Monday, March 05, 2007

keeping your (avant) garde up

It's Monday night, I'm in the periodicals room of SML, and there are four days, one mid-term exam, and six pages standing between me and spring break. The six pages are (allegedly) my thoughts on Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried's theories of minimalism, kitsch, and the autonomy of art; I figured I'd procrasti-blog before I got past the title stage (am I the only college student who invests time and energy into titling their essays?).

The Greenberg piece in question is called Avant Garde and Kitsch; I've studied very little history of art at Yale, but I've gotten the impression that it's one of the most important art-critical essays from the last century (My professor: "This is one of the most important critical essays of the last century.") Greenberg, whose prose is quite lucid and enjoyable, examines the advent of the avant-garde in the 1930's--a movement away from the bourgeois spurred by the development of a "consciousness of history," which revealed the constructed nature of societal values--then raises the red alert for the "future of culture." The culprit? Kitsch.

Briefly, Greenberg defines kitsch as popular, commercial art that targets the culture-starved masses; kitsch is pre-digested for our consumption. Kitsch already depicts the effects of artistic processes; the avant garde portrays these processes, then forces us to work at discerning their meaning and value.

Art History 101 aside, this is fascinating to me in lieu of my obsession with identifying and excavating the sources of my literary pleasure. My friend Kate once said that the reason we tolerate and/or enjoy white chocolate candy bars is because they're an acquired taste. I don't know if I agree with this re: white chocolate, which I remember finding delicious from the beginning, but her theory makes sense to me; there are a number of pleasures that are heightened by the manner in which they require the conscious investment of work: bitter vegetables like asparagus, reading in translation, walking thirty city blocks to a restaurant, Gertrude Stein. Part of the reason we derive gratification from such experiences is because we're trained to appreciate them; the other part, I think, is our self-reflexive perception of our own mental development. I like abstract art because I've learned to recognize its value. I also like it because this recognition makes me aware of my own growth.

This self-reflexiveness, I feel, is also the source of my disagreement with Greenberg's belief that avant-garde art is autonomous from socio-political influence (as opposed to kitsch, which is easily manipulable for such purposes). Admittedly, I always approach this issue with a bias, having written my senior essay on, um, the political utility of postmodern literature. But consider this: If avant-garde art makes its beholders work to apprehend its significance, and they are--or can be--aware of this change in apprehension (e.g., the aforementioned self-reflexive pleasure), then we can apply this perspectival shift towards the world around us. Recognizing our conscious efforts towards enjoying asparagus may not augment our abilities to critically read the signs that compose social, cultural, and political messages, but there is (and should be) experimental art that does this work--by making us work.

11 comments:

dc said...

am I the only college student who invests time and energy into titling their essays?

You are speaking to the author of the recent essay entitled, "Sexual Perversity in Oceania: Intimacy and Alienation in Orwell's 1984" so, no.

I always like to try to imagine my titles are for essays that are WAY better than the one I'm about to write. This was certainly the case on the above essay, which sucked straight balls.

elmrockcity said...

You had me convinced there, then thew me for a loop with 1984...titles like that always make me think they're hiding an acronym. Like, to make something up..."Feminism and Unpacking The Aeneid." (SEE IT? SEE IT)

Yours would be SPOIAO. Which is...not funny.

Mr.Wrongway said...

Did you know Milan Kundera is actually allergic to kitsch?

elmrockcity said...

Did you know Milan and I have the same initials?

Matt said...

Great post. I think you're right about the satisfaction we feel from work, but I've been puzzling over the way you've put a couple things.

First, of course, I'm thinking about food. For me, white chocolate's OK in small doses, but asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables. I suspect that when I was younger, my taste buds, like those of just about all children, were more receptive to sugar. So what made my vegetable love grow? I probably tried asparagus and/or was force-fed it with the threat of no dessert a number of times before the revelation of its deliciousness, but the same thing happened with overcooked chicken and breaded fish, and I still don't like either (NB: my mom is an amazing cook, but for all her successes tended to make chicken on the dry side and fish packed in breadcrumbs). Still, tho, did the greater familiarity make it delicious by attrition? Or was it the context of other flavors and textures I became acquainted with over time which suddenly made asparagus flavor/texture make sense? Or do I have evolution to thank for making me realize that I should be eating as much as possible of this extremely nutritious plant?

Hey look: we're back at your webs. I think you would have made them explicit if you'd bothered not to passive-voice here:

"Part of the reason we derive gratification from such experiences is because we're trained to appreciate them."

