The Postmodern and the Erasure of the Avant-Garde/Kitsch Split
This is distilled from the first chapter of my book Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. I have long felt that the discussion did not need to be centered on the filmmaker….
Fredric Jameson, in “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” posits postmodernism as a reaction against what he sees as the cultural snobbery of modernism, a snobbery that created a divide between an elite-accepted high culture and low popular culture. For that conceit to work, however, an anger against the snobbery has to exist. Instead, most born into the postmodern world are cultural omnivores, rejecting categorization, ingesting all they finds with equal fervor and delight.
On the other hand, Jameson, like many scholars of his generation, accepts that the divide created (or, in the eyes of the modernists, identified) between high and low culture through modernism is, in fact, real-and has had a continuing impact.
This divide has long been an accepted part of most views of Western culture. Writing in 1953, Dwight McDonald commented that “Mass Culture [his phrase for “popular” or “low” culture] is to some extent a continuation of the old Folk Art which until the Industrial Revolution was the culture of the common people, but here, too, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Folk Art grew from below. It was a spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people, shaped by themselves, pretty much without the benefit of High Culture, to suit their own needs.”The assumptions McDonald makes and Jameson doesn’t contradict are ones that many of today’s artists and consumers of art don’t share. The hierarchy of cultural values, the idea of distinct high and low arts with intrinsic difference in value, doesn’t exist in this new universe- reflecting an attitude that is perhaps the most important difference between the modernists and their children.
MacDonald goes on to make the somewhat contradictory claim that “Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying.”Here, the real distinction between the modern and the postmodern (taken most broadly) is highlighted by an older statement of another hierarchy or distinction, not one of cultural value but of commercial interaction, and of a basic misunderstanding of that interaction: consumers in Western capitalist systems have never been passive, nor have they been provided with simplistic, stark choice of one or nothing.
If an artist today were to have any reaction at all to claims such as those of MacDonald, it would probably simply be a piqued interest in what MacDonald sees as kitsch, the output of commercial culture. In making his argument, MacDonald cites Clement Greenberg’s even older article “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which Greenberg distinguishes between the two types of artifacts in his title, extolling the avant-garde not as experimental, but as the leaders, the artists trying “to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. “He sees them as removing themselves from the public completely and concentrating solely on art for its own sake and on “pure poetry,” providing an artistic base when all else seems fluid. Though working in complete disregard to pop-cultural currents, the avant-garde ultimately, Greenberg implies, provide the path to the future, thereby justifying their art and their seclusion. Their understanding of culture is as something to aspire to, though not something that the general populace might already own.
Kitsch, by contrast-in Greenberg’s view-belongs nowhere but among the people and far away from real culture. It is a product of commerce, not art, and probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in discussions of art, for it is fake, “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, [who] are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.”Greenberg goes on: “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.”The reaction, today, to such a description might actually be an unironic, “Cool, let’s have some.”
Kitsch, by this definition, is the very starting point for twenty-first century art. It is real art, though of a sort that Greenberg or even MacDonald did not even imagine would come to be. It ultimately integrates the posited ideas of kitsch and the avant-garde, completing a process of melding that started, self-consciously and in light of these imposed distinctions, in the 1950s but its erasure is now something of an assumed, seamless, and forgotten (on the surface) base for contemporary artistic creation.
Noel Carroll describes, and more favorably, Greenberg’s distinction between kitsch and avant-garde: “Avant-garde art is abstract, whereas mass art ostensibly favors representation. Avant-garde art is reflexive, whereas mass art is generally imitative. Avant-garde art is introverted-it is about itself (it is about its medium). Kitsch is extroverted; it is about the world. “Lacking any sort of overt ideological base, contemporary artist see both the avant-garde and kitsch not simply as pieces for collage or pastiche but as sources for their own art and as metaphors in the new language they are in the process of creating for discussing and negotiating their world, as pieces to be carefully selected, trimmed, and sealed together into a sort of linguistic decoupage.
At its heart, their work is both reflexive and imitative, about the medium and about the world. Their reaction to modernism isn’t to reject high art in favor of low, but to reject the value of any such hierarchical or oppositional distinction-to reject, in many respects, hierarchies and dichotomies altogether, certainly to deny them as absolutes. Their work certainly isn’t simply a cobbling together of pieces but a new way of incorporating the old, a new decoupage.
In talking about film music, composer Michel Chion specifically uses “decoupage” instead of pastiche, pointing out that the composition of this sort, of decoupage, creates a whole, not a collection. Claudia Gorbman, Chion’s translator, describes the use of “decoupage” as emphasizing “the conceptual planning of a scene’s shooting and editing, whereas its counterpart, montage, in French stresses the postproduction process of editing.”16 This removes any overt sense of external commentary from the planning and the choices themselves, satiric or otherwise, making the items included within the process simply pieces useful for constructing the new work with all that implies.
