Kitsch (spoiler: not an ode to Greenberg)

(or, the first sign that Greenberg’s writing isn’t for me)

Clement Greenberg, self-appointed grand high arbiter of taste and source of quotable quotes for grad students in the US, wrote an essay titled “Avant Garde and Kitsch” back in 1939.  I’m interested in the intersections and contrasts between high and low art, so I thought I’d read up a bit on the art theory of kitsch.

repin_vsevolod mikhailovich garshin

Repin, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, author

I obviously need to find another source.

repin_barge haulers on the volga

Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga

My annotated copy of this essay is three thousand miles away, but I clearly recall exactly where he lost my polite attempts to see his point of view.


Repin, Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan

In Greenberg’s words:

“Repin is what the peasant wants, and nothing else but Repin. It is lucky, however, for Repin that the peasant is protected from the products of American capitalism, for he would not stand a chance next to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.”

repin_composer alexander glazunov

Repin,  Alexander Glazunov, composer

“In the end the peasant will go back to kitsch when he feels like looking at pictures, for he can enjoy kitsch without effort.”


Repin, Pisemsky, author

Psychological insight or subtlety would never be a quality of kitsch.


Repin, Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia

“Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.”

repin_zaporozhian cossacks

Repin, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire

(also known as Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto)

To sum up:  Greenberg thinks that Repin’s art is worthless to any but the most intellectually moribund peasant.

[Oh, wait.  There’s a small, bracketed postscript at the end of the essay.  Apparently he had been thinking of another artist and got the name wrong throughout the essay.  These things happen.  No, he still couldn’t remember what the other artist’s name was.  No suggestion that he should retract any of the insults to Repin.]

Just keep believing Greenberg blindly, okay?