Shane Reiner-Roth is a writer and co-founder of Tall Work (Instrumental Plausibility). Through publications, exhibitions and speculative projects, his work examines the means by which certain objects appeal to an economy of expression by communicating higher values than their own on the cheap. He is currently a research fellow at the MIT department of architecture.


Though Clement Greenberg defines avant-garde art (or all artistically-gestural media) as “the other side of kitsch,”[1] it might be equally included that kitsch media can be described as work with gestural narrative, while avant-garde work is either non-linear or non-referential to any linear narrative at all. In Grant’s Kestor’s words, “If kitsch’s preferred mode is a viewer-friendly “realism,” then avant-garde art will be abstract, “opaque,” and “unpresentable.”[2] Using both Greenberg’s and Kestor’s words, I will compare Baldassari’s false kitsch, Inception (directed by Chris Nolen) and the false avant-garde, and Day is Done (directed by Mike Kelly) and another false kitsch. By focusing on their individual approaches to simultaneity and use of narrative, as well as their unique illusory inferences from their respective audiences, the goal of this essay will be to complicate the definitions of both avant-garde and kitsch, and either compliment their original implications or find contradictions in them by introducing the concept of illusion.

John Baldessari’s large works of the 80’s and 90’s, such as Five Yellow Divisions or Inventory, contain images on at least six canvases or frames, nearly all of which are either cropped or overlaid, and all of them appear to be from scenes of different movies or television. Again, in Five Yellow Divisions, individual frames are used to establish difference, and the yellow line which vertically connects them (at least on a perceptual level) is choppy to illustrate an artistic orchestration rather than a scene that really took place. The yellow line is used (in order) as a divider, a doorjamb, a subway pole, a threshold, and the side of a wall. These varied roles of the abstract yellow line (which is laid on top of whatever was originally in the scene) illustrate the several film techniques, now appreciably kitsch or antiquated, now being combined into one piece (or five pieces alongside each other) for study. The ten actors, now a part of this art piece, had absolutely no understanding of their subsequent duty as members of an art piece, and for this reason I will call this type of dialogue forced dialogue. The hand gestures and facial expressions that these actors made are now immortalized in this piece, and their new dialogue, as mediated by Baldessari, is set in stone.

Since the dialogical art practice can be described as a work of art which “can be viewed as kind of conversation; a locus of differing meanings, interpretations, and points of view,”[3] it can be said that there is an implied narrative between the various characters displayed in Baldessari’s work. Furthermore, the film stills provoke us, to play a trivia game, since they have all been bastardized from media of which we feel very familiar. In Hope (Blue) Supported by a Bed of Oranges (Life): Amid a Context of Allusions, there are photos which appear to be from either The Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello, a photo seemingly from Wallyworld,and others which we feel we can cite, yet most likely cannot. This is because all of the details which would give us our clear indications have been blotted out by colorful circles, in the center of either a face or any other object in the room which would give us clear information about who these people are and where these photos took place. Hope provokes us in this way, harassing our curiosity and need to nominally recognize what we see, while in itself creating multiple forced plots (the man sprawled in one scene, and punching the Wallyeworld mascot in another, for example). Therefore, while Baldessari’s work at first appears kitsch in its inclusion of film stills, which originally had a truly kitsch narrative, their combinatory aesthetics creates a narrative or dialogue which is in reality “abstract, opaque, and unpresentable,” better known as “avant-garde.” Baldessari’s work gives the illusion of kitsch, but in subjectivity, opaqueness, and obscurity, can only in analysis be considered an avant-garde made up of kitsch items.

While much of his work involves dialogue exchanged between people or objects on separate frames, his work within the series Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees, for example, creates a forced dialogue between a woman and a palm tree, enacted by a perceptual misconception, entirely with the one frame. Unlike the other in this narrative approach, the woman in the photo is not “forced” into this dialogue; she’s been to be a part of this scene, though the palm tree hasn’t; it is merely a piece of scenery within the environment. While most photographers choreograph their scenes with either every object within the scene accounted for and fabricated by the artist or with the characters and the scenery exchanging as little dialogue as possible, Baldessari has chosen to have half or fewer of the members of his scenes “give consent” in being a member of these works of art. If “the interactions that are central to these [dialogical] projects all require some provisional discursive frame through which the various participants can exchange insights and observations,”[4] then Baldessari’s work can hardly be considered within the dialogical category. Again, there is the illusion of objective narrative, and therefore kitsch, but the reality of it’s being avant-garde makes the art critic curious about the limits of the avant-garde.

Media on the other side of the spectrum, the commercial motion picture business, must, for box office revenue and mass appeal, illustrate a tight and rigidly structured narrative. Therefore, to follow Greenberg’s definition, virtually all commercial motion pictures, with the sole attempt of achieving mass appeal and revenue, can be considered kitsch. Following this logic, it seems difficult to call Inception, what Mark Fennell calls “the cleverest, most original use of a Blockbuster budget we’ve seen in years,”[5] a work of kitsch. However, when referring to a grand motion picture, while sometimes hard to follow, an entirely simultaneous script still is entirely gestural.

Christopher Hawthorne, LA Times critic, writes about Inception, “If there’s one way in which Nolan is obsessed with breaking new ground, it’s with the film’s dizzying narrative structure. In the second half of the movie, Nolan work feverishly to keep aloft an unbelievably complex story, which ultimately fold four differences scenes into a single breathless sequence.”[6] And since there is no such thing as free will in cinema, there is likewise no such thing as forced dialogue. In Inception, the four scenes occurring simultaneously are weaved together to structurally make sense, and no one can be seen as separate from the rest. Simultaneity, here, is presented strictly as narrative, if only to be immediately intelligible to the viewer. Unlike Baldsassari’s frames, Inception’s several scenes narratively (and occasionally even physically), effect each other, in a way that has to structurally make sense when put together by the viewer. Baldassari’s work, on the other hand, is tied loosely enough together for a viewer to have a continuously fluctuating perception of it. Both Inception and Baldassari’s work have scenes which can be defined in isolation, but only in Baldassari’s work can two or three canvases be considered the piece of study while the others are momentarily cast aside. More importantly, this inability to isolate scenes in Inception reveals a hidden kitsch within a widely agreed upon avant-garde.

To illustrate that the means of a kitsch item being masked as the avant-garde are not merely something which always exists in filmic media, the use of simultaneity in Mike Kelly’s Day is Done will be examined. When hearing that this film is over three hours, a tight and growing narrative seems crucial; and so the viewer attempts, throughout watching the film, to create a larger narrative out of the individual scenes which make enough sense within themselves. In an interview, discussing the inspiration for the work, Kelly remarked, “I [worked] with these particular groups of images and developed a kind of pseudo-narrative flow.”[7] To establish a relationship with narrative (a very disingenuous one) reveals a desire to mask the avant-garde as kitsch. While the avant-garde has typically appeared comfortable within the avant-garde, artists like John Baldassari and Mike Kelly have chosen to mask the avant-garde as kitsch, to criticize those suspecting that what is truly kitsch is also that which deserves little thought.

Simultaneity and narrative, in these three media, typify the use of illusion as a means of transgressing from either kitsch to the avant-garde, or the avant-garde to the kitsch.

[1] Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Art in Theory (1900-1990)


[2] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, Theory and Contemporary Art since 1985

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination, 1975

[4] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, Theory and Contemporary Art since 1985


[6] Christopher Hawthorne, Grand Dreams Indeed, LA Times, August 3rd, 2010


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