Ultimately, by bypassing the models people have constructed and their discussions of theory, by either simply ignoring them or by incorporating both sides of the various dichotomies assumed, today’s artists up reflecting and creating a new type of “mass art,” one without boundaries, taking a step beyond older attitudes and yet embracing them. Until recently, as Carroll argues, mass art has been ignored through the bias of those devoted to high art, “demoting mass art of the rank of either kitsch or pseudo art.”The theorists, in his view, started from a bias toward the avant-garde, so they were never able to consider mass art dispassionately. They saw the weaknesses, therefore, and ignored the strengths of anything but that which they’ve already deemed as real “art.” “They observed, with some cause: that mass art is formulaic; that, in certain pertinent respects, the response to mass art was what they considered to be passive; that mass art is generally designed to induce certain predetermined effects; that mass artworks are not unique; and so on.”They proved the old maxim that just about anything can be made to look bad if one tries hard enough. The real postmodernists, by ignoring objections to mass art, take a giant step toward making the theorists irrelevant.
Though postmodern theorists generally reject the depictions such as those Carroll puts forth, observations stemming primarily from modernist perspectives, just as the modernists did, they still carry forward assumptions and attitudes-and judgments- that contemporary purveyors of mass art ignore. In fact, in holding onto what they see as the abandonment of the avant-garde by what they call “postmodernist” artists, the theorists often continue the very avantgarde/kitsch duality that many of those so-called postmodern artists are ignoring today. In other words, the “real” postmodernism cannot be defined through a preference for kitsch any more than by any overt abandonment of modernism—for the real postmodernists don’t react against much of anything; they embrace whatever they find useful, rejecting only labels—including “postmodernism.”
Instead of “postmodern,” many of these artists are better described simply as “mass artists,” people working within the traditions of mass art that have arisen over the past century or so and who are aware of those traditions (and others). They mine them-for reasons inherent in the very definition of “mass art.” Carroll argues that a work becomes “mass artwork” if it is ( 1) not singular, (2) both produced and distributed through mass technology, and ( 3) “is intentionally designed to . . . promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored ) audiences.” However, Carroll does sidestep questions of whether certain works of mass art should be called “art” at all by arguing that they are descended from categories that have long been accepted as “art.” Movies, of course, come from drama, etc. The first condition, then, is primarily that the work not be singular, such as an unrecorded or broadcast-live performance of a play or a concert. The technologies of the second condition have changed, of course, over the years, starting with Gutenberg and the printing press, but all share the purpose of disseminating the work of mass art as broadly as possible. Carroll defines the “delivery system as a technology with the capacity to deliver the same performance or the same object to more than one reception site simultaneously. “It is the reliance on technology that distinguishes mass art from popular art, a broader category that encompasses mass art.
Of his third condition, Carroll writes, “Here, the parenthetical qualification concerning ‘relatively untutored audiences’ is meant to accommodate the fact that, to a certain extent, audiences may be tutored by the repetition and formulas of mass art itself.”Furthermore, “Mass art gravitates not only toward certain formal features for the sake of accessibility; mass art may also gravitate toward the exploration of certain generic affects . . . because they are commonly recognized. “He goes on to say that genres such as action/adventure are mass-art naturals, “since it is easier for the average movie-goer to comprehend how a kick-boxer fights . . . than it is to comprehend the intricate and crafty financial maneuverings of leveraged corporate take-overs.”
Contemporary postmodern artists understand where they need to start in the construction of a mass art artifact-but that such a starting point is never a limitation or constraint. These artists know that an audience “learns” as it experiences the work of art (one of the basic points of narrative construction) and that they can pull audiences along within the work just as they have been doing externally ( the “tutoring” Carroll refers to).
Jameson simply didn’t go far enough in his thinking about the impact of modernism or the implications of a developing mass art, but is satisfied to discover an imagined whole through a narrow ideological lens of rather limited focal range. He does, however, make a significant point about influence and reference, the point that postmodern artists don’t bother to “‘quote’ such ‘texts’ as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them.”The reason for this, however, is that the source text becomes a part of language itself, not a Jameson pastiche, not parody, nor simple self-referentiality. It becomes another of the basic pieces of language, to be used without the need of quotation marks to represent borrowings- for the pieces have dropped into the language, their referentiality negligible. “Lions, and tigers, and bears” today draws the inevitable chorus, “Oh, my!”-degree of knowledge of the source movie, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), notwithstanding. What happens is not, as Christine Gledhill claims, that “postmodern practices treat the past as a superstore for picking and mixing,”but that film reference has retreated into the common parlance, available for the picking and mixing regardless of origin or even knowledge of origin. Like “thug,” descended from a Hindu word but having lost, in American usage, any connection with South Asia, phrases and images from movies have entered into the language. The aspect of parody or pastiche that Jameson describes has been subsumed as references (and usages) become part of a greater conversation.
J. David Slocum writes that the “postmodern gaze ranges over stylistics and narrative, the status of cultural myths, the role of ideology, and the relations between institutional practices and individuals. “This broad vision of postmodernism, following Jean-Francois Lyotardand much more inclusive than Jameson’s, sees a purpose-driven aesthetic of rejection of the grand visions of modernism and, in fact, of any system restrictive in definition. On a basic level, then, in terms of film, what some call “postmodernism” is an aspect of a developing language.
