From art to kitsch

Published : 9:47 am  May 17, 2018 | No comments so far |  |  (31) reads | 

In his landmark essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Clement Greenberg discusses the evolution of art in terms of its separation into two broad cultures; the highbrow and the popular. The progression or regression (depending on how you see it) from the one to the other was facilitated by the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism, through which universal literacy was achieved to such an extent that those masses became the shapers and makers of various art forms. Greenberg, who was a painter and an art critic himself, contends that this transition occurs owing to the tendency of a society to start unravelling itself once the religious, cultural, and various other morals and absolutes on which it is based begin to be questioned rather critically. By this, “one and the same civilisation produces simultaneously two such different things” – the high and the low. 

While the essay has been discredited since, and scholars have pointed out certain inconsistencies therein, I am interested in some of Greenberg’s ideas because they pinpoint the bifurcation of aesthetics which we, in Sri Lanka, have been witnessing. The evolution of art, for Greenberg that is, follows two broad routes; from art (the academic, scholarly, upper class type, based on refined, sophisticated tastes) to avant-garde (the bohemian type, which separates art from the necessity of patrons and financiers) to its rear-guard, referred to as ‘kitsch’ (a German word connoting the seamless fusion of commerce and art in modern, urban, industrial societies). Art and kitsch, highbrow and lowbrow, refined and vulgar; these are the terms we use to differentiate between these two aesthetic sensibilities, to an extent in Sri Lanka too. How can we apply Greenberg’s contentions, minus their flaws, to what transpired in this country, then? By considering the way the transition from the highbrow to the popular corresponded to the evolution of the kind of audience which, in here or elsewhere, pandered to these cultural forms.

 It follows that if there was no real bohemian culture in Sri Lanka, there was no intermediate stage between art and kitsch, or between the highbrow and the popular

Advent of archaeology
Perhaps what needs to be borne in mind before examining the applicability of this cultural phenomenon to Sri Lanka is that in Sri Lanka, there was, historically, no real bohemian culture. Bohemians were wanderers, vagrants, uncommitted rebels, who simultaneously distanced themselves from and attached themselves to the bourgeois lifestyles they vowed to get away from and repudiate. In here though, the separation was between the coloniser and his subjects, namely, the vast majority of the countrymen. For the latter, art was neither highbrow nor kitsch; it was purely a means of communicating within themselves. Even the Gal Viharaya at Polonnaruwa, as Regi Siriwardena once pointed out in an essay, was built with a utilitarian objective, since worship was as vital to the people of those days as going to a job is to us today. While art did exist, very little of it was consumed as objects of refinement to be studied from afar; there was, in other words, no proper extrinsic value to the artefacts we hold up and admire in museums today, only an intrinsic plasticity. With the advent of archaeology and restoration, traditional art forms became something to preserve. The champions of this mode of thinking were the born-again natives from the Anglican elite, like Devar Surya Sena.

Greenberg traces the aesthetic route from art to avant-garde, and at the hands of the bohemians, avant-garde reaches its peak. It follows that if there was no real bohemian culture in Sri Lanka, there was no intermediate stage between art and kitsch, or between the highbrow and the popular. In the Bengali Renaissance, particularly the novels of Bankim Chatterjee, we see the fusion of the West and East, which unearths a culture that can be at least vaguely referred to as avant-garde. Greenberg’s thesis is that such a culture thrives on a self-referential sensibility. According to him, the avant-garde artists ‘derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in’, which means that what is central to the work of, say, a Chatterjee novel or a Picasso painting is its preoccupation with its forms and techniques: it returns to its own workings and externalises those workings in every line, shape, and contour. If these indeed were the hallmarks of the avant-garde, bohemian sensibility, then we cannot claim that we reached that intermediate stage.

