Modernist Paintings Engaged With Mass Culture Cultural Studies Essay

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Modernism, in its Greenbergian definition was part of an avant-garde culture that was something totally separate and removed from the inferior parallel culture of the masses as indicated by this quote. Modern painters sought to assert their identity by pursuing the detached l'art pour l'art. A problem faced by artists of the avant-garde was the issue of constructing an autonomous pictorial form that was neither aligned with the corrupt art that had resulted from capitalism (what Greenberg called kitsch [2] ), yet neither art that could be found in the Academy. However perhaps contradictorily, while proceeding to do so, it also appears that the art of the avant-garde could not totally disengage itself from aspects of mass culture and examples in this discussion will highlight both the implicit and explicit ways that it did so through form, medium, subject matter and perhaps even values associated with the masses. In questioning why such a paradox was created by modernist painting, some have concluded that mass culture was merely used as a temporary expedient in constructing the identity of the avant-garde, expressed through a critique that aimed to preserve a cultural hierarchy. However, taking into account the extent of such engagement it might be otherwise suggested that modern artists were deliberately seeking to capture the attention of the broader public, not only as a means of expressing their revolutionary attitudes, but perhaps in attempt to democratise the arts.

Before modernism is discussed, it is perhaps worth briefly looking at how mass culture itself emerged as a powerful cultural phenomenon in the second half of the 19 century in Paris. This particular century saw a growth of populated European cities (with the French capital going from 500,000 to nearly 3 million citizens by 1900 [th] ) which was a result of the modernisation in the countryside. This created a new urban working-class who sought a replacement for the eradication of their rural popular culture. With academic art being off limits to the proletarian and decline in church and state patronage, a gap emerged for the capitalist-driven mass culture to develop and this not only became a defining feature of fin-de-siecle Paris, but it also was set to impact the art of the avant-garde significantly. Montmarte in particular, an area in Paris where avant-garde artists gathered after 1850, had its own distinct bohemian and anarchist identity, yet as Michael Wilson points out it also "contained the seeds of popular and mass culture" [3] and was a place which allowed for the boundaries between "high" and "low" culture to become blurred (a characteristic of Postmodernism that is present in our contemporary society).

Thomas Crow, writing in 1981, suggests the engagement with mass culture was a means of avant-garde reinventing or perhaps even discovering itself through use of marginal medium [4] . In questioning what is to be made of such continuing involvement some have proposed that modern artists saw themselves as sharing something in common with the proletariat class: both being expelled from society and struggle for political emancipation, but as Crow discusses, mere imitation of mass culture would not provide political emancipation, thus modern artists had to instead discover a parallel centred on a "purer" art.

The work of the Cubists in the early 20 century demonstrates how the elements of mass culture infiltrated the avant-garde form. Picasso and Braque took novel objects out of their commoditised context and directly inserted them into their "purer" art form. Greenberg in his essay "Collage" (1959) claims that the "intruder objects" (the physical materials of mass culture such as fragments of newspaper clippings, tablecloth, and woodprint designs) used in Cubist papier collies firmly put mass culture in its place [th] (as seen in Picasso's Au Bon Marche [1913], which uses actual debris from national advertising to represent the commodity-driven mass culture in capitalist Paris). Even though they were seen to be "real" objects, for the Cubists, they brought no sense of "reality" to their collages. For Greenberg also, while there is an element of engagement here, the avant-garde and mass culture was extremely separate in not only quality, but audience (modernist painting appealed only to the trained and educated bourgeoisie, not the masses). Thus it might be said that the inclusion of manufactured objects was in no way a modernist attempt to make them "readable" by masses, they simply functioned as "weapons in a necessary, aggressive clearing of space, which were discarded once their work is done" [5] . Through fragmenting pieces of mass culture the Cubists were using an aesthetic barrier of coded representation that aimed to protect "high" art and firmly re-emphasise that avant-garde art was far too complex for the general population. This meant the alliance between modernism and the culture of the masses came to be expressed in quite negative terms.

Similar to the use of mass culture in form, the subject matter of much modernist painting also revealed a direct involvement with the lower-class culture as a means of declaring the identity of the avant-garde. Taking perhaps a sociological approach to art history, Crow claims modern artists (especially the Impressionists) like other marginal social groups in the past had formed a resistant and deviant subculture rooted in a desire to assert class identity. As Crow addresses:

To accept modernism's oppositional claims, one need not assume that it somehow transcended the culture of the commodity; it can rather be seen as having exploited to critical purpose contractions within and between distant sectors of that culture." [6] 

Efforts to distinguish the identity of modernist painting from that of mass culture were achieved by isolating the subject matter of leisure consumption, and then exaggerating or manipulating it to the extent where it came to signify the opposite of its intending meaning, known as a counter-consensual group statement. So for example, Courbet shows an engagement with lower culture in his Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (1856) whereby he depicts two prostitutes dressed in middle-class attire, yet it is "piled on beyond all 'correct' usage of fashionable understanding" [7] , and so the artist is critically using the culture of the lower classes in a bourgeoisie context as a means of expressing his own avant-garde identity through such a contrast. Similarly in capturing the proletariat lifestyle, Manet's early subjects tended to portray Parisian low-life, the "absinthe drinkers, dissolute picnics and upstart whores" that were "captivating and repulsive at the same time" [8] . Yet tactically, once the Impressionist identity had been manifested successfully through cultural contrast, his art resolved back to the autonomous realm of high culture.

