Sunday, June 16, 2013

Greenberg on Kitsch

I have written about kitsch before. I'm not sure where I picked up the notion, but since I've been reading books on art, culture and aesthetics for forty years now, I'm sure I ran into it in various places. But I have recently come to the realization that the locus classicus of the concept in art criticism, at least in this century, was an essay by Clement Greenberg dating from 1939. I don't feel too bad about missing this as the author(s) of the Wikipedia article on kitsch also seemed to have missed it! Here is the crucial part of Greenberg's essay that shows, I think, the relevance of the idea:
The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time.
You can read the whole essay here. I am reluctant to simply accept the arguments and conclusions of writers such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Clement Greenberg, because their fundamental stances and methods are Marxist and Marxism, while seductive, tends not to end well. So I take a critical stance to their work. I have written about Adorno before here and here.

Adorno and Greenberg both seem to make the same mistake. Greenberg expresses it here in that same essay on kitsch:
There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful -- and therefore the cultivated -- and on the other the great mass of the exploited and poor -- and therefore the ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.
 "Formal culture" belongs to the minority of the powerful? While the "great mass of the exploited and poor" ... "had to content themselves with ... kitsch"? One thing that is obviously wrong with this is that the minority of the powerful, what we nowadays call the "1%", have no interest whatsoever in formal culture. Do the Zuckerbergs, Gateses and Obamas of this world listen to Beethoven and Bach, let alone Boulez and Cage? No, they do not, they listen to Beyoncé, just like the rest of us. The other thing wrong with this is the myopic view of popular culture. True, the great majority of popular culture is probably kitsch, but not all. There is a significant amount of popular culture that is not empty, formulaic cliché.

What I notice in all art is that there is a brilliant, creative minority that, in most times, places and genres, is able to create wonderful pieces of expressive art. At the same time in those same places and genres, most of the rest of the producers are creating relatively dull, lifeless, clichéd examples of art. This is a universal phenomenon, I suspect. There is something similar going on amongst the consumers of art. The majority of them are, as Greenberg avers, happy consumers of ersatz culture. But, BUT, not all. Amongst consumers there is also a minority that are not satisfied with ersatz culture, but seek out more expressive and creative culture.

What I am emphatically rejecting here is the class-oriented view of aesthetics perpetuated by these writers and others, like Pierre Bourdieu. No, people do not adopt particular aesthetic tastes simply because of their class in society. Otherwise, the only thing I would be listening to would be Canadian fiddle music. People are individuals!

I say this for the best of reasons: empirical evidence, to be specific, my life. I came from the rural, uncultivated class, became interested in music, became dissatisfied with the usual forms and sought out more interesting and challenging works. Am I a solitary example? I doubt that very much!

Anyone who becomes bored with the predictable is capable of advancing their aesthetic cultivation. What I fear these days is that the mainstream culture is so homogenized that many people go on for years and years or lives and lives without ever encountering much that is creative and interesting. So they have virtually no opportunity to encounter real culture.

Well, that's what the Internet is for and, of course, the Music Salon in particular. We could have a new slogan: "The Music Salon: Dehomogenizing Music since 2011!"

Here are some examples of creative and interesting popular culture (if you are willing to accept the definition of "popular" as meaning, pretty much, "non-classical"). First of all Packwood, an Australian song-writer who is, sort of, like Bob Dylan with a banjo:

And an orchestra:

Then there is Genki Sudo and his group, World Order. Think of them as synchronized martial-arts inspired dancing:

But there are more famous examples as well. Surely Bob Dylan has demonstrated for the last fifty years that popular culture can be creative and significant?

And then there is my personal favorite, Leonard Cohen:

I could go on and on--I haven't even mentioned the Beatles!--but there is really no need. There is wonderful, creative, original and expressive popular culture.

So why is everyone listening to Rihanna, Beyoncé and Ke$ha all the time? Well, not everyone is.

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