Thought for the Evening: Quasi-Arts
One of the most important twentieth-century essays in aesthetics is Clement Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch". It is easily one of the best discussions of both concepts, in part because Greenberg, by looking at the basic elements of the development of both, is able to give a plausible account of each. Avant-garde, he argues, is an attempt to boil down art to pure creation. Since, strictly speaking, human beings are not capable of pure creation, not being God, in practice what this means is that avant-garde is imitation not of creation but of "the disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves." If art is mimesis, avant-garde is mimesis of mimesis. No longer focused on common experience as his subject, the artist takes as his material his own craft. This is immensely explanatory, well beyond what Greenberg himself shows in the essay; it explains, for instance, why so much abstract and modern art is associated with manifestos, special artistic communities, and an almost breathtakingly combinatorial approach to trying out every possible variation of technique. Avant-garde is not about the product; it's about the producing. This is also why avant-garde sometimes comes across to people as extremely snobbish, especially given the end-results; it's really not about the end-result but about something more like cleverness. Were art chess, the avant-garde player would not play to get checkmate but to play a game with chess moves that had never been seen before.
Kitsch is the other side of that. Being an ersatz culture for the masses, it doesn't care what technique is used. It is focused not on the making of art but the experiencing of it, not on mimesis of mimesis but on mimesis of aesthetic experience -- "vicarious experiences and faked sensations", Greenberg says. Thus, in Greenberg's famous conclusion, "If avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch, we now see, imitates its effects." And when kitsch meets industry, it can fit in perfectly -- mass-produced kitsch is not a contradiction. Kitsch does not present you something to which you can respond so much as it presents you with something that already tells you how you are supposed to respond.
There are weaknesses to Greenberg's argument. An obvious one, from which Greenberg was forced to retreat, was his claim that academism (like the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau) was kitsch; while this captured an avant-garde prejudice, there was simply no way to make this consistent with Greenberg's own analysis of kitsch. It really was not much more than an expression of Greenberg's avant-garde sympathies. One of Greenberg's points, which is heavily due to the particular variety of leftism that he espoused, was that avant-garde is resistant to being used for propaganda, while kitsch is very suitable for it. A close look at the evidence, I think, shows that this is not particularly true. Greenberg is largely thinking of the preferred art of Communist regimes -- socialist realism in the Soviet Union -- and the outlawing of abstract art in both Communist and Fascist regimes. But it's been pointed out that the avant-garde of which Greenberg was speaking was essentially the edgier forms of Modernism, and more than a few of those artists and poets were literally Fascists; likewise, Greenberg because of his socialism might not be inclined to admit it, but the leftism associated with the avant-garde has often had a clear propagandistic purpose. And on the other side, it's also the case that his lack of sympathy and disgust for capitalist kitsch leads him to overestimate how susceptible kitsch is to being used as propaganda. It is true that avant-garde used for propagandistic purposes is necessarily propagandistic in a different way than kitsch; kitsch propagandizes by appeal to the experiences with which we are all familiar, avant-garde propagandizes by creating an inner circle, an artistic scene, of the clever people who know how things are done and are an eternal source of novelty. But neither seems more susceptible or more resistant to propagandizing than the other, once one takes into account the differences.
In any case, we can see avant-garde and kitsch as being what we might call forms of quasi-art -- they are undeniably art in a broad sense, but you can reasonably say (and you find people who do say) that they are not art in a proper sense of the term. This is entirely true: abstract art is in a very real sense not art, properly speaking; kitsch is in a very real sense not art, properly speaking. Art proper is an activity devoted directly and primarily to a product, the work of art, and to be judged by the standard of making a work good in its kind. To get this work of art requires processes and techniques; the work of art itself is made to fulfill certain ends. In fine art, the end is to be in some way beautiful, which, in the classical sense, is to please on being perceived. This can be considered the whole life of the art-work, which starts in the artist and proceeds to those who experience the work. Avant-garde and kitsch clearly have to do with this 'life of the art-work', but they subordinate the art-work itself to something else -- to the beginning in the case of avant-garde, and to the end in the case of kitsch. They are art-like, and art in a broad sense of the term, but we can also make sense of saying that they are not art. Thus 'quasi-art'.
It raises the question of whether there are other forms of quasi-art. Given that Greenberg's essay was written in 1939, I am surprised that I've never come across anyone raising a question like it, but perhaps this is due to not going the further step and asking about the genus to which avant-garde and kitsch belong; avant-garde and kitsch oppose each other in some ways, but it's not an absolute inconsistency, and they both can be said to oppose art proper in some way, as well.