Who or what is training us? A short list would include profs, friends, friends' blogs, relatives, ourselves (your point), other art, YouTube, experiences in daily life--and of course the difficult experience itself, which trains us by requiring more than we currently have, and in return--if it's good--gives us a new way of knowing the world. For the difficult but worthwhile, the expansion is permanent: we can't unread, or even really stop reading; lines from an old movie light up a reference we didn't recognize as one, a breakup makes sense of any number of poems we thought we knew.

Anyhow, I think you're totally right when you say that our self-satisfaction re work heightens the pleasure of the payoff, but it's not just sunk-cost fallacy--we're thankful to all of the above listed parties for their part in our world-expansion, and we deserve our own thanks. For all my self-regard, the payoff's still the main thing: I could spend three days in the kitchen, and I guarantee none of that would make me happier about the inevitably mediocre meal that would result (in fact, I'd be mad to have wasted so much time). But I wouldn't do that because it's obviously a bad idea; my kitchen and I are ill-equipped. Less obvious: why, if neither of them:me::white chocolate:Kate, do I want to do work for Jasper Johns these days, but not for Cy Twombly?

elmrockcity said...

Thanks; the food analogy is interesting, because it's probably easy to counter with simple materialism: there definitely are bio-chemical reasons why we prefer certain foods to others (as in, humans eat sucrose-heavy foods for energy, avoid bitter foods because they're often poisonous).

I think the situated readings are useful when trying to construct a (flexible) account of tastes; their self-conscious rejection of totality, however, induces the problem of relativism unless you can bring in some sort of abstract standard that is simultaneously universal and particular. For Hume, standards are simply developed by experience, which yields the sort of "delicacy of taste" that enables genuine criticism. For Greenberg, the sort of self-aware effort that we're talking about seems to be a component of taste.

Your hypothetical situation (the meal and the necessity of some sort of pay-off to evoke appreciation, which I agree with) seems to suggest a third standard: causation, or the visible effect of one's work. (A meal is best when I put effort into it AND it turns out delicious). This makes sense to me, as I definitely prefer merit-based remuneration to chance rewards, but I'm not sure if everyone feels that way...

Matt said...

Re merit vs. chance: while I'm in the mood for aphorism, this might be a useful place to cite one of the creakiest ever: "I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." Yeah, agency! [Also, I can't figure out with lazy googling if TJeff or some Canadian dude actually said this; cf. Menand.]

Re relativism: I'm sure you don't mean actual universals, of which there are none, so much as universals as perceived by individuals or communities, each very happily situated and contingent. Guess I'm with Hume.

elmrockcity said...

Oh? What about Universal Studios*??

*Since you're in los angeles and stuff.

Matt said...

Oh shit, I totally forgot.

When we went to Universal Studios in Florida, one of the highlights was always the carmelized nut vendors in "New York," you know, like outside of King Kong. My mom always felt really badass for going up to every vendor and pretending she'd never seen such a thing before, at which point she scored a free sample. MOM 1, THE MAN 0.

Also of note: my dad, upon his first tour of the LES, kept remarking on how he felt like he was back walking around at Universal. And in actual New York, I have never felt any desire to buy or sample carmelized nuts. RIP, JB.

Andrew said...

I think that for some people in the sixties it was this idea, that art should make one work in some way, which enabled minimalism to be seen as form of political art. Naturally Fried would disagree with this, though he probably would at least acknowledge that such work must really be actively engaged with, both in a bodily sense (moving around the space, taking account of one's presence there) and in a perceptual sense. But the interesting question is--and this is in particular something that certain artists were beginning to address at the end of the sixties, with the rise of conceptual and video art--how does one separate this type of experience (if one does so) from one that would also communicate a political or philosophical idea? Is a piece like Hans Haacke's documentation of the real estate purchases of a corrupt landlord, or Joseph Kosuth's Information Room (a work in which newspapers and books were laid out across two tables in a gallery, with chairs provided for reading them) only using the visibility provided by the status of the art object to express something that could just as well be expressed through other means? Personally I would have to say that I can't find any clear response this question, beyond maybe a somewhat different interpretation of Judd's "it must only be interesting" (though even here, from my point of view, the difficulty hasn't disappeared, because often very boring things can also be highly interesting; minimalism itself and a good amount of seventies art are examples of this). In the case of Haacke, what makes me hesitant about his work since the early seventies is not so much that it attempts to make the viewer aware of something in his or her broader social situation, but rather that it's often direct to the point of heavy-handedness, and also that each individual work often only has one or two particular points that it tries to make, even if it makes them in a fairly nuanced way.

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