ECOLOGY: DION, PFAFF, VON RYDINGSVARD
“I think it’s important that the category of nature is not something the field of science has a monopoly on—that everyone has a say in what gets to be nature, at a particular time, for a particular group of people. In order to motivate people to care about the natural world around us, one of our chief tools is an aesthetic sensibility. And certainly environmentalism has an aesthetic. But I think we need to be guided by certain scientific principles and a conservation ethic as well. All of those things can come together to create a kind of relationship to the natural world that is productive and motivated by something other than profit. Profit can’t be the only thing that motivates our society. Otherwise, we’re really in trouble.” – Mark Dion, Art 21 Interview
The week following Dr. Jankauskas’s visit, our class discussed the themes of ecology and environment and viewed works by Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Ursula von Rydingsvard, three artists who respond to the natural environment, engage with issues of ecology, or create evocative works that change or are changed by their environs.
ECOLOGY: 1. the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. 2. the political movement that seeks to protect the environment, especially from pollution.
ENVIRONMENT: 1. the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates. 2. the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity.
Following a productive discussion, students broke into groups of three and were asked to select one local (Alabama) environmental issue from six options. As a group, they researched their issue on the internet, read and discussed the results, summarized the key points, and then decided what kind of artwork might raise awareness of their chosen concern.
Students described what their artwork would look like, what it would be made out of, where it would be located or seen, and what effects they hoped would come about because of the work.
Nalin, Jwan, & Aiesha chose Longleaf pine protection and summarized that the pines were “once one of the most extensive forest eco-systems in N. America, stretching 90 million acres. They now cover a mere 3.4 million acres. Losing the pines can alter the ecosystems of the forest. Longleaf pines are susceptible to beetles during long, hot summers. If we don’t take action, the beetles will destroy them completely!” The group proposed installing a dead tree inside a museum and covering it with tons of artificial beetles. Their goals are: “preservation of not only Longleaf pines, but forests as a whole, and to educate the public on ecological issues and inform them on what actions to take.”
Caroline, Danielle, & Chelsea selected the Colonial Pipeline leak (2016) , where an “estimated 336,000 gallons of gasoline has spilled from the 36-inch pipeline since Sept. 9th into the Shelby County wildlife management area.” They propose “making a paper mâché pipe with a crack in it, with black beads spilling out to represent gasoline,” and placing it by the Riverwalk in downtown Montgomery. This “central location” would “show the impact the spillage has on our environment.”
Trevette, Ben, & Justin also chose the Longleaf pine protection. They proposed filling an enormous room with an installation piece comprised of infested trees containing 10,000 beetles! Patrons would walk through the room and look at the trees, raising awareness of the beetle epidemic, and the admission fees would be donated to a wildlife charity.
Chloe, Regine, & Amy picked marsh protection following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill six years ago. On the coastlines of AL, LA, and MS huge numbers of marsh plants died after being covered in oil. Because of this, the marshes experienced significant erosion. The group designed a large museum installation that includes “a shrimp boat, reeds, cypress trees, a cajun house, and crawfish boiling pot, all covered in black spray foam insulation.” This will inspire people to “realize the effects of oil spills, on people, economies, and nature.”
Finally, Nick, Catherine, & Yusheng also chose Longleaf pine protection stating that the “population is only 3% what it once was and that southern weather conditions cause stress on the trees and make them more susceptible to attacks,” from “3 different types of beetles: black turpentine, IPS bark, and Southern pine.” Each attacks the tree in a different way. The latter two “attack high in the tree by hatching eggs and eating the tree from the inside out.” Their artwork will be located outside and will “look like cocoons (huge)” of “paper mâché and tissue paper” around “a fake tree made up of beetle husks.” This will spread “awareness of the issue” and encourage audiences to “try to solve the problem.”
