Donald Kuspit on Avant-Garde And Kitsch: Re-Thinking An Old Distinction And Its Fate

Jackson Pollock’s Life Magazine spread, 1949.


By DONALD KUSPIT, April 2020

Avant-garde and kitsch—I’d like to argue that the distinction still makes a certain sense, however much the difference between them has collapsed, for reasons beyond their control, for art is now controlled by forces greater than it:  money and technology.  Let’s sharpen the distinction:  on the one hand, kitsch, run-of-the-mill art that appeals to the low-minded and avant-garde, one-of-a-kind art that appeals to the high-minded, more pointedly singular art made by and for dandies and mass-produced art made for the anonymous masses. 

I am alluding to Baudelaire’s important concept of the dandy-artist—the avant-garde artist is in principle a dandy, his art in effect a “symbol of his aristocratic superiority of mind.”  It is driven by “the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limits of the proprieties” —these days, not even those, for they were once dismissed as “bourgeois” but seem to have broken down altogether, if the exhibition of “artist’s shit” is evidence.  Avant-garde dandyism is “a kind of cult of the self…beyond the laws,” “a cult of the emotions” allowing—encouraging—“impetuosity and independence,” making “difficult” art that “astonishes others”(1) rather than caters to them, to pre-conceived tastes, encourages blind endorsement, naïve appreciation, rather than “raises their consciousness” from its sleep.  Indeed, the avant-garde dandy does not seem to want to be appreciated but to annoy and unsettle, to undermine preconceptions of art and, for that matter, of life-style, as his so-called bohemian way of life suggests.  Claiming to go to the roots of art and the self—inseparable for the avant-garde dandy—the avant-garde dandy invites the viewer to share his “season in hell,” to allude to Rimbaud’s “classic” avant-garde poem, and with that become as unusual and original—for in emotional hell he comes into his own--as he is.  One is not allowed traditional contemplative distance and detachment; one is invited to immerse oneself in the avant-garde work, lose—abandon—one’s everyday identity in a quasi-religious experience, as Mark Rothko, perhaps the last of the old-time, not to say old-fashioned, avant-garde artists, urged.  His supposedly transcendental (“otherworldly”) abstraction—art seemingly purified of the last traces of everydayness (not to say crowd consciousness)—is the last hurrah of avant-garde bravado, not to say delusional grandeur.  

Now the distinction between the avant-garde dandy-artist’s self-absorption—involving what Freud called his sense of personal omnipotence and another psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn, called his schizoid sense of “difference,” conveyed by his “difficult” art meant for what Stendhal called “the happy few,” that is, those with the same “aristocratic superiority of mind”--and the kitsch artist’s pedestrian art meant for consumption by the supposedly mindless masses or common people, that is, for democratic distribution rather than private edification—masks a distinction between art that is meant to support what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the spontaneity of the True Self and art that conveys the necessity of social adaptation and compliance that comes with being a False Self, a self that seamlessly fits in and accepts its seemingly destined place in society.  The False Self gets its significance from its conformity—it thinks it is what society says it is.  Society’s values are its values.  The True Self gets its significance from its independent creativity—its nonconformity.  It may outwardly conform, but inwardly it goes its own way, valuing itself insofar as it does:  it is a misfit.  

Giorgio de Chirico, The horses of Apollo, 1974.

True Self art suggests that the self is in perpetual creative process—and thus always peculiarly in crisis, always uncertain of itself and unstable, always on the problematic move--and as such not a social product—never completely socialized and with that given final form and meaning.  It is always peculiarly “informal”—seemingly unstable by reason of being in perpetual metamorphic motion.  In contrast, False Self art suggests that the self is “finished,” that is, a static, unchangeable social product.  False Self art is socially convincing, True Self art is peculiarly asocial if not anti-social.  It eventually becomes socialized—museum art—and fashionable—falsified—and with that old and tiresome, not to say predictably unpredictable, unless one remains true to one’s spontaneous self.  Avant-garde art is private art—art that “advances” the self by encouraging it to risk being true to itself, at least when spontaneously relating to the art.  Kitsch art is public art—art that confirms the spectator’s preconceptions and beliefs—that is ideological rather than critical in character, confirms the status quo of the False Self rather than challenges it with the spontaneity of the True Self.  It keeps the self in the same deceptively safe social place, rather than challenges it with “difference,” which is always socially precarious.