If we take avant-garde to be associated with the efficient cause of the art-work, and kitsch to be associated with the final cause of art-work, we can start to see the possibility of other quasi-arts, because we can ask whether anything is associated with the formal cause and the material cause. And I think we can find things that are at least candidates for this, although they are usually associated with the avant-garde, as well. (But it wouldn't be surprising that avant-garde artists stumbled on something like them, since avant-garde artists try out all sorts of things.) Avant-garde reaches for the bare making of an art-work (and in some ways succeeds, but mostly fails); kitsch reaches for the bare effect of an art-work (and in some ways succeeds, but mostly fails). So is there anything that reaches for the bare form of an art-work (and, inevitably, in some ways succeeds, but mostly fails)?
There is an 'approach to art' that is known as conceptualism or conceptual art which seems to be in the vicinity. Described by Sol LeWitt, conceptual art takes the concept of the art-work to be the most important aspect of art, and to such an extent that the actual material product, whatever it may be, shrinks to relative insignificance. Isidore Isou famously argued for an art of infinitesimals. The art of the infinitely small cannot be physically realized; it can only be thought. Likewise with an art of the infinitely large. In actuality no artist can make such things, which we can only have in idea; so what conceptual artists really do is make things that are supposed to suggest to us what ideas we should form in our own minds. This looks very much like something art-like that is nonetheless not properly art; and it also looks like a straining after pure form that subordinates the actual art-work to its formal cause.
Quasi-art associated with material cause is a somewhat trickier question, but I think we can still identify something like it. What art-like thing reaches for the bare material of the art-work? I think found art (in a broad sense of the term) is a good candidate for this. Found art is often associated with conceptualism -- so, for instance, Duchamp's ready-mades are often treated as the start of conceptualism. But I think this is largely because ready-mades clearly have something to do with the actual art product itself, putting it into 'question', which is also true of conceptual art. That is, the link is not that ready-mades are conceptual art but that they are, like conceptual art, trying to isolate an intrinsic cause of the work of art. But there is a vast gap between an art of pure idea -- painting, so to speak, in invisibles -- and designating as art an every-day material object that you have not altered in any way. In reality, you can no more have unaltered-everyday-material-object art-works any more than you can have pure-idea art-works, so just as the attempt at the latter has to use physical objects to suggest the ideas, so the attempt at the former has to use ideas to re-classify everyday objects as art-works. But in doing the latter we are coming as close as possible to capturing the pure material of art-work.
In practice, of course, we always have to keep in mind that the terms, not made for this scheme, often overflow it in practice (like the avant-gardist attempt to denigrate academism as kitsch). But the scheme actually works quite well. We have:
avant-garde, which treats the making of art as the end of making art, and so reduces artistic activity to efficient causation of the art-work (but, of course, cannot do this completely, because efficient causation of the art-work requires the art-work);
kitsch, which treats the end of the work of art as the end of making art, and so reduces artistic activity to capturing the final cause of the art-work (but, of course, cannot do this completely, because the final cause of the art-work presupposes the art-work);
conceptualism, which treats the inherent idea of the art-work as the end of making art, and so reduces artistic activity to the pure form of the art-work (but, of course, cannot do this completely, because for it to be completely the form of the art-work there must be an art-work with formed material);
trouvism (if I may coin a term, based on the idea of l'objet trouvé), which treats the material of the art-work as the end of making art, and so reduces artistic activity to the pure material of the art-work (but, of course, cannot do this completely, because to be identifiable as art-work there must be an idea working liking a form for the material).
And all of these quasi-arts are accessories, satellites, to
art (in the sense of the act), which treats art (in the sense of what is made) as the end of making art, and so is the only one of the productive activities that can fully attain its end.
Confusion of art and quasi-art leads to bad philosophy of art, as does treating quasi-art as more important than art, but I think we should allow room for the idea that there is a real and important place for every quasi-art. Some things on the border of what can be an art-work are interesting in themselves, and they show the extraordinary power of the human mind. And, of course, since quasi-art in a sense deals with limit cases, you can have art-works that go very far in a quasi-art direction and still be excellent as works of art. The writings of Borges go far in a conceptualist direction, but work very well as literature nonetheless; Picasso's Guernica is very avant-gardish, but everything it does in this direction nonetheless contributes to the art-work itself; dadaism is very trouvist in tendency but has produced things of genuine value as art-works (like Hugo Ball's "Karawane"); Thomas Kinkade's middle period (i.e., as he was starting to get famous) begins to head in a kitsch direction but still is good in its own right. And so forth.
