chapter  6
16 Pages

Invisible times: Modernism as ruptural unity


Struggling in 1939 to distinguish the varieties of cultural production of a “capitalism in decline,” Clement Greenberg famously divided the notion of modernism into two agonistically related fields: “One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover” (Greenberg 1986-93, vol. 1: 6). Originating as the cultural logic of industrialized mass production and urbanization, Greenberg’s Kitsch is not less valid or even less ambitious than its more experimental other. Indeed, to the degree it maintains illusions of content, literacy, and communication, it is perhaps more so. Kitsch merely lacks the capacity to reflect its own enabling conditions. For the avant-garde, conversely, such reflections become the very substance of art, a last protest against the mechanical formalism of a “motionless Alexandrianism,” launched by a class fraction “unwilling to accept this last phase for our own culture” (Greenberg 1986-93, vol. 1: 6):

A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All

the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.