2013 | Contemporary Art and it's Critics : RISD
Clement Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’: Synopsis and Reflections
In 1956 in an interview with Selden Rodman, Mark Rothko denies being an ‘abstractionist’ when asked about the use of colour harmonies and the lack of discernible form in his paintings with the retort: “I am not interested in colour or form or anything else. I’m interested in only expressing basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them and if you are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point!” Rothoko’s deliberate negligence of the elements that pre-modern painters dealt with allows the trained eye access to a relatively latent expression of personal experience. This exclusion would please New York critic Clement Greenberg and conform with his ideals for true art, as propounded in his landmark essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch.
In 1939, against the backdrop of the prevailing art style, American Regionalism, and the societal modifications of European Fascism, Greenberg attempts to distinguish between popular art or Kitsch, born out of mass media and consumerism and the coterminous appropriation of art by totalitarian regimes, from what he referred to as Avant-Garde or genuinely revolutionary art. He opines the former is a spectacle for the masses, marked by mesmerising entertainment, psychic manipulation and illusion. It inevitably gets caught in a vicious cycle of stagnant and academic Alexandrianism whereas the latter stays relevant by using self-criticality and medium specificity in an effort to be autonomous and thereby creates new meaning and originality in a culturally ambiguous society.
Greenberg’s primary concern is visual, he focuses on aesthetics and how it defines art. He illustrates this by examining the experiences of a specific individual and the social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place. The essay is divided into three parts, examining the need for and birth of avant-garde, the rise of kitsch, and concludes considering their co-existence (or lack of it) in the varied societal constructs of Germany, Russia, Italy and the West.
Greenberg argues that pre-modern painting and its re-hashed kitsch use tools such as 2 and 3 point perspective to create a representation or illusion, when one is really confronted with just paint and canvas. The viewer encounters Alexandre Cabanal’s Birth of Venus or Van Gogh’s Starry Night and is taken through the ‘window’ that is the canvas, into a theatrical mimesis of reality. Here art is concerned with the worldly matters of culture, politics and religion. Greenberg feels this art is merely regressive trickery as creativity and virtuosity are sidelined to detail rather than encompassing the macrocosm of art. Dissatisfied, avant-garde artists get rid of these relics of european art, away from the subject matter of experience and instead focus on the disciplines and process of art itself, in effect imitating God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, the way a landscape – not it’s picture, is aesthetically valid. This is the genesis of the “abstract”, one that turns from an Aristotelean imitation to an ‘imitation of imitating’. Artists work ‘with’ their materials rather than ‘against’ them; Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in…to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors. Photography becomes representational unless it deals with issues of light as video becomes kitsch unless it deals with the inherent narcissism of artist and subject, who are often one and the same. Painting becomes flat yet engages space and tangibility, as process becomes ‘de-skilled’ and spontaneous, albeit most thought occurs prior to the action of painting. This is vocalised by Jackson Pollock, who when asked about Nature in his paintings, succinctly replied : ‘I am Nature!’
During this era a burst of technological innovations such as the printing press immersed the world into increased connectedness and opened up avenues of exploration and cross-cultural dissemination of information, which came to be known as popular culture. Popular, commercial art and literature with their ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, top dancing and Hollywood movies gave the plebeian access to new artistic and stylistic movements and their aesthetic, in the comfort of their homes, without having to own it. It served the function of entertainment in leisure time, a thirst for diversion only culture could provide, thus being a medium of industrialised society itself.
Greenberg is less concerned though, with popular culture, than what he would term academic art which guised as avant garde but was in-fact a reappropriated simulacrum. All Kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is Kitsch, he states. Kitsch draws its reservoirs from accumulated experience, using the devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes and ideas of hitherto high art, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. This powerful tool was mobilised on one hand: Hitler and Mussolini were able to win their political elections due to year-long carefully orchestrated propagandas, flattering the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. In this extreme, the avant garde resorted to flee to the democratic west or face an inner exile of non-confrontational art. On the other hand, Greenberg despaired the proletariat in the West, that believed it was receiving ‘Art’ every week with the Norman Rockwell covers of Saturday Evening Post. He eloquently argues that it is a platitude that art becomes caviar to the general when the reality it imitates no longer corresponds even roughly to the reality recognised by the general i:e; what the latter believe superstitiously, the former believe soberly. The underlying difference between avant garde and kitsch is that the avant garde illustrates the unconscious while kitsch illustrates the conscious, thereby leaving room for the viewer’s personal interpretation. Kitsch is thus conservative and uncultured, tied to mass production, loosing its empathy and humanity.
