KITSCH AND THE AVANT-GARDE How the Brotherhoods Set the Stage for Utopia
I find it encouraging to know that there are still exhibitions being mounted capable of altering one’s aesthetic or historical point of view. Such an experience happened this past summer at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice with Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to Bauhaus, a relatively modest exhibition tracing the concept of utopia in art from the late 1790s to the early avant-garde movements of the 20th century. The exhibition was not a typical chronology; there were surprises and curious leaps as one moved, for example, from the Arts and Crafts guilds in England to the Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire or from the Neo-Impressionists in France to the De Stijl movement in Holland. This lack of predictability questioned what has been accepted as mainstream art for more than two centuries, and implied that the neat packages and categories of specialization of art survey courses may be too pristine. Often, not enough emphasis is given to the exceptions to the logic of historical progression, where major leaps occur as a result of works that appear out of sequence and are therefore not accurately understood, assimilated, evaluated, or even recognized.
In all fairness, what I garnered from this exhibition may not have been what the curator, Vivian Greene, intended. After two fully engaged and stimulating viewings of Utopia Matters, I was provoked once again to rethink the Greenbergian slant on Modernism and to conjure up that familiar, age-worn bifurcation between the avant-garde and kitsch. According to Greenberg’s essay, titled “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” originally published in 1939, and later shortened and revised in 1961, the avant-garde presumably evolved first, only to be followed by the phenomenon of kitsch whereby synthetic saplings—later appropriations from the originals—were produced to fill the mindless consumerist demand created by the Industrial Revolution. In fact, if I understood one aspect of this exhibition correctly, it is that the more familiar Modernist paradigm should be seen in reverse, namely, that the avant-garde emerged a century after kitsch had already found an alternative aesthetic to the mainstream that the Neo-Classical paintings of Jacques-Louis David helped supplant.
Although indirectly stated in the catalog, the launching of the idea of an artistic utopia commenced in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David in the late 18th century with a small group of renegade art students, called Primitifs, who grew increasingly dissatisfied with the maestro’s lack of Neo-Classical purity. The evidence follows that these heavily robed, pious, and bearded bohemians—touting Greek pseudonyms such as Agamemnon—excelled in the purification of Classical painting with works such as Jean Broc’s kitsch masterpiece, “The Death of Hyacinthus” (1801), and later, Jean-Pierre Franque’s “Angelica and Medoro” (c. 1816)—both included in the Guggenheim show. The Primitifs indirectly influenced the better-known group of young Viennese painters, called Nazarenes, in 1809. The Nazarenes were also called the Lukasbruder, or Brotherhood of St. Luke, who largely focused on sentimental religious subject matter. The next step was the formation of the Pre-Raphaelites in England in 1848, which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and eventually that overly academic, repressed hedonist, Edward Burne-Jones.
While the avant-garde pursued its own parallel history, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars and the intellectuals of the Romantic era, through the activists of the Paris Commune and finally Alfred Jarry’s absurdist theater in Le Belle Epoque, as researched by the eminent scholar Roger Shattuck, this aristocratic form of kitsch was firmly entrenched in various academies, salons, and ateliers throughout England and Europe. While Shattuck credits Henri Rousseau as the first independent avant-garde painter, I would suggest that the concept of an avant-garde does not appear widespread in painting until the rumblings of hermetic Cubism. Historically, kitsch preceded the avant-garde, albeit in the spirit of utopia. Again, I would like to emphasize that much of my reading of Utopia Matters goes beyond the exhibition itself. Even so, I must acknowledge my debt to the exhibition for its provocative implications. For example, I have my doubts—based on my reading of the catalog—that curator’s or various authors’ intentions necessarily alter my argument concerning the Greenbergian paradigm of avant-garde.
Still, I would like to pursue the very fragile, but unstated pivot on which the exhibition rotates—that being the foundation of kitsch was not simply a painterly revolt but a utopian alternative to the inevitable encroachment of effects instigated indirectly through the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. Clearly there was an approximate 50-year lag between the application of steam as a source of power in machinery and the expulsion of the incestuous Primitifs from the atelier of David. Some of this (but not all) leans heavily on Gillo Dorfles’s thesis that the reaction to industry incited the need for the obvious—i.e., sentimental entertainment—among working-class people, engendering, in short, the necessity of bad taste. This notion is not a popular one in the United States given that the majority of the nouveau riche—whether in Texas or New York—have never felt a strong inclination to remedy the bad taste to which they are perpetually subjected. Why should they? There’s money to be made. “Plastics!” as the dejected Dustin Hoffman was told by his poolside mentor in The Graduate (1968). Or to update this embarrassing cinematic epithet into the crass investment lingo of today: “Jeff Koons, by cracky!”
However, there’s another pivot more appropriate to Utopia Matters that I found rather well stated. A certain cul-de-sac occurred some years after the pathetically maudlin and exorbitant Pre-Raphaelites reached their kitsch apotheosis, which ultimately gave way to the irrational socialism of William Morris and his proto-hippie Arts and Crafts guilds throughout the English countryside. (It soon become evident that these highly refined goods, produced by in-house carpenters and unkempt artisans, were destined to appeal to aristocratic landholders and factory owners, and not to the ordinary merchant class that could neither empathize with nor afford the anti-capitalist wares to which Morris and company were committed.) The lull between Pre-Raphaelitism and Arts and Crafts was filled by the Neo-Impressionists in France, who stole the idea of utopia for their own painterly purposes prior to the fin de siècle.
Suddenly the 20th century emerges and the rise of machine aesthetics (early Delaunay, Leger, Picabia, and, of course, Duchamp) makes its way into the reductively geometric abstract paintings of Mondrian, Van Doesburg, and Vantongerloo. Here we catch the beginning of the institutionalization of an avant-garde with heightened utopian intentions, to be followed by the Bauhaus two years later in Weimar, Germany, and the Russian Constructivists—El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Popova, Sofronova, and Stepanova—a movement largely occupied by women artists, more so than the earlier utopians who, as we understand, emerged from “brotherhoods.” What I found in all of this is how explicitly the kitsch sensibility revolted against the systematic aspects of industry and capitalism and how it managed to carry the utopian ideal that would eventually become associated with the avant-garde. This reconsideration of the historical temporality of the avant-garde in relation to the dormant revolutionary potential of kitsch may furnish a change of perspective on a pathetically out-worn narrative.