Friday, February 8, 2013

The Anti-Culture of Modernism

In my previous few posts last year, I wrote about the relationship of folk art and classical high art to culture.  I wrote that folk art, as an expression of culture, aims towards a particular expression of a particular culture's self awareness, or "what it means to be" such and such a culture.   High art, or academic art or classical art, is an attempt not to express "what it means to be" English or Italian or American, but what it means to be human as a universal idea.  This classical high art is concerned with the most fundamental principles: order, reason, and beauty.  This spectrum then, between the particular of folk art, and the universal of high art served to describe well what art was for nearly all of human history.


The potpourri of ornament and styles in Victorian architecture
riled the modernists for the excesses of "useless" ornament.
Now this all changed, as I related before, with the rise of "kitsch".   The rise of industry, advertising and mass marketing of art which arose in the 19th and 20th Centuries created a new category of art, the mass marketed art of kitsch.  Kitsch is characterized by the divorce of art from any of its cultural roots, meaning that no painting, no building or no song which is produced by kitsch has a real relation to culture, but only a "simulacrum" of culture to appeal to its market. 

This is the state of art that the artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries found themselves.  They saw that the rise of industrialism and the market was making kitsch the dominant form of art, which was threatening to kill culture and art.  So to rescue art,  a new art was needed; and this new art would be the avante-garde of modernism.  Modernism would be the true art which could express man's deep longing to know "what it means to be."   So with one swift stroke, Modernism, would both simultaneously sweep away all the meaningless detritus of kitsch as well as create a new meaningful, authentic and universal art.

Piet Mondriaan's "Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow"
To the modernists, all culture had been irredeemably lost with the rising tide of kitsch.   Folk art was lost to the masses and had been entirely replaced by mass-marketed art of every form.  Think how true this is today, as most people know not a single folk tune passed down from their ancestors, while the infectious insipid "Call me maybe" is ever-present.  Not only has folk culture been replaced, but the academic high art as well, having all been run over by a kitsch of Beaux-arts historicism.  So then, if culture and its art has been entirely lost, then a new art which embraced traditions and traditional forms would make no sense at all.

Entirely new forms of art would then be found in the avante-garde, the new forms of art in abstraction and cubism, which, stripped of their cultural cancer, would allow for only the raw expression of those fundamental truths themselves.  Instead of using color and line and form, art became color and line and form.   From Mondriaan's blocks of color to Picasso's human forms transformed into cubes, the art would not express old dead notions of particular cultures, but one new universal idea of art.

Walter Gropius' Bauhaus school in Dessau Germany.
In architecture, the accretions which the Beaux-arts academics and their peers had cobbled onto architectural form were stripped free in the architecture of the Bauhaus.   This new architecture, the "International Style," is probably the most succinct expression of this new idea of the universal art.   Since all culture is swept aside, a pure clean architecture, which expressed the barest idea of architecture itself, was to be created.   Not mired in cultural flotsam, the International Style would be at home in any place, whether in Berlin or Los Angeles or Brazil.  Since culture had already been destroyed, it was only logical to create art that would be pure expressions of art.

Modernism became then, at least in its earliest expressions, fundamentally and essentially anti-cultural.  Artists working in this milieu didn't see themselves as destroyers of art and culture, but rather as saviors of art.  Certainly this was Clement Greenberg's idea, that the art of the avante-garde, in casting off as already dead the cancer of kitsch, would revive art and make it whole again, and modern man, so longing for this purity and wholeness, would respond and find it wonderful.

Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog" exemplifies a later modern
fascination in the art world with kitsch.
At least that was the idea, but the reality was that Modernism created a world that mankind did not respond to, that left a cold and empty world devoid of any meaning.  In the next few posts, I'd like to look at a few responses that art has made to the "failure of modernism."   In no particular order, I'll be looking at the embrace of kitsch in art, the criticism that "anti-art" made, and the rise and fall of Post Modernism, and where that leaves us today.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kitsch, the Anti-Cultural Commodity

The essence of art, its final end, is to explain to man his own nature, what it means to be human.   Any art which does not have this for its end cannot truly be called "fine art."  Art, however, that  is created for the sole purpose of being sold in the market cannot, in an unqualified sense, be called true art, since it does not share the same final end.  Now this sort of art, which has for its end the pure utilitarian end of the maker, is called kitsch.  Kitsch, as reader Bob pointed out, can be defined as "the reduction of art to marketable forms." 

