Avant-garde, Kitsch and the flatness in-between :

Greenbergian Avant garde and Kitsch :

In the breakthrough essay from 1939 -‘Avant-garde and Kitsch’ Clement Greenberg claims ‘If the avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch, we now see, imitates its effects.’[i] Greenberg’s binary division of cultural production not only theorized the ‘Formal Hegemony’ of Modernism, it defined the form and function of Modern High art as something valid solely on its own terms where the expression mattered more than what was being expressed. Establishing the notion of pure form Greenberg crowned artists such as Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne  as the icons of  Avant-Garde culture because they derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. Thus, the emphasis on pure formalism detached Art from everyday life.[ii] This reductionist tendency was put into context as a historical criticism of the ‘motionless Alexandrianism’ – the academicism which according to Greenberg, was no more effective in confronting the bourgeois social order of the mid 19th century. Thus, he justified the revolutionary and radicle development of Avant-garde culture as instrumental in recognizing the complexities of a new social order. However, in this process ‘High Art’ became detached from society and critically distanced itself from popular culture and everyday life. Greenberg explained Kitsch as a product of the industrial revolution ,which, with the rise of mechanical reproduction become an integral part of the productive system to fulfill the cultural demands of the urban  masses of Western Europe and America.[iii] He distanced kitsch from Formal culture and associated it with rudimentary culture and middlebrow or lowbrow taste.


Pablo Picasso – Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler 1910, Oil on canvas, 45 5/8 x 45 5/8 inches. In the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Avant Garde, kitsch and the deconstructive art in the West since 1960s:

With the artistic developments in the second half of the 20th century the Avant-Garde manifested itself with new perspectives  through the radical, deconstructivist  attitudes in western art. The expansion of capitalism, consumer culture and changes in social order saw the relation between the Avant Garde & Kitsch as posited by Greenberg, being colluded,manipulated and redefined in the post-modernity. Deconstructive art began with the ‘transgressive’ aesthetics of Duchamp, Dada and Surrrealism; this was its first generation. It evolved further in the second half of the twentieth century via the mosaic of elaborations evident in art of the 1960s, such as: Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Arte Povera, Land Art, Performance Art, and Conceptual Art. The third generation of deconstructive art emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s with the postmodern appropriation movement (e.g. Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, David Salle, Hans Haacke, Victor Burgin, and Imants Tillers).[iv] In the 80s through his honest celebration of meaninglessness and banality Jeff Koons took a radical position which went beyond warhol’s flatness in redefining the relation between Avant-garde and Kitsch. Decades after Warhol, Koons seems to represent another stage of  this pop culture appropriation. His use of strategy, however, is in a different context, thus giving it room within a completely different constellation of meanings. Through breaking down the notion of high art and merging it with the dirt and craziness of the streets, the Dadaists sought to sever the ties between artistic production and service production. The brave, reactionary Dadaists presented their objects with a furor, and became the signs of the threat of the fall of what was considered a bourgeois capitalism. Their borrowing from every day  was more of a critical strategy that held the potential for critical irony and it was also the possibility for the negation of the commodity, with respect to the distance created between Dada and commodity society. Warhol was always suspended between Dada’s isolation, transcendence and critical negativity and the encroachment of corporate-dominated commercial culture. In Warhol’s case, this distance from commodity society is not as problematic as Koons’.   Instead of

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955). Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. Ceramic. 42 x 70 1/2 x 32 1/2 in. (106.7 x 179.1 x 82.5 cm). Photo © Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles.

claiming to stand outside, Warhol tried to assert that he was homogenous with commercial culture – Koons seems to make fun of it rather than accept it and be inspired by it showing his respect. But as much as Warhol seemed to be one with the logic of expenditure, there was always a distance – and many will claim, a lot of meaning – which covered the territory for critical irony. Koons’ position eradicates the depth and distance from commodity culture. He challenges but in a way that is almost offensive. His challenge is very similar to Duchamp’s urinal – it makes the viewer feel mocked, it makes the viewer ask himself about the purpose of this type of… art? Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, and through the fame of his artwork is himself a superstar. Koons asserts that “he’s meeting the needs of the people.” with his art. With respect to today’s commercial capitalism, his words have a somewhat different meaning than did either the Dadaists or Warhols.[v] The interesting aspect of the progression of deconstructive art is that, although the transgressive movements beginning with Dada were based on the objective of negating the institutional authority of formalist Avant garde and bring art and life togather , the transgressions ironically became accepted in the institutional sphere. In this way the critical distance between the notion of institutional High art and kitsch became more and more complex. Considering the cultural criticism and radical stance of Koons and considering his project as a contemporary Avant Garde it appears that Avant garde has highjacked, manipulated and recontextualized Kitsch to produce new constellations of meaning in a late-capitalist post-modern condition.


Vernacular Avant-garde & Kitsch from South asia:

Now let’s take a look at Avant Garde and Kitsch form a very different geographical, religious and cultural context.

Avand-garde: Hindu Goddess Durga by Indian Modern artist M.F. Husain, Oil on Canvas,2006.