Now I think the history of 20th century art is incomplete if it ignores the fact that many major avant-garde artists willingly embraced kitsch art—or kitschified their avant-garde styles (and with that became False Selves)--in order to achieve social success.  When Picasso turned away from incomprehensible Cubism towards comprehensible Classicism—from the difficult and different, not to say bizarre and perverse, towards the readily readable and comfortable, not to say comforting, figures and forms of classical art, he was not so much making a creative change as accommodating to the public, indeed, making a public rather than private art—he in effect became a kind of kitsch artist, confirmed by the fact that his is a watered down, simplistic, specious not to say trivialized, misunderstood classicism.  His figures lack what Baudelaire called the “gravity” and “majesty”—the “nobility” and “epic character”—of ancient classicism.  His Head Of A Woman, 1921, a work that belongs to the so-called “return to order” movement, is an example of his falsified classicism.  It is not a Neo-Classicism but a perverted classicism—certainly not the Neo-Classicism of Ingres, celebrated by de Chirico in his essay “The Return to the Craft,” 1920.  

David Douglas Duncan, American (b. 1916). Picasso in his bathtub at La Californie, our first meeting, Feburary 8, 1956, printed 2013. Ink jet print. Image: 13 7/8 x 20 7/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of David Douglas Duncan, 2014.11.7. Photo: John Lamberton

Prescient in his awareness of the inadequacy of avant-garde art—including his own—he famously wrote:  “By now it is quite apparent:  the painters who have been agitating for half a century, who have been racking their brains to invent schools and systems, who have sweated with the continual effort of seeming original, of presenting their personalities, now hide like rabbits behind the banner of multifarious fancywork, and press ahead the latest defense of their ignorance and impotence:  the pretense of spirituality.”(2)  Noteworthily, Picasso kitschified his True creative Self—compromised his own artistic identity—by presenting himself as a False everyday Self in David Douglas Duncan’s photographs of him, particularly the one showing him sitting naked in a bathtub and smiling at the camera’s eye, as though ingratiating himself with the spectator, indeed, turning himself into a sideshow.  After all, he’s just like everybody else—he bathes.  He’s a normal guy, however abnormal his Cubism, surely an anomaly in his development, considering the accessibility of his later works, less outrageously different.  

Can one say that the photograph of Jackson Pollock in front of one of his over-all paintings in a four page spread in the August 8, 1949 issue of Life magazine asking “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” kitschifies Pollock?  Certainly it made him famous, indeed, a celebrity artist—in the end more celebrated for his mental illness and suicide than his art, a fate similar to Van Gogh’s.  Their art confirms their mental illness, rather than stands alone as a phenomenon that exists in its own aesthetic terms, a sort of aesthetic monad, to use Leibniz’s term.  The mad artist—and mad art—came into its own with Van Gogh and climaxed—dead-ended—in Pollock and his mad art, more pointedly in his psychopathological drawings, the drawings he made for his first psychoanalyst.  The Cecil Beaton fashion photograph of a glamorous model—the upper class Marjolein Lammerts van Bueren--posing in front of one of Pollock’s all-over paintings in a 1951 issue of Vogue magazine is the final stamp of kitschifying approval of them--indeed, their social acceptance and assimilation, not to say reification and appropriation of their creativity, more particularly their style.  It is in effect enviously scooped out and spoiled by the photograph, to allude to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theory of envy.  Made fashionable—and fashion is always envious of innovative or at least unusual art, simplifying its complexity and with that banalizing it while riding on the tail of its newness--Pollock’s art loses creative credibility.  