CURATORIAL GUEST LECTURE
On November 10th, we were lucky to have Dr. Jennifer Jankauskas visit our class and guest lecture on her experiences as a curator of contemporary art at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. We enjoyed detailed descriptions of past exhibitions she has organized and were tantalized by forthcoming projects. Finally, we were pleased to hear more about the daily tasks of a curator and get to ask questions!
We learned that “the curator is able to collaborate with artists” (Joseph) and “has to embrace the artist’s talent, and find new ways to contribute to their work” (Justin), and that they must deal with “logistical challenges” (Benjamin), “know most everything that is going on in the museum” (Caroline), and “constantly address the state of the art world” (Nick). We discovered that “internships are important!” (Chelsea) and enjoyed the work of Kathryn Martin (Jwan), whose “rims of styrofoam cups create the illusion of floating clouds or mist” (Aiesha).
We viewed images from Kohler Center group exhibitions: “A Torrent of Words: Contemporary Art and Language,” which included paintings by Wayne White, and “Intersection,” featuring 21 artists of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Amy), learned about her work at Artpace San Antonio (Chloe) and experience working with Irving Penn (Danielle), and were struck by “how different her experiences were as she worked in places like New York, Chicago, and Texas” (Regine). Finally we learned about Once & Again: Still Lifes by Beth Lipman, an exhibition of fifteen recent works by glass artist and sculptor Beth Lipman held at the MMFA in the winter of 2015, and a forthcoming exhibition highlighting the work of contemporary Alabama artists that will coincide with the state’s upcoming bicentennial. It was truly a great visit!
“The theoretical assumption of an audience’s active and entire bodily participation when perceiving art, as opposed to a passive, detached, and solely visual relationship, is a key feature of installation. Instead of representing texture, space, light, and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience.” – art historian Claire Bishop
Following a discussion of sensory perception, embodiment and sensation, and subjectivity and phenomenology, the class looked at works of art by contemporary artists who engage, underscore, occlude, or highlight sensory experience. We considered works by Sarah Sze (touch), Joseph Beuys (sound), Roelof Louw (taste), Olafur Eliasson (sight), and Ernesto Neto (smell), and then got in touch with our own senses.
We closed our eyes and listened to the sounds around us, smelled the room, touched something, tasted the air … and then opened our eyes and looked. Students wrote:
1. I heard:
2. I smelled:
3. I touched:
4. I tasted:
5. I saw:
And then chose one bullet point and expanded upon this sensory experience, or proposed a way to simulate that sensory experience to an audience through a particular artwork or installation piece.
Aiesha smelled “soft & sweet cologne” and proposed installing a “pine tree and hanging various air fresheners from it like ornaments. The walls would be padded with insulation to increase noise reduction. Visitors would be blindfolded to enhance their remaining senses”
Amy “saw the familiar classroom that I have spent many semesters in”
Danielle heard “the soft hum of the air conditioner, the scratching of pen on paper, and the soft murmur of the people around me”
Justin smelled “the old spice deodorant underneath my arm, which transcended my mind to the open sea, as a sailboat crashes through fresh scented waves …”
Trevette felt “the short bristly hair that was located at my temple. I could almost feel each individual hair come together to form a larger, softer texture. I would make a comforter and mattress engulfed in human hair. People would have to lie on it”
Caroline saw “white dots when closing my eyes” and “tasted mango from my chapstick”
Yusheng smelled “the wood chair and the carpet”
Catherine touched “the smooth outside of my styrofoam cup”
Joseph smelled “cologne”
Chloe felt “the chair and my bones. Touched body on the chair, bones hurt from sitting, tailbone, pelvis, thoughts of the skeleton”
Chelsea smelled “the sweet aroma of the coffee next to me. The smell put my senses into overload, drifted into my mouth, and made it water”
Regine saw “the white light from the computer screen”
Nalin elaborated “I saw the bright light. Though I closed my eyes the bright light of the screen is still visible. It’s bright glow penetrates the shield of my eyelids. I cannot see anything selse around except for this glowing light”
Jwan smelled “rubber”
Between October-November, over three class meetings, students gave class presentations. Their assignment? To select a contemporary artist and give a 5-minute presentation (artist’s talk) adopting the persona of their artist. They could come in costume, adopt ticks or mannerisms, and assume accents or patterns of speech. In the presentation, students introduced themselves as their artist (using first person): where did they study, what are their interests or artistic motivations? Then they described 2-3 key artworks, explaining the works as the artist would, and concluding with a short statement on the future of art-making.
