Avant-Garde, Kitsch, the Two Cultures, and Academic Publishing

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to gather a few thoughts on the inferiority complex many of us in the humanities feel when forced to look upon the sciences. For a number of reasons, scientists make some of us feel like we’re not real intellectuals, and we’ve reacted in a number of ways, all of them a bit peculiar.

Yesterday, I cornered a few of my wayward strands in Clement Greenberg’s old distinction between the avant-garde and kitsch, something I’ve used in a number of different ways in various books and articles. Though I don’t much care for the distinction, I recognize that it has become central to many views of society. Among these are the view that there are “academic” audiences as opposed to”general” ones (and that the former have greater importance) and that there’s something about the humanities in general that, somehow, is more akin to kitsch than to science and the avant-garde.

Greenberg writes:

[A] part of Western bourgeois society has produced something unheard of heretofore: avant-garde culture. A superior consciousness of history–more precisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism–made this possible. This criticism has not confronted our present society with timeless utopias, but has soberly examined in terms of history and of cause and effect the antecedents, justifications, and functions of the forms that lie at the heart of every society. Thus, our present bourgeois social order was shown to be, not an eternal, “natural” condition of life, but simply the latest term in a succession of social orders. New perspectives of this kind, becoming a part of the advanced intellectual conscience of the fifth and sixth decades of the nineteenth century, soon were absorbed by artists and poets, even if unconsciously for the most part. It was no accident, therefore, that the birth of the avant-garde coincided chronologically–and geographically too–with the first bold development of scientific revolutionary thought in Europe. (Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” The Partisan Reader, 1946; it can be found here.)

The connection between science and the avant-garde, we see, is longstanding. And both are rarefied, not for everyone, but for the cognoscenti alone:

Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. “Art for art’s sake” and “pure poetry” appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague. (Greenberg)

Subject matter and content aren’t for “pure” arts and sciences at all. So, it’s no wonder that:

The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, the fact that its best artists are artists’ artists, its best poets, poets’ poets, has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerly of enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into their craft secrets. (Greenberg)

Oh, but aren’t we special, we who can speak our secret language! Wanting to partake in this, many of us in the humanities, which really should be accessible to everyone, begin to couch our commentaries and explorations in terms that only our small group of fellows can understand. We can’t hitch our wagon to science, but we can imagine its path and can tail along with the avant-garde.

After all, everything beside “pure” art and “pure” science is easily ignored or put aside:

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time. (Greenberg) 

It’s all commercial, anyway, and not worth the time of those who turn to the heights, unattainable by the great unwashed and their money-grubbing mind-sets, of “pure” thought. The most recent example of the flight from kitsch was the great “Theory” bubble that so recently burst.

A little more than a decade after Greenberg, C. P. Snow unintentionally made matters worse through his The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Though he was trying to suggest that we get out of our intellectual silos and learn something about what others are doing (stating that “our fanatical belief in educational specialization” (18) is more than a bit wrong-headed), what he ended up doing, for the humanities, is convincing scholars that they had to be more like the scientists if they are to be taken seriously. That is, if someone outside of the specialty could understand them, something was wrong. Poor Snow. That is not what he meant at all; that is not it, at all.

Unfortunately, what he wrote does resonate Greenberg. Or some of it does. He says “the scientists have the future in their bones” (12), that they:

have their own culture, intensive, rigorous, and constantly in action. This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons’ arguments. (13)

This, all of Snow’s arguments notwithstanding, makes people in the humanities want to rise to what they see as a challenge, to move towards providing something of their own just as rigorous, just as hard to understand. So, instead of taking Snow’s words to heart, they have continued a process that he describes with sadness:

Somehow we have set ourselves the task of producing a tiny elite–far smaller proportionally than in any comparable country–educated in one academic skill….

It may well be that this process has gone too far to be reversible. I have given reasons why I think it is a disastrous process, for the purpose of a living culture. (21)

He does give reasons, but they are ignored. Instead, we pride ourselves on speaking only to those whose “training” is a specific and as overly defined as our own. Instead of two cultures, or three, we now have dozens, none of which can talk to the others.

Our process of academic publishing, with its specialized journals hidden behind pay walls only worth breaching by those within the minuscule specialties, makes matters even worse. No longer do we have to justify ourselves to anyone. When can simply tell ourselves that what we are doing is “pure” and ignore anything going on outside. After all, it is only kitsch if it is not with us, we who are the avant-garde.

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