Graceland by Thomas Kinkade
Every part of kitsch is ordered toward the end of being sold, so every part of a work of kitsch is calculated to be more palatable to the marketplace. Kitsch uses conventional forms, motifs and even symbols only in so far as they make the particular work of art more marketable.  Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (from which I draw heavily from) remarks that kitsch uses as "raw material the debased and academized simulacra of genuine culture."  The preservation of a cultural memory, or consciousness of "what we are," as I described before, is not the end of this art but rather something akin to the utilitarian end of making money.

Kitsch, Greenberg continues, "borrows from [culture] tricks, stratagems, themes...[and] converts them into a system and discards the rest."  Kitsch sees the products of a culture only as a component to be drawn from, not as a "good thing" in and of themselves.  The "art" of kitsch then is only an art of the most basic sense of making something, just like the art of pouring a concrete sidewalk, or making a chair.  This most basic sense is primarily concerned with its utilitarian end (i.e. making a place to sit or walk), and if it elevates itself to something to the level of poetry, it does so only accidentally.  Greenberg confirms this saying "nor is every item of kitsch entirely worthless.  Now and then it produces something of merit" but these are only "accidental or isolated instances."

Kitsch though may be thought of as some sort of folk art, but as Greenberg argues, kitsch is merely a replacement for the folk art lost by rural people living now in cities as a result of the industrial revolution.  "Discovering a new capacity for boredom ... the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with some 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, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide." [emphasis added] 

Kitsch, the art of a mass-culture is not something that falls on the spectrum of art as poetry, that spectrum between folk art, and high art.  By and large, even though there may be "isolated instances", kitsch cannot provide that consolation that only true culture can, through beauty and symbolism and rich traditions, that gives meaning to the important moments of our lives.  One need only think of those jarring moments when a cell phone jingle goes off in church, worst of all during a funeral. These are moments where the market cannot give us what we really need in our souls.  Kitsch does not have for its end the poetic imitation which leads to a fuller understanding of man and his place in the universe, which is the proper end of culture, both high and low.  

Catholic Mall Chapel, a fine thing,
but somehow seems out of place.
I'm reminded of a story I read about a Catholic chapel in a shopping mall.  The priests would say Mass, and hear Confession, but something about the mall made them hesitate to ever hold a wedding there, not to mention a funeral. It is as if the overwhelming materialism of the mall, entirely ordered towards consumption seems so alien to those parts of life where symbolism and culture are so essential to our very human existence.

Curiously though, this same feeling of alienation is felt less about a funeral on a city street, at least streets in our older cities.   Perhaps this is because even though commerce and all rank of ordinary things happen there, there remains something about the city as a community, that says these things are proper to this public place. The city is the product of culture par-excellance, the place where architecture, art, sculpture and public ceremony all come together where a culture can best express what we are. This notion of cultural identity, this notion of belonging, is cultivated by the arts, and is reinforced by customs and conventions, but it is today under constant assault -- first of all by the assault of kitsch, but also the assault of the avant-garde modernism. This is something I looked at briefly before, when talking about the city stripped of symbolism.  In the next series of posts, I want to look at the relation of modern art to culture, and its relation to kitsch, in so far as it too is an art which is at its essence anti-cultural.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Further Thoughts on High Culture and Folk Culture and Art

In my last post I talked a great deal about the art of "high culture" and "folk culture" in regards to their relation to the classical and vernacular in architecture.   The distinction that I was drawing was not to show that high and low culture are in opposition to each other, but rather are a matter of variation of degree.   Both high and low culture, classical and vernacular art, all deal with the same subject, namely cultural memory or the maintenance of shared ideas of self-identification.    From very simple traditions of a household, the baking of traditional meals for birthdays and holidays, to the triumphant hymn of a national anthem, the art and architecture of a capitol, every one of these things seeks to express though through varied degrees, "this is who we are."

The nature of a folk culture is of course defined by its having risen from the people itself, the folk, where local traditions, and family traditions lead to an art which is particular to a certain people, place or a even family.   High culture, which arises from the folk culture, is culture which has been subjected to intellectual and philosophical examination.   Rather than traditions of culture and art being simply passed on to the next generation, high culture places itself under to study and criticism in order to make it better, finer and more sophisticated.   Moreover, this sophistication allows it to be appreciated outside of a particular cultural context, it begins to be appreciated by everyone.