Students used a typed script (an outline with bullet points or more formal prose depending on presentation style) and a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation with 4 slides: 1 title slide and 3 slides of artworks/images with captions. Finally, they submitted a list of three sources they consulted while researching their artist.
Along with dueling Frida Kahlos and Andy Warhols (two each), Art Since 1945 was lucky enough to have artist presentations by the likes of: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’Keeffe, Julie Mehretu, Gregory Crewdson, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman, Jackson Pollock, Jeff Wall, Alexander Calder, Takashi Murakami, and Ellen Gallagher. While some came to us from Europe, New York, and Japan, others traveled much farther – from beyond the grave! – to share their unique perspectives with the class.
LETTER TO A YOUNG ARTIST
In the summer of 2005, Art on Paper magazine published the special issue “Letters to a Young Artist,” which included twelve letters by contemporary artists written in response to a letter from a fictional young artist seeking wisdom. A recent art school graduate, the young author is trying to “make it” in New York City without “selling out,” and asks if it is possible to maintain freedom and integrity and find success.
In 2006, the magazine’s editors Peter Nesbett, Sarah Andress, and Shelly Bancroft greatly expanded the project, publishing a paperback book with twenty-three “letters to a young artist” written by highly regarded contemporary artists. The letters range in tone and approach and offer words of wisdom, personal opinions, and cautious advice. For example, in their letters, Kerry James Marshall says: “Name your ambition,” while Xu Bing declares: “Just work.” Greg Amenoff writes: “Don’t be afraid to do dumb things,” and Joan Jonas says: “Now is fantastic.” Yoko Ono promises: “I love you,” and Stephen Shore recommends: “Establish your voice.”
On a recent fall day, students in Art Since 1945 sat outside together and were each given an envelope addressed to a young artist. Inside the envelope they found one letter from the published collection. They were asked to read the letter. Then, they were given a prompt with space to write their own letter to a young artist. It read: “Imagine it is twenty years in the future and you have achieved success as an artist. What kinds of things might you have done or learned? A young artist sends you a letter asking for advice. Channel your ‘future you’ and write a response. How might you encourage someone to pursue their dreams in art? You may draw inspiration from the letter you just read.” Students kept the initial letter from ‘their artist,’ put the new letter they just wrote into the envelope, and handed it in. The student’s letters to a young artist ranged from positive affirmation to humorous witticism.
In response to their prompt, I wrote my own “Letter to a Young Artist”:
Dear Young Artist,
You have all the time in the world ahead of you: slow down and listen to yourself, trust your instincts, and be open to new things and opportunities. Find a community that supports, understands, and accepts you. Don’t let anyone tell you that your voice doesn’t matter. It does. You are unique. Use your art in whatever way moves you: to add to the beauty in the world, to change minds, to be political, to make money, to take part. Be unafraid to try. Be unafraid to fail. Be unafraid to fail again. Success is often something we only see in hindsight, and its definition shifts and changes as we age. Be prepared to reflect at every step of your journey – and to applaud each accomplishment as it appears. Live in the moment. Be kind to yourself. Slow down. Trust yourself. You have all the time in the world ahead of you. Enjoy the journey.
In 1969, artist Douglas Huebler wrote: “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add anymore.” In the 1960s and ’70s, the rise of conceptual and performance art, and fluxus activities promoted “art as idea as idea” (Kosuth), art that used the body (the artist’s or others’), and art as event, in order to shift focus away from the precious art object and towards an art of agency, action, and occurrence that existed in tension with or against the art market.
