L.H.O.O.Q.: Avant-garde Iconoclasm or Kitsch

If we think of kitsch as a ‘style’ of bad taste, we arrive at another paradox, much deeper and more puzzling that the one just pointed out, namely the earlier mentioned possibility of consciously using bad taste (i.e., kitsch) in order to subvert the conventions of a ‘good taste’ that eventually leads to the sclerosis of academicism. Baudelaire, who is rightfully regarded as a precursor of aesthetic avant-gardism, had such a possibility in mind when he wrote in Fusées about the intoxicating effect of bad taste, derived from ‘the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing.’ Avant-garde movements have often indulged in such kinds of pleasure, satisfying their anti-artistic urge by outrageously using kitsch mannerisms both in literature and in the arts Even if we accept Clement Greenberg’s view that avant-gardism is radically opposed to kitsch, we have to realize that these two extremes are strongly attracted to one another, and what separates them is sometimes much less striking than what unites them. This is so for two reasons, which have been indicated before in two contexts: (1) the avant-garde is interested in kitsch for aesthetically subversive and ironical purposes, and (2) kitsch may use avant-garde procedures (which are easily transformed into stereotypes) for its aesthetically conformist purposes The later situation is another illustration of the old story of the ‘system’ (read kitscg) co-opting its challengers (the avant-garde). The relationship between kitsch and the avant-garde may in a sense be taken as a caricature of the central principle of modernity: Octavio Paz’e ‘tradition against itself.’ A good example in point is Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the masterpiece that has probably been the most overworked by kitsch. Everybody knows that some time between 1919, while in New York, Duchamp took a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and, after drawing on mustaches and a goatee, entitled it enigmatically ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’ (which spelled out loud in French gives the obscentity: ‘Elle a chaud au cul’) ‘L.H.O.O.Q. is an example of what Duchamp used to call a ‘ready-made assisted,’ as distinct from a straight ‘ready-made’ like the famous urinal that he entered in the 1917 New York art exhibition under the poetic title Fountain. Many critics see the artist’s aggressive treatment of the Renaissance masterpiece as a humorous case of avant-garde iconoclasm. What Duchamp had in mind, however, was different. The Gioconda he abused was not the masterpiece but a reproduction, an instance of the modern falsification of tradition. Duchamp would have probably agreed with Adorno’s view that, in the modern world, tradition has become false, and that there is virtually no tradition that has not become falsified. So Duchamp insulted merely a kitsch object, meant to satisfy a typical form of cultural Bovarysme—one of those countless images of the Mona Lisa with which we have been flooded for decades And I add that it is not at all certain weather in proceeding as he did, the artist was attacking da Vinci’s original painting or whether, on the contrary, he did not try secretly, as I personally believe, to vindicate it. One thing is clear, however; namely that Duchamp resorted to kitsch not only to reject certain crass aesthetic misconceptions and jaded conventions but also to advocate  the avant-garde drive toward the abandonment of an aesthetics based on appearances, which, in our time, are so easily falsified. But in spite of its efforts, the avant-garde was unable to go beyond appearances and, ironically, certain more advanced representatives of kitsch were not long in realizing that they could profitably use the successful unconventionalities of older avant-garde movementSandra Duchamp himself was largely kitschified by Andy Warhol.”

Text from Matei Calinescu, “Five Faces of Modernity” 1987 Duke University Press

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