Notwithstanding the epochal leap towards modernism spurred on by the avant-garde, it’s self-specialisation estranged its exponents, causing bottlenecks in artistic progress. Using a Marxist lens, Greenberg illustrates the irony that the ‘neo–bohemians’ depend on the precarious and shrinking elitist patronage they attempt to escape from: Already sensing the danger, artists become more and more timid every day that passes. Academism and commercialism appear in the strangest places, as the avant grade becomes unsure of the audience it depends on – the rich and the cultivated. The reader is harked back in time, contemplating whether high art over varied epochs compromised itself citing financial impediments and subsequently investigates the magnitude of distortion reflected in their oeuvres, at an individual and communal level.
Greenberg later recognises avant-garde is simply the latest in an evolution of ideals. He portents this new culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome. For example, abstract expressionism approaches it’s limits when the artist’s autograph style, albeit unique, ossifies into an academic repetition. One questions the quantitative effort invested by artists when styles become easily reproducible by others, as Pollock incites Willem Dekooning for being ‘the only one who’s made more DeKooning’s’ than he has. Greenberg claims this limit lies in the structural rhetoric of abstract expressionism rather than of the painter. A contiguous regression occurs in minimalism, which displays a heightened sensitivity to spatial context, and in doing so gets caught up in its 3 dimensionality, blurring the line between painting and sculpture.
To conclude, I would like to question Greenberg’s need to elicit distinction between high and low art in the first place. The existence of the two is not new. Since the origins of art, what he terms as kitsch and avant garde have co-existed whether or not explicitly defined, ipso facto artistic evolution; one ‘exists’ so the other can ‘move forward’. In fact, one cannot exist without the other as they are cross referential yardsticks that help define what one is, through what the other is not. It is ironic then that the ‘blur’ between them is due to the limitations inherent in the process of bracketing an individual art work or artist into one of the two categories. Thus what Greenberg essentially does in this essay, Avant Garde and Kitsch, is map their concomitant rise in the industrial era, and document the form each takes. We see art manifest in a modern ‘ying-yang’ configuration. And it is a credit to Greenberg to have marvellously done so!
2015 | The Future By Design : RISD
The not-so-magic system of Industrial Design : Summary and reflections on 'Design for the Real World' by Victor Papenek
‘Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments and, by extension, society and himself.’ - Victor Papenek
If we accept this presentiment, we must implicate design in the genesis of ecological destruction, and devise an honest and sustainable blueprint for well-being. Design for the Real World is Papenek’s polemic treatise, which was seminal in the confluence of liberal, social and design thought in awakening the designer’s conscience towards humanity and the environment. Albeit penned in the early 70’s, Papenek’s acute sensitivity to the increasing complexity of change and correspondingly to the contextual obstacles of his generation, allowed him to trace and portent our harmful decisions. Today, these problems have been compounded rather than nullified, rendering his contemplations relevant.
Design for the Real World traces Industrial Design’s gloomy depression-era beginnings, and calls for its ‘phylogenocide’ in favour of responsible design guide-lined on Papenek’s own ‘function complex’, a set of 6 canons for good design, and an interdisciplinary design education. These include Method (medium-specificity and honesty), Use (does it work?), Need (does it satisfy economic, psychological, spiritual, technological and intellectual needs?), Telesis (does it reflect the conditions giving rise to it, or fit in the general socio-economic order?), Association (consider the user/consumer during the design process), and Aesthetics (no ready yardstick, but is it compelling?). Aesthetics will always play a pivotal role as form can be infinitely different. Euclid implicitly proved this with his ‘infinite prime numbers’ proof which is an aesthetically and intellectually pleasing enchantment with the near perfect. In the early 20th century new inventions had to be designed and manufactured giving rise to a new breed of Industrial Designers who clarified the idea, form, materials, functions and assembly process of products. The roaring twenties popularised advertising and the ‘mallification' of America, adding marketing to the designer’s toolkit. At this juncture designers were confronted with a choice to design-for-use or design-for-sales, and Papenek critiques pioneers for concocting ‘tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers’ and then putting ‘murder on a mass-production basis’. The depression exacerbated these issues to unprecedented scales.
