January 19, 2019

The Avant-Garde’s Slide into Irrelevance

“Many adherents to the aesthetics of the avant-garde in tenured positions at American art schools and universities are still enthusiastic supporters of the ideas and strategies that won them the culture wars of the late twentieth century. They steadfastly cleave to the doctrinal ideas that brought them into their positions of power and authority and have entrenched themselves in defense of an exclusively Euro-centric cult of avant-garde art. But as Western culture has changed around them, they have been outflanked by sentiment and technology.

The foundations of the avant-garde were built upon the opposition of true and fake art. The avant-garde provided true, ethical art, while its opposite pole was fake, sentimental kitsch. The Frankfurt School writer Norbert Elias was first to identify sentiment as the enemy, followed by Herman Broch, who provided doctrinal writings describing kitsch as evil, and tying true art to the exposure of social reality. The young Marxist Clement Greenberg came to the game late, famously bringing their ideas to an American audience with avant-garde doctrines that despised kitsch and favored an elitist intellectualism. Regardless of the importance of emotion in human relationships, a fundamentalist rejection of sentiment in art coupled with an embrace of ethical confrontation became doctrinal to the avant-garde throughout the twentieth century.

Representational artists—painters and sculptors who make images of people who look like people and things that look like things—were their favorite targets, partly because this was the dominant art of the West’s Soviet enemies. The Soviets used representational Socialist Realism to propagandize their ideology, and made use of sentiment as a manipulative tool. American Communism had fallen into disarray after the Stalin / Hitler pact in 1939, and after the war revelations about Stalin’s gulags turned many communists anti-Soviet. The US government courted their allegiance, enthusiastic to present America as the open-armed home of free thought – even if that thought was opposed to the government – in contrast to the straight-jacket of totalitarian doctrine. This created the paradox of American Marxist avant-gardists being set against Soviet Socialist Realism. Offering avant-gardism as a liberating alternative to the constrictions of Communism was essential to America’s strategy for winning the cultural Cold War. If the enemy restricted and controlled art in the East, in the West artists were encouraged to provide political commentary and to transgress. The avant-garde was fresh, seductive, and appealing. If sentiment and representation were the tools of our lying enemies, we must offer the opposite—concept and abstraction.”

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