Clement Greenberg was an influential writer and art critic whose essays inspired the Abstract Expressionists.
His 1939 essay, Avant Garde and Kitsch, introduced the art world to these terms and challenged young painters to explore new ground. I haven't read this since art school so it seemed a good time to check it out again with fresh eyes. You can read the full article here, below are some key points of the article that relate to art making.
- In this essay Greenberg uses the word Kitsch to describe art. Kitsch literally means trash in German and relates to commercial and popular art. Greenberg felt this was hardly art at all. He considered it low brow and not for the educated elite.
- Avant-Garde on the other hand is art that pushes the boundaries. That moved away from recognizable subjects and instead embraced formal elements like shape, color, and composition. He believed this emphasis on form free from pictorial reference was truly timeless.
- He was especially focused on the future of paintings, and he felt the medium needed to resolve its existence beyond representational subjects.
- He believed art should ask questions no one can answer.
- He felt that art that get's attention too fast must be minor art and not reaching new levels as avant-garde art.
Of course, in todays environment (after subsequent art movements, and technological advances) there's a lot of holes in his theory. He is quick to separate classes of people, say anything representational is no good, and gives control to the wealthy as patrons of art. However, I appreciate that one of his main objectives is to push artists to take their medium to the next level. Ask yourself: What is this medium I'm using? What am I saying by using it? Where has it been? and How can it be explored in new ways?