Maryland Art Place show takes kitsch to a new level


Art Column


The current show at Maryland Art Place, which includes a stuffed deer's head, a plaster chicken with the face of Jesus and landscape paintings festooned with odiferous discs of air freshener, brings to mind the late critic Clement Greenberg's seminal 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch."

Greenberg sought to explain how modern industrial societies had produced two radically different kinds of artwork. The first he called high culture - advanced painting and sculpture created by avant-garde artists in order to propel the possibilities of their media forward.

The second type of artwork Greenberg called kitsch, a kind of ersatz art for the masses that included everything we now lump under the term popular culture - movies, advertising, illustration, comics and pulp fiction - as well as works intentionally constituted as debased imitations of high art - the proverbial pink flamingos, ceramic angels, velvet Elvises and plastic animal tchotchkes.

Greenberg defined kitsch as a sort of artistic rear-guard (in contrast to the truly creative avant-garde), a byproduct of the industrial revolution, urbanization and universal literacy that aimed to replace the genuine folk culture of the countryside with a manufactured commodity capable of satisfying the newly arrived city dwellers' demand for entertaining diversion.

"Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas," Greenberg wrote. It is "vicarious experience and faked sensations, the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times," an art that "demands nothing of its customers except their money - not even their time."

The MAP show is called (Un)Konventional Kitsch, and it proposes that what Greenberg derided as "the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture" has become, in the postmodern era, just one of many possible strategies artists may legitimately employ to achieve their creative ends.

That brief summary, of course, leaves open the issue of precisely what creative ends, if any, the artists in this show seek to achieve. More generally, it raises the question of whether these works even qualify as kitsch under Green- berg's definition, and if not, what else they might usefully be called.

Take, for example, Andrew Shoenfeld's digital photograph Guernica Nueva, a diminutive takeoff on Picasso's famous 1937 mural depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

Shoenfeld has appropriated Picasso's stark, black-and-white composition right down to the startled horse and burning light bulb, but he has unaccountably replaced the master's agonized figures representing the victims of Nazi aggression with cheerful contemporary color digital images of family and friends.

The effect is to turn Picasso's monumental anti-war protest into a kind of visual joke, though it's not exactly clear at whose expense we are invited to laugh. Picasso, because he's such an art-world icon? The ersatz Calabrian peasant's pulverized under Luftwaffe bombs? The museum and gallery culture that so readily transforms such depictions of human suffering into occasions for aesthetic delectation?

Turn now to Lee S. Millard's Deer Memorial, inspired by those sad roadside shrines put up by grieving relatives to mark the sites of fatal highway accidents. Except in this case, the victim was not the driver or passenger but some hapless deer struck by a vehicle.

There's a case to be made that even in our urbanized society a species of true folk culture persists, and that these rural highway memorials, like the improvised shrines in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are genuine expressions of it.

Even so, Millard's memorial comes off more as a parody of that culture than an affirmation of it - and, by extension, I suppose, it might also be read as a parody of the anguished emotions of bereaved survivors that accident victims leave behind.

However, such works do make a strange kind of sense, if not as kitsch, then as a species of arty camp, the sensibility writer Susan Sontag memorably defined as an exaggerated penchant for the unnatural and the artificial.

Camp, Sontag wrote, "is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way ... is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization ... it is the love of the exaggerated, the `off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not."

Sontag felt it necessary to write about camp because she viewed it as a significant current in postwar American intellectual life. But she also confessed a certain "moral revulsion" to its mindless glorification of travesty - any travesty, social, political or aesthetic.

The MAP show seems willfully perverse to no identifiable purpose. It is not really kitsch, because kitsch at least aims to satisfy a popular demand.

Camp, by contrast, is a cult phenomenon that addresses a self-defining cultural elite of discontented aesthetes and snobs whose attenuated sensibilities can be stimulated only by the spectacle of perversity.

Sadly, it's an attitude that seems all too common within the diminished expectations of today's art world.

The show runs through Dec. 31. The gallery is at 8 Market Place, Suite 100. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Call 410-962-8565.

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