However, due to the implicitly of such visual critique, it is clear to see how some might read this as a modernist desire to become part of the lower culture, thus questions over the degree of the intended legibility of such avant-garde statements could perhaps be further investigated in order to explore this particular way of engaging with the masses. As further pointed out by Crow, modernism's resistant attempts as a sub-cultural group only made mass culture more marketable and therefore it served as a kind of "research and development arm in the cultural industry" [9] , rather than the autonomous canon of value as proposed by Greenberg. Nevertheless it is still plausible that, in a sense of expressing their collective class identity, modernist painting may have used mass culture purely as a means to an end.

Continuing with subjects associated with mass culture, Neo-impressionist painters often produced visual representations of lower-culture spectacle. Seurat, particularly in his later works, which reveal the influence of poster artist Jules Cheret, shows a continuous return to the subjects of mass culture in the form of the avant-garde. In Le Chahut (1889-90) and Cirque (1891), Seurat no longer takes the role of a detached on-looker, but is rather engaged in the amusement of the city and entertainment of the masses (Herbert p.158), perhaps revealing a sympathetic attitude toward the proletarian lifestyle. Seurat and contemporary Signac shared the view that art should be open to the masses, not through means of an engulfing commodity culture, but rather a shared appreciation for modernist painting. Thus to Signac, subject matter depicting the joys of mass cultural spectacle in the "pure" modernist form was a moralistic commentary on the struggle of working-classes, "portraying proletarian pleasures that are only industrial work in another guise" [10] . This continuous reference to mass cultural entertainment can be seen as a reference to the false-class consciousness and the social tension between workers and Capital. So for example, in Seurat's Le Chahut, the frenzied scene of cancan dancers creates a seductive, yet sinister image of the pleasures of the urban capitalist society, conveyed through the mechanical and slightly disturbing facial expressions of the performers. Similarly in Cirque, the hypnotic trance of the spectators perhaps refers to the manipulation and control over the masses, again demonstrating how mass culture was used in modernist painting as a means of critiquing capitalism. Yet taking Neo-Impressionism as an example, it appears that this interest in the subjects of mass culture presents a somewhat contradictory and confusing picture, when recalling the firm distinctions modernists had initially made between their own culture and the culture of the masses. Perhaps it should even be questioned whether it was possible once entrenched, to separate modernist painting from the alluring image of capitalism that was being manifested not just in areas of mass culture, but in their own art.

This engagement was intensified by the technological advancements made in reproduction during the modern period, and certain artists deliberately exploited new cheap mediums in order to connect with the wider public. French Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in the19 century all took advantage of the new spaces created for public art in industrialised Paris, such as low-cost reproductions in newspapers and posters displayed in the streets. Perhaps anticipated by the flattened forms of Manet, the poster in particular was a fundamental medium to the modern painter wishing to communicate within the realm of mass culture, and it was Post-Impressionist Toulouse-Lautrec that shifted from oil painting to the print technique in order to captivate the foule [th] . The artist took advantage of technical inventions that allowed for the mechanical reproduction of the arts, such as the invention of the chromolithograph, which was set to have a profound impact on the public. Using strong contour, brash colour, flat shapes and repetitive bold words, Toulouse-Lautrec created audacious posters that appealed to the masses. This engagement was also deepened by the representation of stars familiar to the working-classes as seen in Jane Avril (1893) and Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant (1892).

To many the poster was seen as an art form of great merit and not just a product of mass culture, with Félix Fénéon even encouraging people to rip posters from the streets and to decorate their houses with them [11] . Walter Benjamin, in his Marx-influenced writings, was fascinated by the democratising effect that mechanical reproductions could have on society. The broad scope of the lithograph meant works of art could now be produced at little cost and made accessible to more who were unable to visit museums or galleries. The loss of "aura" [12] from artwork for Benjamin meant that art was now no longer concerned with canonic values, but served a political purpose related to the social struggles of the day through contact with the lower classes (as exemplified by Toulouse-Lautrec).

However, the poster was not the only mass produced medium that modernism engaged with; the newspaper also became an outlet that allowed certain avant-garde artists to cross cultural boundaries. Émile Pouget's weekly newspaper, Le Père Peinard, was an anarchist publication against capitalism and revolutionary in a sense that it wished to see a classless society. Distinctive for its writing in working-class vernacular (despite many contributors being members of the bourgeoisie), some modern artists such as Maximilien Luce created images that were designed to appeal to a proletariat readership. While Pouget monitored such illustrations in order to ensure that they did not stray too far from the avant-garde, artists were seen to conform to the "artless" mechanical popular imagerie, through use of bold outlines and subtle tonalities [13] . While this may seem quite contradictory to the aims of modernism, it shows how some revolutionary avant-garde artists, namely Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists like Luce, used mass-culture as a vehicle to perhaps democratise the arts, as well as using it as a means of asserting their collective identity.

Despite such clear affirmations of distinction, it appears that modern painters used mass culture as an invisible framework that offered artists "low" cultural forms, subjects and mediums which could be taken and modified to portray a cynical critique of the pleasures provided by mass culture and therefore as a result emphasise the oppositional identity of modernist painting. However, while some avant-garde artists sought to manipulate mass cultural material as a means of expressing antithetic ideas and to protect the realm of "high art" through critique, others used its subjects to present a more sympathetic view of the lower-classes and in cases attempted to democratise contemporary art through attracting larger audiences (perhaps best indicated by the embracement of the mechanical reproduction of the poster). Thus, regardless of the artistic intent of modernist painters, it is through accommodation rather than the rejection of the masses and their culture that ultimately meant cultural barriers in art would dissolve.