The reason that the performance worked in one sense was that it was very controlled. A reason that it did not work, in another sense, was that it was too controlled, and people do not like to be controlled in that way.
–Allan Kaprow on Happenings, in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz
After discussing artworks and events by John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Valie EXPORT, Yoko Ono, and Allan Kaprow, among others, students scripted their own “happenings,” embracing the possibilities provided by an open-ended art of direction and temporal experience. Here is what they produced:
- gather 12 dozen donuts
- find busy, “pedestrian heavy” sidewalk
- line donuts up on sidewalk, arrange in grid formation
- imagine a robot
- dance with a robot (1 min)
- love the robot (1 min)
- teach the robot how to love (1 min)
- destroy the robot (1 min)
“Hum Piece,” Joseph:
- walk up to a wall
- put your nose to the wall
- hum in a deep tone
- thing of the saddest thing to ever happen to you
- think of the happiest thing to ever happen to you
- hum in a deep tone
- hum in a deep tone
- look toward the cieling
- close your eyes
- hum in a deep tone
- hum in a deep tone
- hum in a deep tone
- write down your worst fear
- write down your biggest joy
- place them next to your bed
- read both when you awake & before you fall asleep
- express both feelings throughout the day
- gather a group of people in a room (at least 10)
- take away all electronics
- see if they survive or remember basic social skills
- soundproof room, dead silent, except for sound of dropping water – one drip per second that continues as only sound
- projectors on walls; while walls filled with projected images of birth, pain, life, love, sex, violence, war, anger, fear, disgust, every range of emotion imaginable
- while projectors are producing flashing images, speakers projecting the dripping noise boom Beethoven’s 9th symphony, first movement
- projectors end on death, along with music
“High School/School building,” Chloe:
- wrap walls in black butcher paper, cover windows as well
- have colored light. similar to stage lighting
- attenders can enter after dark
- they must be given chewing gum
- students should run up and down the halls, wearing all black, no backpacks, throwing sparkles
- there should be no furniture or walls showing
- wine and cocktails with be served
- there should be sparkles and metallic surfaces reflecting the stage lighting
“Floppy feet music (Floppy feet event),” Chelsea:
- an event that can be done once or multiple times
- a variety of bare feet smacking on tile or a sleek, hard surface, where people are just walking around as hard as they can.
- take a wooden chair, and sit outside
- don’t move!
- don’t speak!
- don’t interact with your phone, computer, tablet, pet, or any other being for that matter.
- just sit, and Imagine the Inevitable!
- 6 people in a room
- 3 sitting; 3 standing
- 1 person walks out of the room, then walks back in and says a phrase. any phrase
- that person walks back out
- repeat until no more people in the room
- walk in room one at a time
- pick up polaroid camera
- take photo of subject
- hang photo in designated area
- walk out of room
“Ice cream drippings,” Catherine:
- place 5 large ice cream cones, filled with different flavors of ice cream upside down in nets hanging from a ceiling
- multiple participants will walk around under nets catching ice cream drippings in their mouths
- leave uncaught drippings on the ground and stained nets hanging from the ceiling
“My Happening,” Amy:
- need: acrylic paints, brushes, balloons
- invite friends along
- get friends to take part in action painting
- flicking paint at the canvas or board
- throwing water balloons filled with water/paint mixture at the board or canvas
- grab a cup out of the cabinet
- next, pick a flavor of your favorite coffee
- once you picked out your coffee, stick it in your machine to allow it to brew
- give it a minute or two for your coffee to complete it’s brew
- at last, enjoy your coffee
Laughing out loud. LoL
POP ART: “I am for an art …”
On September 13th, we were lucky to have Dr. Mark Benson visit our class and guest lecture on the experimental abstract musical compositions of John Cage. We enjoyed learning about Cage’s training and work, and listening to (amongst other things) Cage’s 4’33 and his “constructions” for percussion! It was a lot of fun to listen for a change, instead of just looking – and we made some useful connections between the music of Cage – who wanted “sounds to be sounds” – and the theories of Greenberg and art of the abstract expressionists.
