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.