosophy texts or doing a detailed comparison of the Picasso and Braque? Everyone, regardless of their class is equally exhausted, and everybody is equally determined, either inwardly or outwardly, simply to escape. The human organism, if not the muscles then certainly the brain (Greenberg mentions this explicitly) is simply too tired. And so we reach not even for a decent wine but instead a cold beer. Consequently, culture in general is in a state of danger.

The genuine danger, at least for Greenberg, is that we will lapse back into a state of utter barbarism, interested only in fulfilling our most instinctual needs and desires. This we might call a lapse back into animal nature, which for Greenberg would simply be something quite distinct from “human nature”, which can exist only on a higher, properly cultural level. Human consciousness certainly can and does evolve, just as the human body evolves. The problem both Greenberg and Eliot identify is that technology, most recently in the form of large-scale industry, is evolving far more rapidly than either the human organism or human consciousness. Modern man is drained by his work and alienated from genuinely meaningful activity. The name of just one of the symptoms of this new set of relations of production is Boredom – something which Greenberg claims is a relatively recent invention. Capitalism’s ready remedy for this is Kitsch. Kitsch is how we kill time.


T. S. Eliot’s solution to the problem, which Greenberg attacks in “The Plight of Culture” (1951), calls for a return to an earlier pre-industrial age. Greenberg finds this proposal problematic, indeed embarrassing. The masses simply would never allow it, and the authoritarian leaders we have today do not dare contradict the will of the masses. Further, history, which in the final analysis is to be understand as the technological and economic development, simply does not go backwards. Greenberg’s response to what he deems the callowness of Eliot is to argue the technological revolutions have always cause social crises in their early phases, though with time these crises work themselves out.

The role of formalist experimentation under the phase of economic and technological development Greenberg discusses, which for him was essentially Capitalism going through its death throes, is not to produce a style of art which will be appropriate to all people in all places and at all times, but rather to produce a style of art which for the present moment does not debase itself to the level of Kitsch. As I said in class, we do not know what kind of art the new society of the future will bring. It may once again in the future be possible realistically to depict the human form in a painting without that image inevitably functioning as a mere illustration. Greenberg’s ending remains open here.

Greenberg does predict that a new kind of art, possibly realist, will only emerge once industry develops to a point at which we have a classless society, in which work has once again become interesting to us. This is not a nostalgic return to folk culture – at least Greenberg does not think so – but it does bear a resemblance to folk culture insofar as artworks under this new system, will, like folk art, be collective productions resulting from a combination of work and play. De Stijl and The Bauhaus come to mind – their effort to employ rational and practical design as a means of merging materialist aesthetics and pragmatic concerns. Their project, if allowed to arrive at its proper completion, would have spelled the end of the Genius and the Masterpiece. Rather than on museum walls and pedestals, the best art, according to the thought of these schools, should exist on our own kitchen tables. In keeping with this, Greenberg believed that one of the first sign of cultural decadence was the emergence, in place of great schools of art, exceptionally creative loners, such as Rembrandt.

As for all new art arising in rebellion against older forms, Greenberg will not argue that this is entirely the case. He will say instead that art, in our own culture at least, has developed as a result of artists need to identify and work within the limitations of any given medium. Rather than offer us a million things to process at once – which is precisely what the multi-tasking we do at work offers us – great art strives to focus our attention on one task at a time, by appealing to only one of our sense at a time. This is the purity Greenberg mentions in his essay, and which he insists Kitsch is out to destroy. Genuine art will progress insofar as it is able to break free from foreign influences and emerge as simply what it is. Greenberg, as you say, does seem to draw a very hard and fast distinction between true art and junk, and he will insist that either you like one or the other. Further, he will insist that most stuff passing itself off as art is in fact junk. Greenberg does not say that it is always easy to tell the difference between the two, precisely because some junk is produced by people with real talent. Further, the few artists who spend all their time working to produce something which isn’t Kitsch don’t always tend to be particularly good at promoting themselves. Whereas producers of Kitsch, who invariably work for large industry or another, inevitably have vast armies of PR and marketing experts who specialize nothing but promotion. Consequently, junk insinuates its ways into all areas of our lives, just a Greenberg said, and the available opportunities for the appreciation of genuine art become daily fewer.

However, Greenberg’s views changes over the years. Sometime after WW II Greenberg begins to abandon his doubts about human nature. Whereas in the 30’s his commitment to Marxism expressed itself in the belief that there was no such thing as human nature, by the time the ’50s roll around, Greenberg is arguing strenuously in favor of transcendental categories of aesthetic experience, and the absolute value of certain works of abstract art. In a word the Marxist has become a Kantian. Why? The answer to this question is complex. One possible reason is that he suddenly felt a renewed allegiance to Humanism after the horrors of the war. He may also have lost his faith in deliverance through technology. From a more negative perspective, perhaps he got too seduced by the power of his own analytical skills, perhaps he became demoralized when he saw Capitalism’s refusal to fall. Or, perhaps Greenberg became seduced by the money and prestige to be gained by trading art in an market which for the very first time was beginning to buy and sell works of art for millions of dollars. This outrageous practice, a shock which no longer shocks us, is something which NEVER was the case before the ’60s, the moment in history during which today’s technologically sophisticated and highly bureaucratic multi-national corporations – think IBM – first emerge. Nor, prior to this time, did it ever make sense to anyone invest in art. Sure, some rich types collected it; but they didn’t buy it on sites like the one linked above, which thinly veils itself as educational when in fact it is nothing more than a brokerage which as well be selling real estate or oil-not-on-canvas.

Whatever the cause of his conversion, in the ’60s Greenberg’s fortunes suffer a reversal. He is no longer viewed as a highly influential and respected progressive but rather a notorious and maligned conservative. To read about this shift in detail, here is the book to get.

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2 Responses to Mugged and Murdered- The Hijacking of The Avant-Garde

  1. Ischa says:

    Things that make you go hmmmmmmmmmmm. 🙂

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