Thus art that is produced by high culture is transformed from a simple local art, into a universal art that begins to transcend the particularities of place and people, and is thus the only sort of art that can become a "national" art.   The universality of the art is what allows people from all over the world to enjoy the works of Mozart and Bach, even without having been a part of that particular central European Germanic culture from which the art arose.   Certainly though, had one come from that particular culture from which this high culture arose from, the art would be even more meaningful.

High culture produces an art that tends toward universality, but yet maintains that same goal of culture, to say "this is who we are," and consequently its art strives too for that universality.  Folk culture and its art says "this is what it means to be a Dutchman" or "this is what it means to be a member of such and such family."  High culture strives to say "this is what it means  to be man" (in other words in an unqualified sense).   This difference between universality and particularity is what I spoke of in earlier posts in dealing with art and politics.   Art geared towards politics is necessarily geared towards the particular, but it loses its meaning in the universal flow of history.  Great art, though even if it is political, is geared towards the great universals and it thus has constant appeal.

This is not to say however that Folk art loses its appeal through time, far from it.    The art of a folk culture is expressive of a particular culture's understanding of the same universal longing to understand "what we are."  This, coupled with transcendent notions of beauty which all true art strives for, for instance the same tonal system of music is found both in the folk song Greensleeves,  as it is in Mozart's Requiem, gives all true art a.   The level complexity and the precision of the music is the only difference between them, telling us they are in essence the same thing.   So too in poetry, as the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare represent the best of a high culture, the simplicity of the poetry of those same folk tunes can tell us just as much about what it means to be a human being.

But yet this universal nature of art and high culture only goes so far, we need only look to where cultures across the globe have interacted to see the limits of cultural universalism.  So too in architecture, where attempts to introduce classical Roman styles of architecture in foreign lands with highly developed native cultures, seem severely out of place.   One need only listen in the West to traditional Japanese or Chinese music to see where the limits lie.   Certainly one can come to know and understand and even love Chinese pentatonic music (it uses only five notes instead of the Western eight) but if we were to try to introduce it into a cultural setting in America, we would only see it as a charming "theme." 

The "theme" would of course be a farce, as there would be nothing that connects Chinese traditional music as "belonging"for instance to a traditional Christmas party.  The idea of cultural "themes" can best be seen in context of amusement parks, or "theme parks" which accumulate architecture of different places all into one park.   A park such as this seems cheesy and "kitschy" because the cultural artifacts that it reproduces are all out of place.   Its like a man walking into a bar in New York in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs, where he would be entirely silly, while doing the same in Texas might be an everyday appearance.  The idea of things being "out of place" is the essence of kitsch, which I intend to explore in the next post.  In particular, I am interested in how kitsch relates to the ideas of the avante-garde in modernist art.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are McMansions Classical or Vernacular?

In architecture there is a distinction often made between the classical, made by the most highly educated architects, and the vernacular, the common stuff built by ordinary people.  This distinction is understood most correctly as a spectrum between the two extremes rather than a simple dichotomy.  However one has a problem when trying to place particular buildings in this spectrum, especially where the building in question is a typical American suburban home, or "McMansion."

The typically overblown details in a suburban "McMansion"
The suburban house hardly fits in the realm of the classical, as it is often badly proportioned and badly detailed.  It has little thought put into its design, rarely are architects involved in designing such houses.  Nor does it seem to fall in the vernacular, as the suburban house doesn't follow any local building traditions.  Rather it picks and chooses from a number of different marketed styles.  The typical suburban house then seems to fall somewhere outside of the spectrum of the classical to the vernacular in architecture.  This is because the classical and vernacular are products of the same thing, high and low culture, and the suburban house, is a product of another thing entirely, that of mass culture.  

Folk culture, and its corresponding art, the vernacular, is the simplest expression of a culture, and its principles.  Folk culture is the expression of belonging, of home, of a sense of identity that is carried through a common understanding of the basic principles of life, those of love, family, justice and order and beauty.   Filtered filtered through generations of tradition, folk culture takes on a particular identity that is tied with a people and the places they live.   