Cecil Beaton, The New Soft Look, 1951. Photographed against a Pollock painting at the Betty Parsons show in March, 1951. Courtesy Vogue, © 1951 by The Condé Nast Publications.

Van Bueren’s black dress and the bouquet of pink flowers she holds echo the colors in Pollock’s painting, although her poise and elegance contradict its eccentric dynamics—the swirling turbulent quasi-grand gestures, some painterly thick, some thinly linear.  But her glittering jewelry—diamond bracelet and earrings—make the subliminal point:  Pollock’s painting is expensive kitsch.  Like Picasso, Pollock became a celebrity—willingly became a public “personality”—implying that his art was what might be called avant-garde kitsch:  thus the opposites become one through the dialectic of self-congratulatory publicity, the art no longer a private creative affair but a publicity stunt.  

The absorption of the avant-garde into society—high society, no less—turns it into another capitalist success story, as the Beaton photograph, and the high prices Pollock paintings have come to command on the market, make clear.(3)  Technology—photographic reproduction, distribution, and especially photographic ingenuity, such as we see in Beaton’s photograph—and money, treating the art work as an investment property(4)—magically transform the avant-garde work into a kitsch masterpiece.  And with that so-called underground art becomes irreversibly aboveground.  Manipulative photographic reproduction can even make insane art seem sane.  There is no longer high art or low art—avant-garde art or kitsch art, fine art or popular art—but only commercial art mediated by photographic replication, and with that re-originating it.  Indeed, photographic re-presentation makes it more peculiarly presentable, indeed, respectable however ostensibly disrespectful of society, not to say provocatively irreverent and mocking—flinging shit in its face and inviting people to buy it, as Piero Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit, 1961 and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1987 and Shit Show, 2008 do.  Money and photographic technology and distribution create meaning and importance—the more expensive and reproduced a work of art the more meaningful and important a work of art becomes.  Its meaning and its importance no longer lie in it, but in its cost and replication, and with them the publicity it has—the “news” it makes makes it new.  All art is levelled on the playing field of reproduction and money.  One places one’s bets on the art that looks good through the discerning eye of the camera and the betting eye of money.  Art has become another gambling chip in the game of capitalist roulette.  

After all, the elegant model, expensively attired, in Beaton’s photograph—a creative feat in itself—is more peculiarly significant and attractive than Pollock’s messy painting.  She’s in the foreground, it’s in the background—she’s the star, his painting is a stage prop in a capitalist theater.  We’re asked to buy her fashionable new dress, and perhaps her diamonds, if we can afford them.  We’re not expected to buy Pollock’s painting; it’s wallpaper, trendy but beside the point of the trendy fashion.  As the sociologist Max Horkheimer wrote, abstract art ends up as decorative embellishment on the walls of the wealthy, and with that loses its meaning, not to say creative authenticity.  Similarly Pollock is front and center in the Life magazine photograph, his painting behind him, if more visible than the painting in the Vogue magazine photograph.  Pollock is the star—an actor on the social stage; the painting is prominent, but exists to confirm his prominence.  It’s a big prop supporting a small man; in Beaton’s photograph it’s a small prop supporting a big woman.  

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 233.7 x 200.3 cm.

