In his seminal “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (if you haven’t read it, head [here] right away), art historian and critic Clement Greenberg discusses the rise of avant-garde art and creative produce alongside second-rate popular and commercial art, defining such kitsch as a ‘product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses’:
‘Kitsch [is] destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide . . . [it uses] for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture . . . [and] borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience’ (5-6).
Whether or not one finds Greenberg’s lineage and diagnosis of kitsch convincing, the divisions he poses for the movement of fine art—from the bold, esoteric, and learned to the popular and ersatz—resonates with recent work on queer metronormative aesthetics and the suburban ‘temporal drag’—research interests of mine. To state the conflict plainly for those unfamiliar, and per queer scholars Scott Herring, Elizabeth Freeman, and Judith Halberstam specifically: is it possible that the ‘relay of sentiment and affect’ that neither rejects nor fully embodies an earlier era (this ‘temporal drag’) can reckon with ‘the genuine past-ness of the past’?—that is, might Greenberg’s temporal/linear indictment of kitsch as a debased version of the ‘daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday’ be challenged by a queer suburban aesthetics?
Let’s set our mise en scène straightaway.
It is important to note, first, that Clement Greenberg’s essay was meant as an apology and a manifesto-by-proxy for the Modernist avant-garde—Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Pollock, Braque, Stein, and Ezra Pound among them—whose work was confronting the ‘motionless Alexandrianism’ of post-Georgian and post-Victorian art; it also sought to attack kitsch as particularly useful to Fascist regimes. Thus there is no 1-1 correspondence between Greenberg’s art vanguard and Scott Herring’s metronormative aesthetics (which, quite honestly, sound a lot like bona-fide Greenbergian ‘kitsch’). I’ll return to this point of (dis-)connection in a moment; for now, allow me to take Herring’s theory of metronormative aesthetics as the prime mover in queer situation of ‘culture’:
‘Substantiated by epistemological, temporal, and socioeconomic norms, an aesthetic norm occurs when the lesbian and gay urbanism that informs metronormativity consolidates itself as queer urbanity . . . [it is characterized by] a knowingness that polices and validates what counts for any queer cultural production; a sophistication that demarcates worldliness, refinement, and whatever may count as ‘the latest’; a fashionability that establishes what counts as the most up-to-date forms of apparel, accessory, and design; and a cosmopolitanism that discriminates against anybody or any cultural object that does not take urbanity as its point of origin, its point of departure, or its point of arrival’ (author’s emphasis) (for those with a digital version, this is lifted near loc. 488).
Herring states that such a metronormative understanding of aesthetics constitutes, along with his five other ‘axes’ of metronormativity, ‘an urbanism that facilitates the ongoing commodification, corporatization, and de-politicization of U.S.-based queer cultures in many locales.’
As I mentioned previously, Herring’s discussion of urbane aesthetics sounds suspiciously like Greenberg’s ‘kitsch’ to begin with (compare, for example, Greenberg’s ‘magazine covers, chromeotypes, ads, and pulp fiction’ with Herring’s ‘Project Runway Protest Chic Puma Quotes Raf Simons Ralph Lauren Ray-Ban’), placing the suburban queer precariously close to zero in his inherited cultural calculus since urbane produce is understood to have high art flavor—the city queer doesn’t believe for a second that her tastes are debased. As Herring later intimates, this prostration does not seem to adequately characterize the body of queer suburban artistic output.
Consider Aaron Smith’s poem “Brad Pitt”:
With cotton candy armpits and sugary
Crevices, sweat glazing your donut skin.
Have you ever been fat, Brad?
Have you ever wanted a Snickers
More than love and lain on your bed
While the phone rang and rolled one
On your tongue, afraid to eat it, afraid
It would make your jeans too tight? Have you
Barfed, Brad, because you ate it,
Ate all the take-out, licked
Brown sauce off the box while you sobbed?