In the following class on September 15th, after a discussion of the artworks and aesthetic interests of Pop art precursors (and Cage’s close friends) Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, students in VISU 3060: Art Since 1945 dove into the work of Claes Oldenburg and examined The Store (1961), Pie à la Mode (1962), and Floor Burger (1962). We discussed correspondences between the work of Rauschenberg and Oldenburg, especially their shared interests in commercialism, commodities, and the abandoned and discarded, along with Oldenburg and Johns’s joint preoccupation with semiotics, meaning, materiality, and object-hood.
Finally, together we read Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 “I am for an art,” which was written for an exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City. In the style of Ginsburg and Kerouac, the text reads like a beat generation ode to the Pop art movement. Oldenburg himself said it was a “slightly satirical ode or paean to the possibilities of using anything in one’s surroundings (mostly urban) as a starting point for art, the art movement that came to be known as New Realism or Pop Art.” This lengthy, hilarious, serious, ironic, moving artist statement-manifesto-text begins:
“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
After a lot in the middle, Oldenburg concludes by elevating the forgotten, forlorn, ugly, abandoned, or commercial, poetically declaring:
“I am for the art of slightly rotten funeral flowers, hung bloody rabbits and wrinkly yellow chickens, bass drums and tambourines, and plastic phonographs.
I am for the art of abandoned boxes, tied like pharaohs. I am for an art of water tanks and speeding clouds and flapping shades.
I am for US Government Inspected Art, Grade A art, Regular Price art, Yellow Ripe art, Extra Fancy art, Ready-to-Eat art, Best-for-Less art, Ready-to-Cook art, Fully Cleaned art, Spend Less art, Eat Better art, Ham art, pork art, chicken art, tomato art, banana art, apple art, turkey art, cake art, cookie art.”
Students responded to Oldenberg’s text by writing their own 4-6 line “I am for an art” statements. Here are some of their thoughts, interrupted by Oldenburg’s enormous sculptural hamburger (learn more about the controversial patty here).
“I am for an art that breaks the ability to label and limit, and sets minds free.” – Justin
“I am for an art that is passion because art makes me happy.” – Caroline
“I am for an art that makes us see the beauty in the disturbed and the disturbed in the beautiful.” – Danielle
“I am for an art that is melanin, afros, picks, big butts, noses, and lips.” – Catherine
“I am for an art that feels like a new friend, an exciting possibility, an adventure that has not been had.” – Chloe
“I am for an art that seeks the end of the beginning.” – Regine
“I am for an art that is opinionated and raw.” – Aiesha
“I am for an art that leaves the viewer wondering.” – Trevette
“I am for an art that is created as an outlet for the artist to work with their hands.” – Nalin
“I am for an art that crosses the road beautifully and then gets splatted by a car creating a mass chain reaction of a series of unfortunate events.” – Chelsea
“I am for an art that causes the senses to rearrange throughout the body, see with fingertips, taste with eyes.” – Joseph
“I am for an art that is simple in message and content, for it gives weary minds a break from the noise of their own thoughts.” – Amy
Check out more Oldenburg art here!
CLEMENT GREENBERG, AVANT-GARDE & KITSCH (orig. 1939)
On September 8th, students in VISU 3060: Art Since 1945 handed in their first written assignments: assessments of Clement Greenberg’s 1939 seminal essay “Avant-Garde & Kitsch.” We spent the class discussing Greenberg’s claims, terms, and evidence, and the stakes of his argument.