Maqbool Fida Husain is the most prominent Indian Modern artist who represents the Indian Avant-garde, that establish a vernacular modernism in a postcolonial condition. Rejecting the historicism of the nationalists the Indian Avant-garde developed an unique Modern art language that although parallel to and influenced by European modernism, was distinct in its assimilation of vernacular folk, tribal formal influences and postcolonial content. The primitive simplicity .formal purity and abstraction is also in line with the characteristics of formalist Avant-garde advocated by Greenberg. The institutional acclaim, global fame and recordl prices fetched at western auction houses are the factors that make this Husain piece an excellent example of Indian Avant-garde. This piece is unique and demonstrates the artist’s signature style that developed through years of execution. This is piece is radical not only in form but also controversial in content. The artist, who is Muslim by religion has subverted the conventional image of Hindu goddess and have painted the deity in a sexually charged depiction, in the process humanizing andidealizing the form. His deity painting raised much controversy in India as the appropriation of the image of Hindu gods and goddesses expressed and exposed the conflict between freedom of speech, secularism and politics of religion in postcolonial India. Due to the protests and legal actions by Hindu extremist groups the artist was forced to leave the country in a self-imposed exile in 2006.


Kitsch:  Calender of Gregorian year with images of Hindu Goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati and Hindu God Ganesha:

Lakshmi ji Hindu calendar 2013 wallpaper october

An example of Indian Kitsch that depicts Hindu gods and goddesses in a ‘Abhaya’ mudra or posture with their Palms facing outwards and fingers extended upwards. This iconography references protection, peace and dispelling of fear. A calendar with such images of deity is an item found in every Hindu household or business place. The wealth, prosperity and positivity referenced through the iconography promotes positivity and is believed by the religious Hindu to bring fortune in everyday life and business. The religious sentimentality evoked by the image qualifies it for being considered as an example of kitsch. The development of this style was in itself a wonderful example of birth of kitsch with the introduction of mechanical reproduction in India. Raja Ravi Verma, the pioneering Indian painter credited for fusing Indian subject matter with western academic style of oil painting (championed by the British rulers in Colonial India for promoting the British project of injecting western education in colonial subjects) painted deities from Hindu mythology in naturalistic detail and representational style, unforeseen in colonial India towards the end of 19th century. When he decided to reproduce his paintings his paintings of Hindu deities through the process of oleograph – it became immensely popular among the Indian subaltern, middle-class and new urban elites alike because the religious Hindus had never seen such life-like depiction of their gods and goddesses before. Ravi Verma’s oleographs spread throughout colonial India and became the first mechanically reproduced kitsch item in south-asia that depicted Indian subject matter. In the example of the Hindu calendar mentioned above a similar artistic style that of the Ravi Verma oleographs has been borrowed and fused with a digital image using computer application and digital printing processes and presented in a banal format– thus almost a hyper-kitsch is produced with further commodification of a historically commoditized image.


Goddess Saraswati – Oleograph print of Raja Ravi Verma Oil painting from the 19th century colonial India.

Avant-garde, kitsch and the ‘Superflat’:


Takashi murakami ‘flower matango’ -, 2001-2006 (fiberglass, iron, oil paint and acrylic), Installation view of Takashi Murakami show at Le château de versailles, Versailles, France.2010..

In contemporary Asian context the blurring of the High and Low boundaries with a radical cynicism has been initiated by none other than the famous Japanese Artist Takashi Murakami. Murakami’s  ‘Superflat’ movement is avant-garde in the sense that such aggressive deconstruction of the High Art and commodity culture dichotomy has not been done in such scale and magnitude as Murakami’s in an Asian context. Unlike Warhol and Koons , Murakami’s project participates in Global consumer culture  with the emphasis on global circulation of his work and this flow of culture through constant territorialization and deterritorialization makes his project unique.


Takashi Murakami,’727’, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas board, three panels,9′ 10″ x 14′ 9″ (299.7 x 449.6 cm), 1996,

The flatness of the surface in Murakami’s works seems to suggest an absence of substance or meaning in what appears to be bright & colorful icons of popular culture directed towards an infantile audience. However, investigating a variety of cultural, political, social, economic, historical contexts behind the production & consumption of this work – complex meanings can be explored from these icons which on the surface lack any kind of depth. In the larger context of Murakami’s practice these icons can be seen as portraits of Japanese populace or Murakami himself in consistency with in his other works such as Mr. DOB. Seen in a post-war context of Japan this visualization of an infantile populace seems to mirror contemporary Japanese culture as a whole. Japan’s defeat & infantilization of an Asian race