To simulate demand during the 30’s, competing manufacturing firms needed new sales gimmicks so they hired designers to differentiate their products. Deplorably this ’miscegenative union of technology and artificially accelerated consumer whims gave birth to the dark twins of styling and obsolescence’. It is ironic then, that Henry Dreyfus said Industrial Design began by ‘eliminating excess decoration’, when over the next few decades it was primarily concerned with manipulating visual excitement through aesthetics. Artificial obsolescence, the practice of designing and selling sub-par and predictable life-spanned products which firms adapted into an ulterior economic agenda, was a scheme devised by the economist Bernard London in 1932. It got customers to purchase new products at regular intervals as replacements for old ‘unwanted’ ones. The ‘before-after’ of mimeographs, locomotives, refrigerators and furniture transformed by designers were impressive in sales figures, yet today it is unclear which machine stands victor in the test of time vis-à-vis sustainability. ‘Kleenex culture’, as Papenek illustrates, has been our major commitment ever since, and it leads us into thinking marriage is also replaceable, and on a global scale people, countries and entire sub-continents are throw-away items’.
The second world war forced a new sense of responsibility on Industrial Designers. For the first time they encountered the tangible requirements of performance and proficiency in the function complex, imposed by combat decisions. Limited resources and time sprouted innovation through a keener realisation of materials. A washable, infinitely re-usable, 45 cent, 3-quart casserole capable of sustaining 475 degrees for 7 hours was created for soldiers, but mysteriously disappeared from the market post-1945. In its place arrived the Reynold’s ball-point pen, complete with a New York Times full-page ad. These instruments skipped, blotted, leaked in pockets and did not have replacement cartridges, yet they sold marvellously. This obsolescent absurdity climaxed when a 3-day trucker’s strike couldn’t effect its sale as the union promised to ‘deliver milk, critical food and Reynold’s pens.’
After the war an abundance of new materials and manufacturing techniques at the designer’s disposal endowed him with the ‘tyranny of choice’. With no restrictions, he set off on a never ending quest for novelty, until ‘newness-for-the-sake-of-newness’ became the sole measure. The avant-garde invariably replaces the avant-garde. Many iterations of novelty sprung up, occupying manifold esoteric consumer cliques resulting in the alienation of the designer from the function complex and society. Paradoxically conformity accelerated at an amazing pace through mass media, mass advertising, mass production and automaton leaving our ability to solve problems in unexpected ways increasingly rare. Meanwhile, the social echelons under which design operates became increasingly polarised. In the West, the poor got poorer as the ‘fat cats got incredibly fatter’ while the middle class expressed itself through ‘campy’ little gadgets that ascribed identity and value. On a more macroscopic scale, this disparity endured but the chasm widened by a population explosion in under-developed and post-colonial economies. Products seemingly benefit the wealthy in the short-term and destroy the lives of the lowest rungs in both short and long-terms.
Concomitant to these events, we witness the ‘cancerous growth of the creative individual expressing himself egocentrically at the expense of the spectator’. This attitude seeps into the designer’s psyche, leaving the consumer inconsequential to his process. In as early as the 20’s, the De Stijl movement inspires Wijnveldt in Holland to cogitate extremely uncomfortable chairs, stools and tables. It turns out that transforming Piet Mondrian’s and Theo van Doesburg’s works into interior furnishing proved a disaster. On the other hand Dali’s sofa lips is a disengaged surrealist act that reverberates in Meret Oppenhiem’s fur-lined cup and saucer. In a capitalistic milieu the interplay of individualism and ownership instigates issues. Papenek states ‘Design is basic to all human activity’, as it weaves the ‘underlying matrix of life’. It’s omnipotence naturally disregards intellectual ownership. As such, he entertains grave doubt towards the philosophy inherent in patents and copyrights. Ideas are cheap and aplenty, and they’re built on the shoulders of other ideas, making it fundamentally wrong to derive economic gain from the needs of others. He laments that a system becomes warped when the release of life-saving designs such as therapeutic exercises for handicapped kids, get delayed due to year-long patent applications. Dreyfus echoes and furthers his caution: design fails when the point of contact between product and person becomes a point of friction, whereas delivering timely efficiency and satisfaction denotes success.