I think, moreover, that there are analogies to every productive activity that involves skill; that is, you can have the art itself that concerns the product, but also quasi-arts that push towards a limit, even if we are not talking fine arts that produce beautiful works of art, but only skills that produce some other kind of product. Production focused on use rather than beauty tends to be more resistant to pushing in a quasi-art direction, I think, but is not immune to it. One thinks of Apple products, which are the computer-making version of kitsch, trying to make not a computer but a computing experience. Liberal arts (in the old-fashioned sense of the productive arts of the mind) also have liberal quasi-arts, in which you focus not on making the actual product of the liberal art (discourses or arguments or mathematical models) but on one of the causal contributors to such a product. A person constructing an argument, for instance, may be more concerned with the posture of constructing an argument (thus being 'avant-garde', like some kinds of argument in postmodernism), or with the sense of having a constructed argument (thus being 'kitsch', like the famous analytic philosophy tic of converting everything to letters even if doing so is not helpful), than with the argument itself; some things in formal, symbolic logic are so far removed from ordinary reasoning that they can be regarded as 'conceptualist' in tendency; and so forth. It's worth some exploration.
(I doubt most analytic philosophers would be thrilled at the conclusion that much, even if not all, of what is done in analytic philosophy is philosophy-kitsch, but the case can very much be made. For instance, as I've noted, 'clarity' in analytic philosophy, despite being much praised and sought, is not well defined, but this makes sense if in fact what analytic philosophers are really pursuing is not a feature of arguments but a feature of experience of arguments; indeed, this fits most of what analytic philosophers say about the subject.)
Various Links of Interest
* Mark K. Spencer, The Category of Habitus: Accidents, Artifacts, and Human Nature (PDF). This is an excellent paper on an oft-overlooked member of the Aristotelian ten categories.
* David Torrijos-Castrillejo, Albert the Great on the Eucharist as True Food. This is a fairly nice summary of a topic that is very important for St. Albert's theology, but which is scattered a bit through his writings.
* Tim Grierson looks back at the movie, Election. It's a good article, but Grierson is far, far too sympathetic to Tracy Flick, who is shown throughout as someone who doesn't really see people as people. Conflict between Tracy and Mr. McAllister is inevitable because it arises from the fact that they are the same kind of person, ostensibly community-minded but in reality all about themselves, treating centrality to their little universe as the role to which they are destined and entitled, and everybody else as subserving that role. This makes using the movie for political allegory largely useless; anyone who can be identified with Tracy can be identified with Mr. McAllister, and vice versa, because the only difference is that, because Tracy still has her future in front of her and Mr. McAllister missteps in trying to stop her, Tracy wins.
* Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, Epictetus and the Problem of Philosophical Progress
* Michael Friedman, Henry Allison and the B-Deduction
* Fr. James V. Schall recently died. The Kirk Center has a number of his essays online; fittingly, the last one he wrote for them is entitled, "The Endlessness of the World Story".
* Brian Kemple, C. S. Peirce on Science and Belief
* Kenny Pearce, Browne and Berkeley on the Influence of Words
* Edith Hall discusses Aristotle as an example of how to do public philosophy.
* Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko recently had a talk canceled at Middlebury College, allegedly because the college administration could not guarantee his safety due to student protests. Whether that's really the case or not is very hard to say, but he did end up doing a different kind of talk through a different kind of group at the college. In any case, the cancellation was a bit ironic because Legutko's most controversial political idea is that modern liberalism, despite being nominally anti-totalitarian, is in fact recapitulating the features of early totalitarianism, in particular by the way in which it attempts to silence dissent. In any case, Rod Dreher interviews him on his view of the matter.
* Sam Baron, A Formal Apology for Metaphysics
* Tom Holland on the Christian past of the West.
* Adam Harris discusses the adjunct problem in modern American academia.
* Eugene Volokh, The Freedom...of the Press, from 1791 to 1868 to Now - Freedom for the Press as an Industry, or the Press as a Technology?, notes the large amount of evidence that freedom of the press in the First Amendment was intended to protect every citizen's right to write and publish, and was not specifically a right of a professional press, which didn't really exist at the time.
Sigrid Undset, Gunnar's Daughter
Edward Feser, Aristotle's Revenge
Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments
Plotinus, The Enneads
Jules Verne, L'Archipel en feu