Key terms (always seek out definitions when reading difficult texts – these are from the O.E.D.):
Avant-Garde: the forward guard; refers to new and unusual or experimental ideas, especially in the arts, or the people introducing them.
Kitsch: art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.
For their homework, students submitted examples of contemporary kitsch. See what they identified as “kitsch,” interspersed with key points from our discussion, below.
In “Avant-Garde & Kitsch,” Greenberg frames the subject of his essay almost immediately, writing:
“What perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them [avant-garde art and kitsch] in an enlightening relation to each other? Does the fact that a disparity such as this exists within the frame of a single cultural tradition, which is and has been taken for granted – does this fact indicate that the disparity is a part of the natural order of things? Or is it something entirely new, and particular to our age?” (3)
Greenberg then outlines the historical conditions that nurtured the development of an avant-garde culture. His first point is that in the late-19th century developments made by people like Manet and Cezanne made painting about painting. They pushed the subject of an artwork beyond representational faithfulness and an imitation of reality and towards medium transparency, wherein the artwork embraces its own formal structures and expressive capacities – as limited by the flatness of the canvas. Why should a painting look like something else? Why should it strive for illusionistic depth or photographic realism? A painting is neither a window nor a photograph: it is something unto itself. Greenberg argues that in avant-garde painting, a new interest emerges, wherein:
“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.” (6)
So, we have artists interested in the limitations of their own mediums, creating artworks that are all about practice and form. Next, Greenberg is interested in the avant-garde’s relationship to Capitalism. Who buys this stuff and what happens when the economic conditions of society change? He describes the relationship between avant-garde artists and their patrons as pretty conflicted; they want to exist outside of the market, but they still need to eat:
“No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold. The paradox is real.” (8)
With the industrial revolution and increased urbanization, the working and middle classes enjoyed increased leisure time and extra spending money. Art and culture, once only for the rich, are now accessible to these classes too. But what should they buy? Greenberg argues that alongside the development of avant-garde art for the elite class, a second cultural product emerges marketed specifically for the “urbanized masses” – that thing called Kitsch:
“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 fictions, comics, tin pan alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood films, etc…Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses…and established what is called universal literacy…These 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.” (9-10)
And here’s where things get interesting. Greenberg wants to understand how Kitsch becomes this marketable commodity, what makes it so popular to the masses, and how – if at all – it relates to the “high art” of the avant-garde. He writes:
“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. The precondition for kitsch…is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new “twists,” which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch. The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts. Because it can be turned out mechanically, kitsch has become an integral part of our productive system in a way in which true culture could never be, except accidentally. It has been capitalized at a tremendous investment which must show commensurate returns; it is compelled to extend as well as to keep its markets.” (10)
In this lengthy excerpt, Greenberg argues that what makes Kitsch so popular is its adaptability, its mechanical, faked, borrowed aesthetic – that takes pieces and parts from “high” culture of the avant-garde and predigests it for a viewer, making it easy, watered-down, simple, and pleasing. No longer, does the viewer struggle in front a Picasso and attempt to understand its formal message or complex vocabulary. Instead, the art of kitsch is simple and palatable – it needs no discussion or intellectual engagement. It is the pablum for the masses. And it is highly marketable; in fact, it is driven by and for the market in a way that avant-garde art struggles against. It is specifically capitalized, and, when it becomes passé, a new form of Kitsch quickly emerges to take its place.
Avant-garde artists responded to this “watering-down” of culture – this market-driven competition – by increasingly moving beyond the subject in their work and making art about art, thereby counteracting the trends seen in Kitsch and establishing themselves as the antithesis to this “low” art. The worst insult – after this article was published – was to call an artwork kitsch.
So what then are the stakes of Greenberg’s argument, written in 1939? Politically, they are pretty damn high … as he puts it:
“Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses — even if they wanted to — by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed…kitsch is more pliable to this end. Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the “soul” of the people.” (19)
For Greenberg, the intellectual emptiness of Kitsch – its vapid entertainment value – creates willing sheep of the masses, making them pliable citizens for the rising totalitarian dictatorships of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and Joseph Stalin. So, if Kitsch is a tool for fascist, totalitarian governments, used to “dumb-down” the masses, what does that make avant-garde art?
Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Oil and casein on canvas, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959.6
It makes avant-garde art a weapon against dictators. It makes it a tool in the fight against fascism. Specifically, it allows the avant-garde paintings that Clement Greenberg adored – artworks that are highly formal, often abstracted, “non-objective” and subject-less, self-reflexive and all about the medium – to become highly political. Greenberg replaces the subject-full politicized art of the Social Realist movement with politicized abstraction. It is a masterful sleight of hand, borne out by a single argument!
So then, what happens when the avant-garde reverses its interests and starts to borrow from Kitsch? What would Clement Greenberg think of an artist like Jeff Koons, whose 1988 banality series replicates the ubiquitous aesthetic of the Hummel figurine and other porcelain tchotchke – frequently found in collector’s curios or grandmother’s shelf? What happens when “high art” turns to the “lowly culture” of the masses for inspiration, borrowing in turn from the most common and least intellectual cultural products?
How would Greenberg respond to the high Capitalist extremes of today’s Contemporary art world?
Indeed, what might Greenberg’s reaction be when confronted with the “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted” project of the Russian duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who in 1994 – the very year Greenberg died – employed a survey company to measure the aesthetic tastes of entire nations and then used the data collected to paint each country’s most and least liked artworks? What would he think of artists who intentionally turn kitsch on its head?
These are just some of the questions that we grappled with at the end of our class discussion…and any answer is pure conjecture. Of course, there are also plenty of problems with Greenberg’s argument, including his inherent snobbery and his complete inattention to – or intentional omission of – numerous contemporaneous avant-garde movements that were emphatically representational.
In spite of this, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” remains integral to understanding the development of modern art – if, for any single reason, because Greenberg was a very influential guy (perhaps the single most influential art critic of the 20th-century) and people read his writings, artists responded to his criticism, and future generations – seeking to raise avant-garde art above lowly Kitsch – (a struggle established only because of Greenberg’s essay) believed his argument and followed his directives making art that was self-reflexive and therefore “pure.”
FIELD TRIP: A MUSEUM EVENT
On September 1st, Dr. Slipp and students in VISU 3060: Art Since 1945, attended Last Call at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Sponsored by the Museum’s Junior Executive Board, this evening fundraiser celebrated the special exhibitions “Photo-realism” and “Lynn Saville: Dark City, Urban America at Night,” and raised money for the Education Department of the MMFA.
After the event, Students responded to four prompts: what did they observe at the reception; learn about museums; enjoy about the exhibitions; and take-away from the experience. Here students reflect on that experience.
