Art and Commerce: The Challenge of Modernist Advertising Photography



In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” now a landmark in the history of American modernism, Clement Greenberg lamented the paradox in which artists who produced high culture struggled to remain apart from bourgeois society, yet were tied to “an elite among the ruling class” by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Unhappy as he was that the primary support for high culture came from this tiny, wealthy faction, Greenberg was even more troubled that support for the arts among this class was fast disappearing, with no other champion in sight. “The masses have always remained more or less indifferent to culture,” Greenberg bemoaned. They were satisfied with kitsch— “popular, commercial art and literature”— that he characterized as “the debased and cademicized simulacra of genuine culture.”1 In this enormously influential essay, Greenberg articulated binaries often used to define modernism, binaries that powerfully shaped critical understanding of the fine arts for the next several decades. Avant-garde and kitsch still echo in formulations such as high and low, fine and applied, elite and popular, art and commerce.


High Culture White School Advertising Photograph Commercial Work American Modernist 
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© Elspeth H. Brown, Catherine Gudis, and Marina Moskowitz 2006

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