Takashi Murakami  ,Tan Tan Bo Puking – a.k.a. Gero Tan, Acrylic on Canvas, 2011

in geopolitical terms through the devastating atomic bombing on Hiroshima & Nagasaki[vi] left a permanent scar on the common memory. This loss of self-confidence was reflected in Japan’s post war cultural production. The aggressive confidence of the previous era was lost & an immersion into the harmless & cute ‘Kawaii’ imagery characterized the post war popular culture. Thus Murakami’s work alludes to the historical confrontation between America & Japan, as well as its aftermath. If the stylistic features of his work are analyzed, a concoction of traditional Japanese art & contemporary visual culture, high art & subculture can be traced. Murakami adopts the language of Manga & Anime in his art which represents the contemporary visual culture of Japan. The immense popularity of Manga & Anime is characterized by the ‘Otaku’ subculture of fan-ship among the Japanese youth. The origin of manga could be traced back as a being shaped by American culture during and after the U.S. Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) by the influence of the images and themes from U. S. television, film, and cartoons (especially Disney)  [vii] .These influences fused with the decorative, flat & eccentric traditional Japanese art developed a  transpacific economic and cultural transnationalism in Manga, Anime & popular video game culture, in post-war Japan. Murakami borrows this language to develop his Poku ( Pop + Otaku ) which in turn echoes the lack of depth in the contemporary Japanese culture – completely immersed in consumerism & play without any deep socio-political consciousness.[viii]

Video documentation of Tokyo International Anime Fair 2012 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlOtq6fwQUI


Murakami Takashi, “My Lonesome Cowboy”, 1998. Oil, acrylic, fiberglass, and iron. 8 ft. 4 1/8 in. x 3 ft. (254 x 117 x 91,5 cm). Courtesy Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.


As an artist, Murakami works with a team to fabricate his works in a Factory just like the western pop-icons such as  Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. He works globally between his Hiropon factory in Japan & his New York studio. Murakami owns a company named Kaikai Kiki & co. through which large scale production of his commercial artworks & merchandise are carried out. His paintings, prints & 3Dimensional works are exhibited & collected by the highest ranked museums, institutions & patrons all over the world, for overwhelming sums. He collaborates with western multinational brands to promote & popularize their products. In this regard Takashi Murakami’s art & his practice actively participates in the same


Installation view of Takashi Murakami show at Le château de versailles, Versailles, France.2010.

consumer culture which he seems to critique. His superflat art paradoxically promotes the cultural conditions associated with the ‘Global Postmodernism’ & the Globalization process. On the other hand the deliberate territoriaillisation in his work as a reflection of contemporary Japanese cultural identity is contradicted through the global circulation of his work & deterritoriallisation through its iconographic hybridity with aesthetic-cultural identities of the west. On deeper observation it becomes evident that Murakami simultaneously expresses & exposes the forces of global capitalism not by resolving the contradictions of the globalization process but rather by magnifying them. His work also


Installation view of Takashi Murakami show at Le château de versailles, Versailles, France.2010.

subverts the demarcation between high art & subculture which in turn references a class distinction & superstructure. Through large scale reproduction & merchandising of his art he challenges the binary division between art as an aesthetic creation & commodity as an object of symbolic exchange in global consumer culture.

Collusion, Subversion and ‘Mis-design’:

Contemporary arts interrelationship with design does not negate it’s creative & critical spirit. In order to distinguish between critique and Murakami style cynicism, however, each case of apparent collusion needs to be evaluated on its own terms. This requires a contextually & historically specific style of analysis & critique. Ina world where all art can be considered design, this approach is also needed in the traditional institutions of art, where collusions between art , fashion, design, and commerce are equally prevalent. The key to escaping the alienating effects of contemporary consumer culture, with its hyperreal landscape, abstraction of needs and apparently all encompassing immanence, does not lie in ignoring or refusing production. Likewise, contemporary art cannot retain space for critical thought & independent practice by ignoring its commercial complicity. While an alternative to late capitalism is hardly imaginable, artists are working within its systems to question its manipulation of social, human and object relations. This does not involve opposing consumerism from an ‘outside’ position , but rather exploring an internal operations and misdirecting its outcomes. At times this results in collusion, as evident in the example of Murakami. Yet in the contemporary marketplace, collusion & subversion are necessarily intertwined. This allows for other more productive artistic practices that maintain the tension between art & culture, refusing to give way to the cynical sway of contemporary consumer-capitalism.[ix] This involves  a shift in perspectives away from the politics of consumption and emancipatory capacity of use-value towards the potential of engaged production that uncovers the psychological role of desire in the system of late capitalism.[x]



Top: Takashi Murakami piece in Louis Vuitton store, London.

Bottom: Louis Vuitton logo designed by Takashi Murakami.

[i]  Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-garde and kitsch.” Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 34-49.

[ii]  Ibid.

[iii]  Ibid.

[iv]  “Deconstructing Installation Art: Home.” Deconstructing Installation Art: Home. http://installationart.net (accessed April 2, 2013).

[v] “Jeff Koons | Modern Art in USA | Modern Art | Warhol Style | Andy Warhol Fasion.” RingSurf- Join our create your own community. http://www.ringsurf.com/online/1557-usa.html (accessed April 1, 2013).


[vii] Ibid

[ix] McQuilten, Grace. “Mis-design.” In Art in consumer culture: mis-design. Farnham, Surrey UK, England: Ashgate Pub. Co., 2011. 44.

[x] Ibid.



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