Chus Martinez On Kitsch!

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Kitsch is an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art that are aesthetically deficient (whether or not being sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative) and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art through repeated conventions and formulae. Excessive sentimentality often is associated with the term.

The contemporary definition of kitsch is considered derogatory, denoting works executed to pander to popular demand alone and purely for commercial purposes rather than works created as self-expression by an artist. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial and gaudy works that are calculated to have popular appeal and are considered pretentious and shallow rather than genuine artistic efforts.

The concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art. As a descriptive term, kitsch originated in the art markets of Munich in the 1860s and the 1870s, describing cheap, popular, and marketable pictures and sketches. In Das Buch vom Kitsch (The Book of Kitsch), Hans Reimann defines it as a professional expression “born in a painter’s studio”. Writer Edward Koelwel rejects the suggestion that kitsch derives from the English word sketch, noting how the sketch was not then in vogue, and saying that kitsch art pictures were well-executed, finished paintings rather than sketches.

Kitsch appealed to the crass tastes of the newly moneyed Munich bourgeoisie, who allegedly thought they could achieve the status they envied in the traditional class of cultural elites by aping, however clumsily, the most apparent features of their cultural habits. Kitsch became defined as an aesthetically impoverished object of shoddy production, meant more to identify the consumer with a newly acquired class status than to invoke a genuine aesthetic response. In this sense, the word eventually came to mean “a slapping together” (of a work of art). Kitsch was considered morally dubious and to have sacrificed aesthetic life to a pantomime of aesthetic life, usually, but not always, in the interest of signalling one’s class status.

Immanuel Kant contributed greatly to the philosophical definition of fine art, setting values that could be used to identify kitsch. Bearing in mind Kant describes direct appeal to the senses as “barbaric”, much anti-kitsch criticism is based on his philosophy of aesthetics even when it fails to acknowledge this debt. One, thus, has to keep in mind two things: a) Kant’s enormous influence on the concept of “fine art” as it came into being in the mid to late 18th century, and b) how “sentimentality” or “pathos”, which are the defining traits of kitsch, do not find room within Kant’s “aesthetical indifference”. Kant also identified genius with originality. One could say he implicitly was rejecting kitsch, the presence of sentimentality and the lack of originality being the main accusations against it.

When originality alone is used to determine artistic genius, using it as a single focus may become problematic when the art of some periods is examined. In the Baroque period, for example, a painter was hailed for his ability to imitate other masters. Influenced by Kant’s aesthetics, working with emotional and “unmodern” or “archetypical” motifs was referred to as kitsch from the second half of the 19th century on. Kitsch is thus seen as “false”.

The term kitsch was popularized in the 1930s by the art theorists Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, who each sought to define avant-garde and kitsch as opposites. The art world of the time perceived the immense popularity of kitsch as a threat to culture. The arguments of all three theorists relied on an implicit definition of kitsch as a type of false consciousness, a term meaning a mindset that is misguided as to its own desires and wants.

Adorno perceived this in terms of what he called the “culture industry”, where the art is controlled and formulated by the needs of the market and given to a passive population which accepts it — what is marketed is art that is non-challenging and formally incoherent, but which serves its purpose of giving the audience leisure and something to watch or observe. It helps serve the oppression of the population by distracting them from their social alienation. Contrarily for Adorno, art is supposed to be subjective, challenging, and oriented against the oppressiveness of the power structure. He claimed that kitsch is parody of catharsis and a parody of aesthetic experience.

Broch called kitsch “the evil within the value-system of art”—that is, if true art is “good”, kitsch is “evil”. While art was creative, Broch held that kitsch depended solely on plundering creative art by adopting formulas that seek to imitate it, limiting itself to conventions and demanding a totalitarianism of those recognizable conventions. Broch accuses kitsch of not participating in the development of art, having its focus directed at the past; and Greenberg also speaks of its concern with previous cultures. To Broch, kitsch was not the same as bad art; it formed a system of its own. He argued that kitsch involved trying to achieve “beauty” instead of “truth” and that any attempt to make something beautiful would lead to kitsch.

Greenberg held similar views to Broch concerning the beauty and truth dichotomy, believing that the avant-garde style arose in order to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer society and that kitsch and art were opposites, which he outlined in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” which appeared in the Partisan Review in 1939.

One of Greenberg’s more controversial claims was that kitsch was equivalent to academic art: “All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch.” He argued this based on the fact that academic art, such as that in the nineteenth century, was heavily centred in rules and formulations that were taught and tried to make art into something that could be taught and that was easily expressible. He later came to withdraw from his position of equating the two, as it became heavily criticized.

Often nineteenth century academic art still is seen as kitsch, although this view has come under attack from contemporary art critics. Broch argued that the genesis of kitsch was in Romanticism, which wasn’t kitsch itself, but which opened the door for kitsch taste by emphasizing the need for expressive and evocative art work.

The avant-garde reacted to these developments by separating itself from aspects of art that were widely appreciated, such as pictorial representation and harmony, in order to make a stand for the importance of the aesthetic. Many contemporary critics try not to pigeonhole academic art into the kitsch side of the art-or-kitsch dichotomy, recognizing its historical role in the genesis of both the avant-garde and kitsch.

With the emergence of postmodernism in the 1980s, the borders between kitsch and high art again became blurred. One development was the approval of what is called “camp taste” – which may be related to, but is not the same as camp when used as a “gay sensibility”. Camp, in some circles, refers to an ironic appreciation of that which might otherwise be considered corny, such as singer and dancer Carmen Miranda with her tutti-frutti hats, or otherwise kitsch, such as popular culture events that are particularly dated or inappropriately serious, such as the low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

A hypothetical example from the world of painting would be a kitsch image of a deer by a lake. In order to make this camp, one could paint a sign beside it, saying “No Swimming”. The majestic or romantic impression of a stately animal would be punctured by humor; the notion of an animal receiving a punishment for the breach of the rule is patently ludicrous. The original, serious sentimentality of the motif is neutralized, and thus, it becomes camp.

Susan Sontag argued in her 1964 Notes on “Camp” that camp was an attraction to the human qualities which expressed themselves in “failed attempts at seriousness”, the qualities of having a particular and unique style. It involved an aesthetic of artifice rather than of nature. Indeed, hard-line supporters of camp culture have long insisted that “camp is a lie that dares to tell the truth”

Much of pop art attempted to incorporate images from popular culture and kitsch. These artists strove to maintain legitimacy by saying they were “quoting” imagery to make conceptual points, usually with the appropriation being ironic. Despite the difficulties in defining the boundaries between kitsch and fine art since the beginning of postmodernism, the word “kitsch” still remains in common use to label anything seen as being in poor taste.

2 Comments

Michael Roth On October 7, 2012 at 3:02 am: In a survey of acrotomophiles, abstract acrylic paintings of leg amputations were preferred over pen and ink drawings of arm amputations; installation works of amputations of a single limb, over concept pieces of double amputations; and land art installations of amputations that left a stump, over multimedia works of amputations that left no stump.

chusmartinezproject On October 7, 2012 at 10:18 pm: Amputees rock!



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