Brad Pitt down in the pits chaining menthol
Ciggys in your thick-wallet life,
It’s not so bad Brad, sad Brad, is it?
While it will be a sticky endeavor to locate this poem as a product of suburban life—while Smith’s biography names him ‘outside Pittsburgh’ at points, we’ll never know the exact moment of the poem’s genesis—it acts like an art at the junction of ‘sentiment and affect,’ and occupies a niche that is uncomfortably earnest and kitschy. And while I won’t do formal close reading of “Brad Pitt,” what develops here is, in my opinion, something like kitsch omega: a poem that is so deeply removed from authentic aesthetic reckoning (it is the produce of an urban cultural export that is kitsch to begin with) that its temporal drag begins to recover—if not the audacity of the avant-garde—the audacity of a remembrance which precedes it too drastically to be fully apprehended, but is yet desired, passionately, in its ghost-form.
The defining characteristic of this kitsch omega, as bodied in “Brad Pitt,” is the fact that moments redolent of sincerity and rank with spuriousness are rather indistinguishable. Consider ‘Have you ever wanted a Snickers / More than love and lain on your bed’—this is pure Greenbergian ‘simulacra,’ gleaning all its patina from a ‘reservoir of accumulated experience’: the branding, the pilfered Romantic image of languorous repose, the anachronistic use of the past participle ‘lain.’ Yet, upon examination, the resulting ‘patina’ is not without some inscrutable shimmer for precisely its defining moments of kitsch: ‘Snickers’ (most brands of candy, for that matter) causes a reminiscence that is too closely tied to childhood experience to toss off without reflection; the moment of Romantic recline has an inescapable gaudy currency (as one’s sixth or seventh viewing of a high school production of Romeo and Juliet is both poignant and painful to watch); the use of ‘lain’ invests “Brad Pitt” with a lineage (a ‘past’) in English literature.
The entire narrative scene is so quasi-repellant to a high art palate (the adolescent abed waiting for the phone to ring, food as both sensual and sickening, vocabulary choices like ‘barfed,’ ‘donut,’ ‘ciggys’) that its gender-based and queer (homonormative?) critiques are easy to miss. It is, notably, the male heartthrob that is forced into abjection, bulimia, and self-loathing; the gaze that interrogates the heartthrob is one of queer (male) hunger that objectifies and would consume the heartthrob for his physical ‘deliciousness’ alone. The closing three lines
Brad Pitt down in the pits chaining menthol
Ciggys in your thick-wallet life,
It’s not so bad Brad, sad Brad, is it?
disengage that gaze and move into third-person prognostication about the object and, once again, the sing-song rhyme, the labors in Hell, the chain-smoking, are both the flimsiest kitsch and a most earnest beta-grade diagnosis. Smith’s powerful compound ‘thick-wallet life’ vaults the poem into a space that is compellingly kitsch omega—as Halberstam intimates in her discussion of the musician Ferron (excuse the network of references, but they seem important in the development of my thoughts), it is ‘neither the historical template [that was] imitated or rejected, nor the representation of an earlier era,’ but, again, something like ‘the relay of sentiment and affect’ (virtually, loc. 3125). And a bit more.
Karen Tongson refers to the work of performer JJ Chinois ‘as mobilizing humor as an ameliorative mode,’ and that she ‘cull[s] from the popular to forge unlikely sociabilities, relationships, and alliances between [herself] and the spheres of living and referentiality [she] is meant to be excluded from’ (loc. 562). In this specific example, Tongson is referring to Chinois’ exclusion from the suburbs (as a non-white queer performer); obviously, I think there is some purchase for my reading of Smith in this context, with one important caveat. Legibly prohibited, for both his sexuality and non-star class, from Hollywood alliance with Pitt, Smith creates a quasi-persona poem culled from the ‘popular’—his goal is not ‘ameliorative,’ however, but acerbic, even brutal. My questions is: forced further and further from the the imaginative ‘grounds’ of metronormative aesthetics, might the suburban queer create an art that pushes past redolence into a cloudy and new abstraction?
