debunking the image

But Greenberg, in 1939,  could not have foreseen was that the so-called avant-garde would adot the characteristics of the kitsch art he perceived as being endemically mutable to the forces of totalitariansim. Later, he arrived at a slightly different conclusion, that being that the threat to the higher-arts coming from middle-brow bourgeois tastes which was a more plausible explanation since it more closely aligned with the Veblen economic theory of invidious consumption and the hierarchy of the pecking order. It also established the relation of the threat with the academic which could destroy more artistic values from within than kitsch ever did or could. …

Clement Greenberg:It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at “abstract” or “nonobjective” art — and poetry, too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape — not its picture — is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself….Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough — simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc. For some reason this gigantic apparition has always been taken for granted. It is time we looked into its whys and wherefores….

---Howard Jacobson’s episode, provocatively entitled Flesh, which explored Victorian attitudes towards the nude in art, of which York-born William Etty was to be key part of Jacobson’s argument. Jacobson had come to love and admire Etty’s art during his youth in Manchester. He regularly visited the city’s art gallery and claimed that he was amazed as a young man that such erotic depictions of the nude were on display. Later in life he was to use Etty’s painting, Candaules King of Lydia, Shewing his Wife by Stealth to Gyges (Tate), as inspiration for his book The Act of Love (2009). --- Read More:

…Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy….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….Read More:

Polke. ---Sigmar Polke Konstructivistisch 1968 Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich --- Read More:

The strange dynamic of the middle-class, in all its volatile unpredictability is its ability to create its own indigenous trends, independent of elitism, to which eventually it will serve. Its the constant, near eternal spirit of messianism that is continually revived, that keeps feeding on itself rising to the level of neuroticism. Picasso and Jackson Pollock seemingly exploding out of nowhere, giving people an excuse to go mad so to speak, to create a frenzy and then blame them for the madness.

Kuspit: Polke continues his attack on abstract art in such works as Moderne Kunst, a spoof on gestural painting, and Konstructivistisch, a mock geometrical painting (both 1968). They seem to parallel Roy Lichtenstein’s ’60s series of brushstroke paintings, which also cut Abstract Expressionism down to ironical size. Like Lichtenstein, Polke uses the so-called Ben Day dots characteristic of commercial printing. But Polke’s surface looks much more tacky than mechanically reproduced, as such “Rasterbilder” (Screen pictures) as Kartoffelköppe (Mao + LBJ) (Potato Heads) and Knöpfe (Buttons) (both 1965) indicate. Where Lichtenstein’s Little Big Painting (1965) has a charismatically slick all-American surface — his grand gesture has a pre-fabricated, pre-packaged artificiality, stripping it of its spontaneity and individuality, implying that it is just another manufactured product, however customized — Polke’s Moderne Kunst has a whimsical, insolent, cartoony look. Polke’s work is much more subversive, especially because Lichtenstein theatricalizes the expressive gesture into a popular performance — all his objects become sideshows in a social spectacle — while Polke reduces it to inconsequential doodling. Also, Polke’s Rasterbilder, however representational — they are derived from newspaper photographs — are weirdly abstract, giving them an uncanny, perverse aura, while Lichtenstein’s Pop paintings are militantly representational, for all their designer abstraction look….

---Sigmar Polke Kartoffelköppe (Mao & LBJ) 1965 Sammlung Frieder Burda --- Read More:

…Polke is much more subtle and critical than Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is an old-fashioned painter creating the illusion of an object in space, for all the fanfare of his abstract Ben Day dots — in effect an ornamental facade in the Potemkin Village that Pop art is. In Polke the journalistic image — an image made for mass consumption, and pretending to be socially realistic — and abstract pattern ironically interpenetrate, turning the social image into a mirage-like illusion on the verge of dissipating. He thus uses the abstract underpinning that informs the image — indeed, out of which it is constructed — to debunk it. He in effect renders it meaningless by suggesting that it is far from the social truth, however factual and realistic it seems to be. Thus Polke uses abstraction — a kind of abstract if mechanical process — to punch holes in the representation of social reality — the dots are so many holes undermining the image they form — suggesting that it is a mass deception. Lichtenstein never achieves the ironic unity — perverse simultaneity — of pure abstract form and everyday mechanical representation that Polke does, which is why Polke’s works remain enigmatic and tense for all their “superficiality” and “transparency.” Lichtenstein’s works are instantly comprehensible and formally simplistic in comparison…. with its homage to the familiar and roots in mass culture spectacle. Read More:

---Roy Lichtenstein Little Big Painting 1965 Whitney Museum of American Art--- Read More:

Ultimately then, what matters in art, or any cultural product is the system, often with the celebrity, say Hirst or Koons as a cultural signifier. What Marcel Duchamp revealed, among other things, is the appearance of  accidental or chance relations between elements, the coincidental or managed to appear as coincide

, becomes the basis for the presence of a hidden story, a Davinci code, waiting to be brought to light; a situation where allegedly culturally important narratives are pieced together from collections of details. No wonder Kuspit called him a “terrorist.” The conclusion then, is that the artist’s role is merely to provide  details since  consumers of the  object can be counted on to knit the narrative, which is a whole industry in itself.


A magazine like the New Yorker, which is fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade, converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde material for its own uses. Nor is every single item of kitsch altogether worthless. Now and then it produces something of merit, something that has an authentic folk flavor; and these accidental and isolated instances have fooled people who should know better….