In Design for the Real World, Papenek draws our attention to the impact of machine tools and perfection on creativity. ‘The tolerance demands of a case of Zippo cigarette lighter manufactured with automatic handling machinery make it far more precise then Benvenuto Cellini’s works, arguably the greatest metalsmith of the Renaissance’. With advances in space technology, tolerances of 1/10,000 of an inch are a routine production achievement. ‘Mere perfection’ robs the arts of a second goal (the first being autonomy), the ‘search for perfection’. Similarly photography replaced painting as the window to reality in all its social, cultural and biological diversity. It is belabouring to contemplate that ‘man today is as much in the environment of the machine as the machine lives in the environment of man’ and it would be naive to disagree that machines shroud our landscape. As a result the (post-)modern artist has created multiple escape mechanisms. While considering the designers part in this alteration of the environment, the age-old Industrial Design debate: ’should I design to be functional or aesthetically pleasing?' seems to have limited designers in a vicious tug-of-war. Papenek points out this canon was used as an excuse for ‘sterile, operating-room like furniture and implements…that are bad in terms of human value, instead being a perversion of aesthetics and utility’. Early examples of this include Le Corbusier’s house as ‘la machine a habiter’, as well as Horatio Greenough’s works and some German Bauhaus. Papenek clarifies: ‘aesthetic value is an inherent part of function’.
‘Change has always been with us but its dimensions not well-understood’. Perhaps the most poignant idea posited by Papenek is that in today’s world ‘change is so accelerated, that trying to make sense of change will become our basic industry’. This is grounded in futures-thinking. He postulates that ‘moral, aesthetic and ethical values will evolve along with the choices to which they will be applied’, and ‘religion, sex, morality, family structure are no longer remote to design’. I opine that these changes, if referenced to the function complex, can create an responsive, adaptive and wholesome environment. Education must become an ecstatic experience for the designer and its system must switch to a more durable prototype that ‘sees products as a liner link between man and his environment’. We must think of ‘man, his means, his environment and his ways of thinking about planning for manipulating himself as a non-linear, simultaneous, integrated and comprehensive whole’. We therefore ‘switch from a mechanical process to a series of biological functions occurring simultaneously rather than in a linear sequence’ that uses a closed-feed-back loop and considers all factors and modulations necessary to the decision making process. Papenek’s proposed ‘integrated design’ would birth an anticipatory and multi-disciplinary designer who ‘extrapolates from established data on trends and interpolates from scenarios of the futures it constructs’. The hiatus and dichotomy between design and the real world would thus dissipate.
All in all Design for the Real World leads us away from ‘fetish objects for a wasteful society’ towards a new age of morally and environmentally responsive design. We must re-think everything by testing all our assumptions and artificial constructs in order to achieve this state. Albeit change implies newness, newness implies experiment and experiment implies failure, which is detrimental in a success-oriented culture, the designer must be instilled with a willingness to experiment coupled with responsibility. The perceptual, cultural and associational blocks to creativity must be eradicated and designers should act as facilitators and advocates for well-being rather than marketing tools for big-business. The one area where Papenek displays out-dated thinking (to be fair, it’s due to a lack of awareness) is in glorifying certain new technologies such as aerosol cans which were introduced in the 50’s. He glorifies aerosols as having ‘revolutionised merchandising for drugs, food, home remedies and cosmetics’ without realising CFC’s ozone-layer impact. He barely considers the potential environmental impacts of emerging disruptions. New technologies, materials and processes must be considered and assessed dynamically and wholesomely before implementation.
To conclude, one turns to Papenek’s most eloquent thought: 'The end to which man studies himself cannot be other than to realise the full potentiality of his being, and to conquer the triad of limitations imposed on him'. These are the medium in which we live (the earth), our collective morality, and the equipment man can fashion from the sciences and the arts (by process of extension, as tools are extensions of limbs, and by devices that have the sensibilities of specialised organs). The purpose of life is to break through these limitations, compelling humanity into a new order of existence where these limitations don't exist. This is the end to which individuals and species strive towards, and progress in this sense can be a yardstick against which the sole distance of an individual, the aims and activities of a group, even the achievements of a culture can be estimated and assigned value. Papenek is influenced by the recent moon landing as he contemplates that we have ‘fought against and conquered the medium of our habitat until we now stand poised on a springboard to the stars’.