2 responses to “‘Kitsch Omega’ and the Queer Aesthetic”
“inherited cultural calculus”— that’s in the running for top notch soundwear.
As to your question, I’d be forced to buy Greenberg’s golden-umbilical-cord thesis on high-art to think that it’s from city-centers that high-culture is grown.
I think of heights, of them skyscrapers that make folk, urban folk, think they can far-view the movements of the world.
Perhaps they can foresee the movements of the *human* world, but what in art, in poetry, is necessarily and only human? It seems more rightly to me that the landscapes of infinity (ie the sea, the desert) draw from the artist legitimate reflection untainted (maybe with ‘business?’, with ‘content?’).
Metronormative? I’m not sure what’s on the walls at home. Same as you’d prefer to wear those wide-tongue boots and backwards hat to set encounters you have up with the paradox of meeting the Victorian giant within you—I’m not sure how much a sense of the ‘degraded tastes’ we can gather from ‘Ray Bans Pumas’ etc…
Of course I have suspicions. Of course I’d love to find a reason to say ‘Philistine’ aloud. And I’m concerned, too, with the possibility that humanity is obsessed with itself, turning towards its screens-cum-mirrors.
Went to the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe. Saw that woman in photograph and in her work, her transformation from urban to desert-witch, and felt the attention she found in shifting to a place of stillness and seasonal shift rather than the vertical, cosmopolitan growth.
I’m intrigued by her transformation.
I’m also really intrigued by this idea of the artist in comfort (again, Greenberg)—where are we—ahh:
“For one man to spend time and energy creating or listening to poetry meant that another man had to produce enough to keep himself alive and the former in comfort. In Africa today we ﬁnd that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves.”
It seems his implication is that the ruralist is the worker, the strainer, bent-back and brow-asweat, with no time for the thought and study, but as I’ve protested—maybe too many times—there is comfort in the physical work. And TIME—Christ, there’s time. Between connections; between people. Thoughts and wisdom form in the space that walking a bit further to get groceries allows…
“The attention of poets like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Eluard, Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, even Rilke and Yeats, appears to be centered on the eﬀort to create poetry and on the ”moments” themselves of poetic conversion, rather than on experience to be converted into poetry” (ibid)
The act of an experience informs the experience of art. To be comfortable digging compost from one bin to another requires the same mental stretching that sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing requires, or at least is structured using the same rubric of ‘experience’that being: I begin; I am unsure; I gain confidence; I expend less energy over time as I learn to be more efficient with my movements; I struggle with my hubris at a moment I least expect; and I complete the experience.
All this can be found as readily, and certainly more *quietly*, away from the rush of the metro.
I dove away from Pitt’s sparkle-crust pits. Can, in this kitsch-isch reproduction and in the *place* it is derived from, we find a step towards a new abstraction?
There’s room to view out on the plains.
The food is freshest, the demand on your time the least.
If, as Greenberg wants us to believe, that the ‘elite’ who once sustained the avant-garde have lost interest or ability to support that group, then that group must sustain itself. If it can’t be capitalized, else become kitsch, and no income is forthcoming, then costs must be cut. Time must be spent doing things that cost nothing, or better, provide the necessaries.
I don’t believe there can’t not be an avant-garde. In times of staid placidity, they shake the earth with their horns and hooves. In times of fretful, fruitless production—of kitsch-crafting—quiet, stillness, & settling.
Excuse my excursion from the queer setting. This struggle is wide in scope.
Word, E. The broadening effect of your comment makes the ‘queer’ focus of the piece feel a bit skinny. I think Greenberg would agree with your assertion of the imperative emergence of an avant-garde (the term is more and more inadequate, isn’t it?) while maintaining skepticism about the ability of that group to ‘sustain itself’ fiscally. Which means: we know now what we must do.