High culture and its corresponding art, the classical, is an expression of that same folk culture, but one that is informed by an education and deliberation.   High culture is one trained in philosophy and history, and therefore is able to push the bounds of the principles of the culture.   High culture and folk culture both are reciprocally is informed and educated by the other.  One can see this in the common use of themes from folk music in the works of classical composers.  The composer takes the folk melody and expands it, makes it more complex and intricate and intellectual, but all the while still works within the culture of the folk.  Thus the classical and the vernacular fall in the same spectrum, precisely because they are expressions of the same culture, though it is the understanding by different degrees of that shared culture.

Mass culture on the other hand is concerned primarily with the market.  Mass culture often takes things from both the folk and the high culture but it jumbles them together in a mass of confusion.    In folk and high culture, the cultural artifacts that belong to the culture, that are valued by the culture, are those that are shaped by tradition in folk culture, and by reason and tradition in high culture.  In mass culture the cultural artifacts that are most valued are those that sell the most.   What sells most is usually what is marketed and advertised most, and is mass produced not by a culture interested in preserving its roots, but a company interested in its profits.

Mass culture produces products that essentially have no cultural reference, as they neither come from nor are marketed towards a culture as a culture, but as a market.  And since markets exist all around the globe, each is treated essentially the same.  This is the great problem of globalization, the marketing of products that drown out a local culture by the influx of cheap products, a local cuisine drowned out by the burgers and fries of McDonald's.  It is not folk or high culture that is globalized but mass culture.

McDonalds in Florence. 
Mass culture in the center of high culture
The McMansion is like the burger stand, it does not arise from a culture, either high or low, but arises instead from a marketing strategy.  It appeals in some ways to cultural relevancy, but not in any way that refers to a true cultural identity.  The typical suburban house is not cultural, and therefore not classical or vernacular, but is anti-cultural.  Art of this sort could pop up anywhere just like a McDonald's, as we see now in China, where American style suburbs are sprouting everywhere, but nowhere does it have any relation to its cultural or architectural surroundings.

This is the fundamental problem of kitsch.  Kitsch an art which is out of place in its surroundings, this is art produced by the mass culture.   This is art purely for the market, and mass culture is anti-culture, kitsch is anti-art.  And as kitsch is anti-art and anti culture, so too is the avante-garde.   I want to take a bit of time to talk about the avante-garde in relation to kitsch, so I will come back to this in the next post.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The De-symbolized City

"Art that points to itself but not beyond itself is bad art... the imitative arts are always jeweled with symbols that flash to something beyond themselves."   Friederich Wilhelmsen

Wisconsin State capitol, the focus of demonstrations
of every political persuation, it becomes
the symbol of the political virtues all hold.
 Symbolism is probably the most essential attribute of art, as it is the one attribute that allows a work of art to be more than just simply what it is.   Most modern art, having taken it for granted that to represent another thing is a bad thing, has systematically removed the idea of symbol from art.
There may be some argument for some modern art carrying symbols, such as Duchamps urinal, the symbolism that they contain is not readily apparent or intrinsic to the art itself.   The modern work of symbolic art is usually accompanied by a long explanation of the things it is symbolizing, as nothing in the art references commonly known cultural touchstones from which to spring from. 

There is probably no more apt example of the problems of the de-symbolization of art than in the realm of civic architecture.   As Wilhelmsen points out, symbols art point to something beyond itself, such as the civic virtues of justice and order.  By the nature of the symbolic content to be found in civic architecture, symbols tied to a cultural context and consciousness, the citizen sees that his participation in the polis is a participation in the virtues of such a place, the virtues of justice, order, duty, patriotism, etc.  Civic architecture becomes a symbolic focus towards these highest ideals, that to which all people in a society order their political life.

The modernist civic building through the embrace of the stripped down glass and steel aesthetic is an architecture devoid of symbol and meaning.   Indeed there is little to distinguish a civic building, where justice is rendered, order created and the polis formed, from the myriad other nondescript de-symbolized buildings of the modern city.  The modernist civic building has been stripped of symbolic content, and thus has stripped civic consciousness down to its barest functionality and utilitarian ends.  Without symbolism the bureaucratic state is all that is left, and what it can give the individual, or rather what it can compel the individual to do, is all that is left.   Such an institution is not something to which a sense of duty can be felt, but rather is only a sense of fear or dependence which is felt toward the modern state.

Thom Mayne's Federal Courthouse in Eugene Oregon.
Nothing intrinsic to the building tells you what it is,
words are necessary to identify it as a courthouse.



