There are many who won’t care for Roger Scruton’s aesthetic politics or for his politics, for that matter. But none can gainsay his skill as a writer. Herein, Scruton takes to what seems to be a new Forbes habit and asks about Clement Greenberg’s famous distinction between Avant-garde and kitsch. Scruton is not much of a modernist. Nonetheless, he charts an interesting arc away from representation and back again without encountering the dreaded kitsch.
Paradoxically, Scruton reminds us, that prepared the ground for kitsch in a new form:
There was, for Greenberg, no way back to the old figurative ways of painting. All the images had been deprived of their aura, and if you attempted, in the world of the 1930s, to paint a beautiful nude in the manner of Ingres, then the result would be kitsch. The only way forward was the way of the avant-garde, which either eschewed representation altogether, or presented figures that had been, as it were, discomposed and reassembled, like those faces of Picasso that look forwards and sideways at once, or those figures of de Kooning that seem to have been slapped on the canvas as a punishment, and then eaten alive by the paint.
For half a century or more Greenberg’s view was orthodoxy. To be a modern artist you had to turn your back on the literal image, since the very attempt to produce traditional art would turn oil-paint to candy-floss and emotion to kitsch. You must go forward with the avant-garde, and forward everybody went, to the point where nobody quite knew just where he was going, and art had ceased to be something to look at and become something to think about instead. Then, in a burst of inspiration, Andy Warhol began producing Brillo Boxes. These were not figurative paintings, since they were indistinguishable from the originals. But nor were they ‘avant-garde’, since they were neither abstract squiggles, nor demolitions of reality. They were just there, with no explanation, because that was what the artist had done.
After a while, with the emergence of pop art and advert-art, and a few more attempts at conceptual art, the way was once again open for kitsch.
A fine line between art and kitsch (Forbes)