When writing of cinema, instead of recognizing the essential conservative nature of filmmaking in Hollywood, Jameson placed the filmmaker (and those like him) within a cultural “periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order.”It is this, to Jameson, that makes what he sees as pastiche and not (as he says) parody, imbuing pastiche with a cultural weight he denies to parody. “Both pastiche and parody involve the imitation or, better still, the mimicry of other styles and particularly of the mannerisms and stylistic twitches of other styles.”Parody, however, is little more, for Jameson, than mockery based on deviation from the normative linguistic values of society, whereas pastiche operates within a postmodern environment in which recognition of a societal center as a norming force has disappeared. Jameson sees a great fragmentation that leaves no basis for the parodying of any particular private idiom, for the loss of standard makes the act of parody meaningless to all but a tiny audience, rendering it ineffective within the broader society. At this point, Jameson argued, pastiche takes over, using the tools of parody but without the now-meaningless mockery: “Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor.”
It’s not so simple, really. Though it may be true that the standards parodists once played off against are gone, it does not follow that humor also has disappeared or that pastiche has done anything less than find new standards for use in creating humor, be it parody or satire. The language of the parodist has grown, now including film and the private languages of splinter groups.
Jameson disparages pastiche as a response to a situation in which no room remains for innovation, in which artists no longer have the option to do any thing but imitate the past, “to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum. “Pastiche becomes nothing more than a response to the failure of creativity that, to him, is a hallmark of the postmodern culture. In actual usage, of course, pastiche is much more than that. Pastiche, or decoupage, along with its composites are themselves becoming a new standard, a common language, if you will, with referents and standards as clear as those that Jameson sees as being lost-though the new ones are built from a myriad of “private languages” as well as from the films (and other artifacts) that have become cultural landmarks. The in-jokes resulting from fragmentation become among the many building blocks of a larger, though diffused, decentralized and new, basis for conversation.
Jameson, who mistakes usage of pastiche for nostalgia, picks out American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1972), Chinatown ( Roman Polanski, 1974), and Il Conformista ( Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) as films looking back through pastiche, creating a genre that, he said, would soon include movies such as Star Wars, Episode IV- A New Hope ( George Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), all of them providing a reexperiencing of something that the viewer has never experienced firsthand and often only knows through the movies or—in the later two cases—through recreating the childhood experience of B movies and serials. Jameson, however, did not take the step that these films themselves do. That is, the filmmakers all knew they were making movies for contemporary audiences and framed their visions of the past to address contemporary issues. Most of the people who grew to love Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Artbest were, after all, too young to have experienced the objects of homage (the pastiche aspect of the movies) firsthand, if they had seen them all. It didn’t even matter if they hadn’t, to either filmmakers or to their audiences. In fact, a certain part of the aesthetics of these seemingly nostalgic films was based on the exploitative and often over-the-top trailers for the older films and even on lobby cards, and not quite so much on the films themselves.
Jameson sees film not as an extension of language and its metaphors but as a retreat to Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave. To him, this is a supplantation of reality, not a means of supplementing human framingof reality. But we’ve always negotiated the experiential world through language and not merely through direct experience; today, that language has simply grown to include film and all it implies. And film even does more: in an era of fragmentation of language into a variety of jargons and dialects, film (and electronic media in general) becomes the one universal, a standard like that one Jameson saw as having, in the past, allowed for successful parody.
Relationships Jameson also spoke of, such as Jacque Lacan’s sign and signifier/signified, extend to a referent. The idea of a contained universe of sign and signifier alone makes little sense to them, for movies are part of their experiential world and an important part, for they become means for making sense of the world and for discussing it with others. The idea of a limited universe makes little sense, too, because the filmmaker’s art is, for most, a primarily commercial art. The world of the work is constantly informed and shaped by the world of commercial demand and experience. In other words, context always has to be paramount to the filmmaker within the Hollywood commercial tradition. In discussion of Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on genre,Stephen Neale follows Derrida in observing “that all texts, all utterances, all instances of discourse are always encountered in some kind of context, and are therefore always confronted with expectations, with systems of comprehension.”That context, however, can (as postmodernist theorists asserted) become emptied of meaning, which is where discourse on postmodernism can still assist in understanding the place of film, and film violence in particular, within a contemporary framework. Slocum argues,with limited justification, that even the most graphic violent image is drained of meaning and originality within a contemporary media context of repetition and replication. The question, then, becomes one of the impact and amplification of the image as it takes its place as a piece of language, simply a new word, one represented in a way distinct from the grapheme, not serving as a direct representation of reality but as a commonly understood touchstone.
 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” 60.
 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” 60.
 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 99.
 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 102
 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 102.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 32-33.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 196.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 199.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 204-205.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 204-205.
 Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, 205.
 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” 112.
 Christine Gledhill, “Rethinking genre,” 223.
 J. David Slocum, “The ‘Film Violence’ Trope,” 25.
 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” 113.
 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” 113.
 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” 114.
 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society,” 115.
 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, 221-252.
 Stephen Neale, Genre and Hollywood, 24.
 J. David Slocum, “The ‘Film Violence’ Trope,” 27.