Capitalism as Influencing Factor for Cultural Decay. A Marxist Reading of Clement Greenberg's Essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"

Term Paper, 2013

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Social and Theoretical Context
2.1 Social and Economic Background
2.2 Cultural Disparity
2.3 Marxism

3. The Avant-Garde and Kitsch
3.1 The Exclusiveness of the Avant-Garde
3.2 The Problem with Kitsch

4. Analysing the Essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Clement Greenberg's essay "Avant-garde and Kitsch" is claimed to be one of the most popular and most important theoretical document of the 20th century culture. They essay was published in 1989 in the fall issue of the Partisan Review when Greenberg was only 29 years of age. Despite his combative and sarcastic style of writing he ranks within the most popular cultural theorists and contemporaries such as Theodor W. Adorno and Ernst Bloch. "Avant-garde and Kitsch" had been his first essay about art criticism and deals with several aspects of modern art in relation with art history, literature and politcs. His attitude towards modern art is on one side enthralling but also of polemic character. By setting the status quo of modern art into counterpose to industrial produced art, the essay is literally provoking an interpretation of the social or economic circumstances that might have lead to this comparison. Thereto, it might be quite unusual to begin this paper ironically with the closing lines of Greenberg's essay: "Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now." (Greenberg, 1989, p.13). For this reason, this paper is making an attempt to interprete the essay on avant-garde and kitsch with regard to Marxist literary criticism. What is interesting about this is that it is not a fictional literary work but a contemporary witness which is already a theoretical critique.

This paper's objective is to combine the interpretation of Greenberg's art critique with respect to social and economic developments in combination with a Marxist analysis under the superordinated thesis statement whether the modern capitalism can be held responsible for the decay of the avant-garde culture. For the purpose of providing a basis to proceed from, the following chapter is going to deal with contextual aspects such as the essay's temporal, historical and the philosophical classification. Chapter 3 is going to deal with the two confronted concepts of art: the avant-garde and kitsch. Here, the focus is laid on evaluating the distinctiveness of each particular concept and, moreover, supporting this with Greenberg's statements from the essay. In chapter 4 the paper is going to approach the outcomes of proofreading Greenberg's essay towards his Marxist standpoint and his attitude in terms of both dichotomic forms of art. Furthermore it is going to look at key thinkers of the Frankfurt school and make an attempt to support Greenberg's assertion with theoretical foundation with the aim of very- or falsifying this paper's thesis statement.

2. Social and Theoretical Context

2.1 Social and Economic Background

Greenberg's essay on kitsch and avant-garde has been written and published at a time when the Western market economy was in a constant decline that had been triggered by the financial collapse in 1929 which resulted in the following decade in form of the great depression. However, some economies begun to recover in the later half of the 1930s but its effects lastet until far into the time of the second world war (Field, 2011, p.265). It can be assumed that the predominant mood in society at that time was focused against a capitalist system which was held responsible for the temporary downfall of the market economy.

Furthermore, in the United States of the 1930s, there was a broad public content opposing the upcoming capitalism and its effects on art and culture in general. Besides Greenberg, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was one of the most popular culture critics of this time. He criticized the industry that produced culture and art just like it was a commoditiy and also, on the other hand side, the culture industry that willingly adjusts to the demands of the economic industry and a more and more passive society.

2.2 Cultural Disparity

Greenberg, himself being an avowed Trotskyite Marxist (Britannica), claimes that even though art is produced by one and the same culture, there are two different forms of it. On the one hand side there is the "good art" which is almost entirely understood and enjoyed by a certain elite circle of society and on the other hand side there is "bad art", a form of art that is consumed in an uncomplicated way by the middle class, working class and lower class masses. This is how the famous art critic Greenberg introduces his popular essay on "Avant-garde and Kitsch". He proceeds in his essay by stating that the situation is not that easy and begins to raise critical questions such as when there are those two different forms of art which are produced by the same culture why can a society that brings its own culture into being be of such homogeneity?

It is understood that there cannot be one and only homogenous culture, of course. A society consists of different compartments, each one again subdivided into smaller parts with an absolutely secured understanding of its characteristics and an also absolute attitude for or against neighbouring compartments and those which are even beyond reach. This is strict evidence for the fact that there is a cultural disparity in every culture. Leon Trotzky captures this by saying that "Art is always a social servant and historical utilitarian." (Eagleton/Milne, 1996, p.50). In the essay, Greenberg is mainly talking about the highly developed Western culture. In the further course of the introductory part Greenberg poses a question in how far this very cultural disparity and diversity is naturally given or whether it had been triggered by a historic event.