Is Pollock selling himself—aspiring to be a celebrity—or is he selling his art?  In Pollock’s case its “difference” exists to sell his “difference”—its uniqueness exists to sell his unique personality—his defiance, his outsiderness, conveyed by his truculent expression and crossed arms and crossed legs, all conveying his “apartness,” his “specialness.” He’s the rebel with an art cause, the art testifying to his season in emotional hell, seasoning him for fame.  I suggest that his reputation was made by his pose—by his “different” and “difficult” personality--not by his “different” and “difficult” painting.  And above all by its kitschification in a popular magazine and in a fashion magazine—a magazine devoted to the latest, hottest fashion, a magazine that supports the fashion industry.  Life magazine popularized Pollock’s art—made it available for the masses who haven’t the money to buy it--and Vogue magazine made it fashionable, giving it elite status, and this worthy of attention by the happy rich few.  The attention a photograph brings to a work of art—especially a photograph made by a master photographer such as Beaton—is priceless, for it can bring the artist fame and fortune, and even critical recognition.  It is not the kind of critical recognition that Apollinaire gave Picasso, but it does a better job of selling the art--serious social success--than spreading the good critical word about the artist.  And it has a more instant effect.  It gives the work of art “outreach”—puts it in the reach of everyone, the cognoscenti and the masses.  Made newsworthy, it no longer seems enigmatic, but the aura of attention around it gives it a presence it would not otherwise have, indeed, makes it seem valuable and meaningful beyond words.  A picture after all is worth a thousand [critical] words, as the saying goes.  I dare to say that the reproduction of the work is the final step in its production.  Unpublicized, the work is incomplete.  It may be exhibited in a gallery for a month or two, and be on permanent display in a museum, but unless it exists in a photograph it may not as well exist. 

Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948. Oil on fiberboard, 2.4 m × 1.2 m.

In sum the distinction between avant-garde and kitsch collapses into meaninglessness in the world of mass distribution and photographic replication, more broadly of buying and selling.  What remains is what the work of art tells us about the lifeworld, and whether it becomes a lived experience rather than a relic of its times, an empty signifier rather than an insightful communication.  It is finally what it tells us about the human condition, more particularly the prevailing belief system of the society in which it was made, be it the cult of Christ or the cult of the unconscious or the cult of money.  It becomes a memento mori of a certain mentality, a hieroglyph signifying an ideology, a clue to a dominant conviction.  The style doesn’t make the man, his belief system—outlook on life, giving it meaning, value, a foundation—does.  The style is the manifest form of the implicit belief system, the general content, often taken for granted—unquestioned—underlying and uniting its different, often distinctive, stylistic expressions.  They make common cause in conveying the prevailing belief system however different their aesthetics.  The belief is the One True idea that makes its Many versions credible.  

In the case of Pollock, a true avant-garde believer, a certified member of the cult of the avant-garde, the belief that being an outsider was the one and only true way of becoming creative and original, more pointedly, grasp one’s intense complex emotions.  But without undoing the damage they caused, without understanding their reason for being, even with the help of a psychoanalyst.  Pollock worshiped his daemonic unconscious, indulged it to the point of no return to comprehending consciousness—like many modern artists he testified to its power—he martyred himself to it--unlike the many traditional artists who testified to the power of Christ, a symbol of a higher consciousness, without sacrificing themselves to him, for he inspired them rather than let them down.  Pollock disordered his senses with alcohol, as Rimbaud did with drugs—it was the way to become regressively unconscious.  His is an art that is a “sum of destructions,” as Picasso said Cubism was, although Pollock did not mock and savage such Old Masters as Velazquez as Picasso did along his destructive avant-garde way, for Pollock didn’t have the consciousness to comprehend them as Picasso enviously did. WM   


(1)Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York:  Phaidon, 1995), 26, 27 

(2)Giorgio de Chirico, “The Return to the Craft,” Art in Theory 1900-1990, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford UK and Cambridge USA:  Blackwell, 1993), 235   

(3)Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 was sold for $140 million in 2006.  It was owned by David Geffen, a Hollywood entertainment magnate.  His net worth is ca. $8 billion.  New York’s Lincoln Center has a David Geffen Hall.  Art has come to depend upon rich people like Geffen for sales.  Indeed, the more incredible the price paid for a work of art the more credible it becomes.  

(4)Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, the largest money-management in the world, once said that “the two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art [and] apartments in Manhattan.” (2017)


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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