“Art for art’s sake” is the translation of a popular French 19th century slogan (l’art pour l’art), registering the modernist sensibilities that were sweeping through Europe at the time. That kind of art, removed from philosophical, moral or political investments, seems different altogether from the artistic aspirations of today’s mega-artists like Kanye West who “will die for truth and that’s what’s closest to art.” Which kind of art is “better,” anyway?

My dad (and many of his friends) might insist that Handel is the greatest musician of all time. In fact, my first concert was Handel’s opera “Hercules.” Thankfully, my mom took me to Jingle Ball 2004 later the same year for some sweet notes from the great classic Ashlee Simpson.   

My best friend’s dad, on the other hand, would lay down his life in defense of The Beatles as history’s musical all-stars. Others faint to the stylings of Justin Bieber.

How do we reconcile the opposing pedestals and success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” with 2013 Best-Seller “Americanah” and the classics of Steinbeck and Hemingway? The Beliebers and the Met season ticket owners? Can these cultural preferences be attributed to taste alone? One looks down at the other, and the other scoffs and turns to its own audience.

Everyone is familiar with the cultural division I’m describing, between “high” culture and popular culture. However, most of us, myself included, aren’t too sure how the difference comes about in the first place and what makes it so. 

Thankfully, for those exploring the question, others have attempted to do some of the answering. Last week, in my reading for a French Modernist art history course, I worked through a highly influential essay by Clement Greenberg, “Avante-Garde and Kitsch,” published in 1939 in the Partisan Review.

Greenberg’s essay means to draw a distinction between true, genuine culture and popular art. As Greenberg observes culture becoming increasingly stagnant in the mid 20th century — avoiding controversy, repeating classical themes and following rules, the “avante-garde” emerge. They belong to the ruling class, although they consider themselves separate from it. This new group’s project is to create pure art: “art for art’s sake,” and save “genuine” culture in the midst of ideological confusion.

But with the avante-gard comes the rear-gard — this kind of culture is summed up by the German word kitsch, and refers to popular art, commercials, magazines, literature, music videos, cartoons and toys. In Greenberg’s understanding, kitsch borrows form the genuine culture, converts and dilutes it into a digestible form for the masses. Kitsch was a response to the needs of working people for entertainment and culture, without complication.

If some part of culture is “genuine,” then kitsch represents the debased and trivial — yet simultaneously deceptive — part of culture. Kitsch mimics genuine culture and high art. It produces the same effects images, materials and references that are easily understood, which gives the spectator a shortcut.

It is complex, multilayered and appears to seek some kind of truth. And sometimes, Greenberg says, kitsch can produce something important.

In the time of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, the spread of kitsch was a danger, art that was readily prepared to become part of the machine and put culture in handcuffs. Undoubtedly, it did take hold under these leaders, with doctrines like “socialist realism” that controlled art in Russia.

Kitsch relies on the capitalism machine and wealthy for its production and success, as the machine comes to rely on it. It is the “umbilical cord of gold.” In this way, Greenberg was right about kitsch becoming an international language. He was wrong about some things, though.

The avante-garde never gave up or succumbed to pressure of popular culture. In fact, through the rest of the 20th century, and certainly in my lifetime, it has increased in recognition: Think of the rise of Jazz music. It has innovated: Think of Andy Warhol, who mimicked pop culture in order to elevate it to the status of high art. It has merged mediums: Think of Pina Bausch dance productions, their set designs and use of sound.

Of course, art today, in any form, is still part of the apparatus of money and power. There is more to be done in extending access to art through all classes and geographies. But the lines between avante-garde and kitsch are no longer as stark as they once were.

The woman at the coffee shop reading Steinbeck last week may be in a different coffee shop today reading “Fifty Shades” (though possibly with the cover sleeve removed). There are fewer boundaries and fewer rules in today’s cultural landscape. Controversy need not be avoided by instead focusing on the abstract, in absolutes. Artists can make “art for art’s sake,” should they choose, or they can sing about their hotline nostalgias. Both are needed, and both have been fulfilled. Greenberg’s cultural stagnation has been taken off pause. 

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