THE BEAUX AND THE LOW
Art used to pretend to be what it’s not, became “it is what it is” then morphed into a chimera of critique and currency. The naked women across the room became Venus, etc. when seen through “Alberti’s window.” Then that window was shut and painted over. Then it was opened again, it was gold not a goddess seen.
In 1434-5 Leon Battista Alberti an early renaissance humanist polymath wrote that his canvas “an open window through which I see what I want to paint.” There were really two phases to viewing mimetic art one is when you are deceived by the work where you think what you see is real; and the other is when that deception is noticed, you see the object as art. In Alberti’s time the deception part came first and the recognition that what’s before you is art comes later. (See Marko Ruffini, “Alberti on the Surface,” 2011)
This gets reversed in the beginning of the 20th century; you acknowledged that what was in front of you was art first, then by concentrating you could see of what it was mimetic, maybe. By mid-century fine artists had abandoned the mimesis bit all together.
A mid-20th century American art critic Clement Greenberg, in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” wrote “the avant-garde’s emigration from bourgeois society to bohemia meant also an emigration from the markets of capitalism” while at the same time they remained attached to the very rich by “an umbilical cord of gold.”
Greenberg also warned us that, “Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard” which he called kitsch, which to him was everything from magazine covers to ads to Hollywood movies. He hated it. He says it is “vicarious experience and faked sensations” and it is “the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.”
Greenberg advises that that “Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.” and that its “enormous profits are a source of temptation to the avant-garde” and yield to that they did, beginning barely two decades later and continuing to this day.
So where could the next generation of artists go next to make a living, a reputation or a fortune? They had no choice but to retreat, do an about face and copy kitsch. But they went beyond imitation, the most clever ones created an commodified object and a critique of it simultaneously ( See “Hyperreality in the postmodern age ‘kitsch and porno-kitsch’” by Oscar Capezio, 2012.)
These neo-avant-gardes made their “high art” a simulation of a simulation which according to late 20th century social theorist and critic–Jean Baudrillard became “not that which hides the truth, but that which hides the absence of truth.” But they are still is tied up with the ruling class by Greenberg’s “cord of gold” but now their efforts, re-marketed simul-kitsch, no longer pretends to demand “nothing of its customers except their money.” Its singular demand for money is the only truth about it.
High Art has always straddled the fence between craft and con but these days “an open window through which I see what I want to paint.” has become simply “an open window through which I see what I want.” High in French is “haute,” pronounced “ho.”