“I learned through the presence of the raffle and how its proceeds would benefit another program within the museum, that those in charge of Last Call were looking to better the rest of the museum in the process. What I enjoyed most about the two exhibitions was how they sparked a conversation concerning what defines a piece of art and makes it what it is.” – Amy
“I thought the ‘pomp’ of the event was interesting. Growing up in the lower-middle class, I wasn’t accustomed to events like this. I hope to be a part of something like this again simply because it was fun. I hope to put art on the walls of a museum or gallery that would make people come together and enjoy themselves in the same way.” – Ben
“I observed many photographs and screen-prints within the photo-realism gallery. I came away with a new appreciation for screen-printing. I normally do not like the end product of screen-printing, but some of the complex prints were amazing.” Trevette
“I really enjoyed the photo-realism exhibit! It’s really fascinating to me how artists can make paintings look exactly like photographs. I want to attend more art exhibitions! – Nalin
“I observed that everyone was very friendly, and that we were all there for a common reason – ART! I learned that trying at what I love could get me to an event like this someday. Never give up!” – Chelsea
“I happened to observe a diversity of people, and conversational topics. Art has the power to bring different individuals together from different backgrounds, who otherwise would never interact in outside life.” – Joseph
“In the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, I was moved by the painting. It improved my love of art.” – Yusheng
“I enjoyed the linocut of the black woman in the hat [Catlett, Sharecropper]. The details surprised me with the depth the artist was able to capture. I took away a lot from “Lynn Saville’s Dark City, Urban America at Night.” I enjoyed the way she was able to capture what we see so many times on a daily basis with photography and make it into art.” – Catherine
“I learned about people. When you talk to people in an art setting, they are more willing to talk about art. I would like to return to more museum events, or gallery events, so as to be a part of more artistic discussions. I found this night as stimulating as being in class, without the organized agenda.” – Chloe
“The Museum exhibitions were nicely categorized into their own sections. I took-away that art is very influential to everyday life.” – Regine
“I saw a lot of extremely detailed screen-prints and also some dramatic photography. I discovered that I do not like Chardonnay – AT ALL! I also learned that you can use as many colors as you want when screen-printing. The most colors I have ever used was three!” – Aiesha
CLASS EXERCISE: SURREALISM AND AUTOMATISM
In our August 18th class meeting, we discussed the influence of the Surrealists on the New York School of artists in the 1940s and did two in class exercises: automatic drawings and exquisite corpses (scroll down to see what we made).
The Surrealists, led by André Breton, emphasized, through their art, the lived world “beyond reality”: the fantastical, the illogical, the absurd, the dreamlike, the subconscious, and the Other. The movement was anti-rationalist.
Left: Yvan Goll, Surréalisme, Manifeste du surréalisme, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Oct. 1, 1924): image Wikipedia.
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” ― André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (1924)
During WWII many of the surrealists fled Europe for New York City, where they exhibited, published, wrote, and painted, spreading the fundamental artistic tenants of the movement to American practitioners.
Influenced by psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961), the surrealists sought to tap into their subconscious through hypnosis and dream interpretation. Their artworks also relied on elements of free association, surprise, chance, and juxtaposition, in order to delve into the subconscious creative impulses of the artist. One such avenue for exploring the artistic psyche was “Surrealist automatism” or “Automatic drawing,” a method of art making in which the artist suppresses conscious impulses and allows their drawing utensil to randomly move across the page. They then interpret the marks, forging connections between shapes and recreating meaning from visual fragments. It was also used for free writing, where words that sprang to mind were jotted down without concern for form or syntax.
“Surrealism is pure psychic automatism by which one intends to express verbally…the real functioning of the mind.” – André Breton
Right: Andre Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924. Ink on paper, 9 1/4 x 8 1/8 in., MoMA, NYC. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Surrealist artists also played a chance-based game called Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse) with teams of three or four players. Each participant draws or writes on a sheet of paper, folds the paper to cover their work, and passes it on to the next player who does the same. Once everyone has contributed, the sheet is unfolded and the collaborative artwork is revealed!
Left: Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Max Morise, Exquisite Corpse, 1928. Ink on paper, 14 1/4 x 9 in., Art Institute of Chicago. © 2016 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
After our class discussion about Surrealism, we created our own versions of these fun Surrealist exercises: automatic drawings and exquisite corpses. Doing this in class allowed us to gets a hands-on appreciation for the spontaneous and unconscious creative practices that the surrealists employed. It was a lot of fun! Here is what we made:
- Automatic drawing exercise
- close your eyes
- draw on your sheet of paper
- open your eyes
- connect any shapes, color spaces, or add texture and detail
- Exquisite corpse exercise
- form a group of three
- trifold your sheet of paper to create three “folded” areas
- one person draws in the upper area, extends any vertical lines into the next fold, and then folds the paper so only the extended lines can be seen
- the next two people do the same
- open to reveal your group drawing
Check out MoMA Learning: Surrealism for more fun in-class Surrealist exercises!