---The peasant is also pleased by the wealth of self-evident meanings which he finds in the picture: "it tells a story. " Picasso and the icons are so austere and barren in comparison. What is more, Repin heightens reality and makes it dramatic: sunset, exploding shells, running and falling men. There is no longer any question of Picasso or icons. Repin is what the peasant wants, and nothing else but Repin. It is lucky, however, for Repin that the peasant is protected from the products of American capitalism, for he would not stand a chance next to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. Read More:

…Kitsch’s enormous profits are a source of temptation to the avant-garde itself, and its members have not always resisted this temptation. Ambitious writers and artists will modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely. And then those puzzling borderline cases appear, such as the popular novelist, Simenon, in France, and Steinbeck in this country. The net result is always to the detriment of true culture in any case….

---He starts with the claim ‘If you want to understand a culture see how its art tackles the subject of sex’. And goes on ‘It is only in our Art that we tell the truth’. And then ‘I paint with my penis the French painter Renior is said to have said. The too-too moralistic British so the story goes paint with everything but’. And with this pithy summation of the perceived distance between British and French Art the program proceeds to demonstrate otherwise, debunking at every turn....And it was not just the home-grown English and their nude subjects but the naked bodies portrayed by other European artists that the Victorians took pleasure in, again including Queen Victoria herself commissioning many paintings with naked subjects such as ‘Florinda’ by German artist Winterhalter which hung pride of place in her office as she went about her daily business. ... Flesh also looks at the genre of Fairy Art but this is no out of place diversion as the Fairy Art is no sentimental chocolate box banal expression of the physical and metaphysical human and not so human form but rather as outward projections of deeply felt but mute inner thoughts and sexual desires. The safety to explore all sorts of dark desire under the mask and metaphor of witches, changeling’s and other goblin pixie monsters. Later Jacobson’s prose gets ever more climactic as he describes Stanley Spencer’s painting of his second wife Patricia Preece (who in fact it seems only married him for his house and was herself a Lesbian and continued to live with her lover Dorothy Hepworth and so a painting also of unrequited love) ending in eulogy ‘If there is a more cruelly voluptuous piece of painting anywhere in art I don’t think I could bare to see it’. Read More:

…Kitsch has not been confined to the cities in which it was born, but has flowed out over the countryside, wiping out folk culture. Nor has it shown any regard for geographical and national cultural boundaries. Another mass product of Western industrialism, it has gone on a triumphal tour of the world, crowding out and defacing native cultures in one colonial country after another, so that it is now by way of becoming a universal culture, the first universal culture ever beheld. Today the native of China, no less than the South American Indian, the Hindu, no less than the Polynesian, have come to prefer to the products of their native art, magazine covers, rotogravure sections and calendar girls. How is this virulence of kitsch, this irresistible attractiveness, to be explained? Naturally, machine-made kitsch can undersell the native handmade article, and the prestige of the West also helps; but why is kitsch a so much more profitable export article than Rembrandt? One, after all, can be reproduced as cheaply as the other….

---Paul Padua.---I doubt if Kulka would dispute any of this. In fact he quotes with approval a remark by Hermann Broch: “Kitsch is certainly not ‘bad art,’ it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, or which, if you prefer, appears alongside it.” Kulka says that a kitsch painting functions “more like a pictogram” than a work of art. He might have said magic charm. The kitsch object’s very presence in the living room is supposed to do the trick, working as an emblem of respectability, or a sign of a worthy regard for religion, or whatever replaces religion in middle-class households, such as popular environmentalism. (Of course, anyone may buy a real work of art and use it as a status symbol — but that’s not the art’s fault, and works of art can outlive owners who are impervious to their real charms.) This dimension of social rather than strictly aesthetic concern seems to me to get at part of what Broch means: in a sense, the kitsch is not merely a bad part of the art world; it constitutes a separate world of pseudo-art, a realm whose ambitions are not even the ambitions of art. --- Read More: image:

…As a matter of fact, the main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too “innocent,” that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end. Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the “soul” of the people. Should the official culture be one superior to the general mass-level, there would be a danger of isolation….

Nevertheless, if the masses were conceivably to ask for avant-garde art and literature, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would not hesitate long in attempting to satisfy such a demand. Hitler is a bitter enemy of the avant-garde, both on doctrinal and personal grounds, yet this did not prevent Goebbels in 1932-1933 from strenuously courting avant-garde artists and writers. When Gottfried Benn, an Expressionist poet, came over to the Nazis he was welcomed with a great fanfare, although at that very moment Hitler was denouncing Expressionism as Kulturbolschewismus. This was at a time when the Nazis felt that the prestige which the avant-garde enjoyed among the cultivated German public could be of advantage to them, and practical considerations of this nature, the Nazis being skillful politicians, have always taken precedence over Hitler’s personal inclinations. Later the Nazis realized that it was more practical to accede to the wishes of the masses in matters of culture than to those of their paymasters; the latter, when it came to a question of preserving power, were as willing to sacrifice their culture as they were their moral principles; while the former, precisely because power was being withheld from them, had to be cozened in every other way possible. It was necessary to promote on a much more grandiose style than in the democracies the illusion that the masses actually rule. The literature and art they enjoy and understand were to be proclaimed the only true art and literature and any other kind was to be suppressed. Under these circumstances people like Gottfried Benn, no matter how ardently they support Hitler, become a liability; and we hear no more of them in Nazi Germany….Read More:

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