The transition from art to avant-garde is really the transition of one order to another. But the transition from avant-garde to kitsch is a reflection of changing landscapes and industrialisation. Colonial societies did not escape this wave of industrialisation, though they were asked to pay the price for European progress by handing over their resources at dirt cheap prices. Sarlis, the painter, who depicted moments and excerpts from the lives of the Buddhas, was Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Ravi Varma; the painters of spirituality on carpets and temple walls and tapestries, through whom the faith of the majority became intertwined with the walls of their houses. This is the fusion at the heart of kitsch, and in such a fusion we come across (as Tissa Abeysekara noted in an essay written on Lester James Peries) a pseudo-renaissance. But for the kitsch culture in Sri Lanka to unfold itself, it had to wait until three distinct epochs had passed: 1931, 1948, and 1956.

Universal literacy 
Art and avant-garde turn to kitsch the moment the masses, the majority, are empowered to be the shapers and makers of the culture of their society. Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution, even in societies which experience that revolution second hand and (as with us) have never gone beyond the landowning aristocracy that the coloniser selected, tutored, and in effect bred. Emancipation, in a metaphoric sense, was what the masses demanded, from the shackles of colonialism or at least the culture of illiteracy colonialism necessitated in their societies. In the West, industrialisation was followed by the establishment of what was called universal literacy. In Sri Lanka and India, literacy, though hardly obtainable (as Will Durrant has written, the British India Government spent eight cents per head per year on education at a time when they were spending 83 on the army), congealed into demands for the franchise, which we got in 1931. If literacy was the prerequisite for kitsch in the West, it was the prerequisite for freedom in our societies. But the franchise in itself was not enough; what was needed was independence (formally) and a complete if not partial moving away from the policies of the British Government. The former, of course, we got in 1948, and the latter we got in 1956.

The majority needed to be assimilated to the societies had been estranged from, but the minute they aspired to be the shapers of their collective destinies, a fatal rupture resulted between two forms of culture: the formal and the folk. This process was necessitated more or less by the rural-urban exodus which the franchise, independence, and the historical eventuality compelled by 1956, free education, resulted in. As Greenberg notes, “the peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency.” But the formal culture they aspired to reach required tremendous reserves of leisure and privilege. The peasants simply could not afford that kind of leisure. Having been assimilated to the city, they could not return to the village either, because they had forsaken on their earlier way of life. As such, the ‘new urban masses’ set up a pressure on the societies they were moved to, to provide them with a catalogue of art forms which they could enjoy. Subsequently it was this petty bourgeoisie which enabled the opening up of our art forms to outside (mainly Indian and Western) influences. On one hand, they enjoyed Sunil Shantha, Amaradeva, and Victor Ratnayake. On the other hand, they enjoyed baila, Rukmani Devi, and Clarence Wijewardena.

Greenberg notes, “the peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency”

The fatal rupture – between folk and formal – caused by this social phenomenon was an inevitable consequence of the social mobility resulting from universal literacy (in the form of free education). Moreover, between Amaradeva and Clarence there was and is, to a certain extent, a separation, which while not unbridgeable remains, by default, distinct from one another. If we are to follow Greenberg and impute terms to these two streams of one sensibility, then we have to demarcate them as “jana” (highbrow) and “janapriya” (lowbrow). In both instances what was wiped out, or belittled, was the indigenous culture; the same culture which survives today, though barely, through the joint efforts of Sahan Ranwala and the Ranwala Balakaya as well as its followers and students (some of whom, like Chanuka Moragoda, have graduated to the janapriya sensibility through YouTube and other channels in social media). Obviously, one essay isn’t enough to dwell on the problems that this particular rupture has caused within our cultural firmament. Examining a problem presupposes a succinct explication of that problem. Before examining it, therefore, I will lay it down as follows. The fact is that while the janapriya culture has evolved, and continues to evolve today, from baila on your radio to Sanuka Wickramasinghe on YouTube, the jana culture, which includes among its vast canon Amaradeva and Premasiri Khemadasa, has stopped somewhere. Now that I’ve laid down the problem, I’ll examine it next week. For now however, I’m done with laying it down.