Regarding this question there can be made an attempt to explain by consulting the Hegelian concept of the Zeitgeist. Marx's theories were strongly influenced and inspired by the ideas of Hegel. According to Hegel, the Geist, the spirit, is inherent in all material things and this spirit takes hold of everything. As for that, the history of the world is the history of spirit and, therefore, the world in the way it develops through changes is manifested by the spirit (Ottmann, 1998, p.101). This is widely understood as dialectics. History shapes the condition of all things through contradictions. Every historical period has gone through a contradictory evolution which gives way to a new historical stage. So it can be specified that Greenbergs question about cultural disparity is self-explanatory since the disparity had been shaped, according to Hegel, which is one way to explain it, not by the people in a society but rather by ideas that are a product of an alteration of this society. These ideas are virtually the motor that forwards all social, cultural, economic and political circumstances. To summarize this, the disparity of culture is also natural since it is precipitated by society itself.

2.3 Marxism

Opposing to the beforementioned dialectics of Hegel, when we now look at the Marxist school of thought it is no longer history that drives ideas forward but rather the economy that drives history. This is known as economic determinism and it says that all what happens in society can be lead back on the economy and is also determined by economy.

Therefore, the society changes when the economy undergoes a change. The base shapes the superstructure by influencing it and at the same time being dependend from it, because the base cannot exist without the construct of the superstructure and vice versa. The base means the economic situation as a whole, its forces and relations and how labour is divided. There are workers who ensure the production process and the accumulation of capital. Therefore, the proletariat is a means to an end. The same counts for their employers who own the means of production and therefore own the workers because they are part of the production process. Since the production process cannot function without the capitalists they are a means of production either. The base, however, is subject to another even more complex part, the superstructure. The superstructure is a construct that includes the pillars of society such as the political, religious and educational systems, the legal system, ideologies and arts. At best, the base and the superstructure are balanced internally and balance one another. They are interdependent and what determines them is the economy which tips the balance in the end.

According to Marxist belief, capitalism can face two serious cases of drawbacks. At first, there is the phenomenon of alienation. Workers may come to a point on which it gets hard for them to relate to the end-product (Marx, 1887, p.141). This is mainly brought about by working in only one small part of the whole production process, for example by doing nothing else than only sticking one bolt onto a certain component. Furthermore, workers can be alienated from their work when they get unsatisfied, cannot relate to other workers anymore and, eventually, become alienated from themselves by falling into depression or alcoholism, for instance. The second drawback of capitalism may be that a downfall of the whole capitalist system may take place. To avoid this, factory owners must produce more quickly than their competitives and so it comes that they produce their goods in the quickest, cheapest and the most efficient way possible. This method goes hand in hand with the fact that they generate a surplus of profit which is primarily intended to flow back into the means of production. In reality, capitalists are likely to cash in the redundant capital which leads into a transformation. Workers transform into proletarians, the means to an end turns into expropriation and fair labour standards turn into an unfair relation of the accumulation of surplus value on the side of the capitalists. In the further course of this paper it will be explained how this phenomenon is linked with the increasing decay of serious culture. The next chapter, however, is going to give an insight of what is actually meant by "serious culture".

3. The Avant-garde and Kitsch

3.1 The Exclusiveness of the Avant-garde

This chapter is going to find possible answers to the questions why the avant-garde-culture is special and why it seems to be restricted only for a limited group or class of society. With constantly paying attention to Greenberg's attitude towards this issue in his essay, this chapter will, in addition, give a compact portrayal of the avant-garde.

The term avant-garde is originally taken from military terminology, which has in the widest sense a whole lot of nothing to do with art. It was used in French to identify the troops that were obliged to advance and the first to enter enemy territory. In the English vocabulary it is understood as the "vanguard", someone who is in first position, the one who starts riding into the field before the rest follows. With regard to art and intellectual subjects the avant-garde is to be considered as some kind of secession from common thinking. As mentioned in chapter 2.1, the Hegelian concept of the Zeitgeist proposes that everything that constitutes a society and lets it shift through regular innovations in time is brought about by changes in history. Some changes admittedly occur by chance but even if it was chance, there is a slight factor that might have had an impact on that development. Such impact almost always emerges out of an imaginative process that brings an innovation into being. The people who put forward such an innovative sign stimulous have some kind of a thought leadership. Assumingly, they are the masterminds behind developments although their innovative thinking simply evolves out of a nagging discontent with a prevalent situation. It is important so say that avant-garde is not to be mistaken as a genre of fine arts, for instance. It is practically represented in every part of what the umbrella term culture consists of, with the decisive difference that it is more a cultural concept or a cultural ideology that a piece of art expresses. Those intellectual pioneers, who had been mentioned before, are the ones who master this language of art. They are able to create it and there are others who are able to recognize it.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Capitalism as Influencing Factor for Cultural Decay. A Marxist Reading of Clement Greenberg's Essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"
Technical University of Chemnitz  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
English Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
490 KB
Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde, Kitsch, Marxist Reading, Frankfurt School, Marx, Capitalism, Cultural Decay, Art History, Philosophy
Quote paper
Diana Kiesinger (Author), 2013, Capitalism as Influencing Factor for Cultural Decay. A Marxist Reading of Clement Greenberg's Essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Capitalism as Influencing Factor for Cultural Decay. A Marxist Reading of Clement Greenberg's Essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free