The only symbols left are merely that of the written word, and this only in the form of the merely pragmatic identifier, the words "Courthouse" emblazoned on a blank wall to identify this as a place where one goes to get sued or to be prosecuted.  The idea of justice as a virtue is not to be found in the symbolism of the building, and so too, the justice to be found inside is merely the utilitarian instrumentality of power. 

This barrenness of symbols is only to evident in our memorials as well, where proper symbolic content through the arts of painting and sculpture have long been banished.   Instead they have been superseded by the museum and interpretive center.  The materialist and desymbolized man of today cannot identify with anything but mere "facts."  The idea of a myth or symbol is entirely alien and banished in this world of pure reason, but this is a discussion for another post...

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Philosophy, Principles versus Rules

Principles of geometry used in composition, sketch by Baldassare Peruzzi
The age old debate amongst classical artists is whether or not philosophy is important to the artist as a means to creating his art.  The argument roughly is that "I am an artist, not a philosopher, so I just have to create beauty, not understand why."  To a certain extent this is true, however one must rely on something to produce an art.

In order to produce a desired effect, a desired end, one has only two choices to achieve that end, one either comes to understand the principles which operate to produce that end, or one relies on the application of a set of rules to produce that end.

The former is akin to the practice of ethics, where one seeks to understand the principles of justice, temperance and the other virtues, to put them into practice in an infinite number of circumstances.   The intention is to grasp a universal principle, which when properly understood can be applied in each particular circumstance in a way proper to that circumstance.

The alternative is the application of rules.  Rules as such are not universal, they don't refer to every circumstance but to particular circumstances, and in art are the creation of particular forms.   Rules are created according to principles, and for the greater part of circumstances they serve to produce the same effects as the application of principles.  One applies the rules, and for the greatest part of the time, they produce the exact end which you intend from the beginning.

However rules do from time to time, by an absolute rigid application, produce the opposite intended end.  The rule is not flexible as it applies absolute to particular circumstance, whereas principles applied seeking the ultimate end, allow for more flexibility, that is "breaking the rules"

When one unmoors oneself from the application of principles, the only alternative is to use rules to create the end.  If one seeks however to unmoor themselves from the application of rules, they must return to the principles to produce the end.  If however one is unmoored both from rule and from principle then the end of the artist is only randomly produced, the artist is left to pick and choose willy-nilly from any number of alternatives, and only by chance would ever produce his end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

History According to Nietzsche and Art

Friedrich Nietzsche
History is a subject that I've touched on a little bit before, when talking about Aristotle's idea of history in relation to art, but today I want to explore the idea a bit further drawing from a text I've been reading lately called "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life" by Friedrich Nietzsche (alternatively titled "The Use and Abuse of History")

History is to most people simply the collection of facts and dates of events past; the battles, the revolutions, and the people who shaped the world in which we live in today.  But not everyone can know the whole of all of the historic facts, but people can know for instance that Washington was the "Father of the nation", and that Lincoln freed the slaves.  These simple statements in themselves are histories, small, not very complex, but history nonetheless.  But history is not just the simple collection of facts, but rather it is the summary of those facts into a cohesive narrative.

History is not just collected memory, but collective memory that is taught, and is for Nietzsche something that ordered towards a specific end.  In the Advantage and Disadvantage Nietzsche makes the claim that history is there for a purpose, that it is put to use to promote "life" and he says they are used in so far as man:  1) "is active and striving" 2) "preserves and admires" and 3) "suffers and is in need of liberation"   The three types of history then correspond to these needs or ends, as 1) monumental, 2) antiquarian, and 3) critical histories.

Christopher Columbus Monument, Washington DC
In the following series of posts I will be looking at each of these parts of history in how they relate to art, particularly art that is created by and for the polis.  The fact that art is in itself makes use of history is not immediately evident, but upon reflecting that a great many works of art, indeed almost all art, has had people of history as its subject.  Most all of the stories we tell, through poetry literature and film  as well as monuments, memorials and public buildings we erect all tell a history.  And as such each of these works of art can make use the different kinds of history monumental, antiquarian, and critical.  How they apply those histories, and whether or not they have used the form of history proper to the subject will become clear after we have looked at each of the forms of history in detail.  Then we will be able to see clearly how a great many works of art truly abuse history to serve their ends.