Kitsch and the Avant-Garde: How the Brotherhoods Set the Stage for Utopia

Morgan-web-1 Robert C. Morgan in The Brooklyn Rail:

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.