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Kitsch

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used to identify spurious imitations of genuine artistic creations in the fine and applied arts, architecture, literature, fashion, photography, the theatre, cinema and music. Kitsch is sometimes used to refer to virtually any form of popular art or mass entertainment, especially when sentimental, but, although many popular art forms are cheap and somewhat crude, they are at least direct and unpretentious. On the other hand, a persistent theme in the history of the usage of ‘kitsch’, going back to the word’s mid-European origins, is pretentiousness, especially in reference to objects that simulate whatever is conventionally viewed as high art. As Hauser (1974) remarked, kitsch differs from merely popular forms in its insistence on being taken seriously as art or as expressing ‘civilized’ taste. Kitsch can thus be defined as a kind of pseudo, parasitic art, whose essential function is to flatter, soothe and reassure its viewer and consumer. In his essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757), David Hume remarked on ‘A species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but … soon palls upon the taste, and then is rejected with disdain, or at least rated at a much lower value.’ Kitsch was a term unavailable to Hume in the 18th century, but he recognized the mediocrity inherent in what would now be termed kitsch objects.

Kitsch properly begins with what has been called the bourgeois realism of Salon painting and sculpture in the 19th century. Some late Pre-Raphaelite work, with romantic fantasies of a medieval golden age, lies on the boundary of kitsch, while saccharine evocations of Classical themes by such painters as William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Lawrence Alma-Tadema often cross the line. Bell (1914) denied that Luke Fildes’s The Doctor (exh. RA 1891; London, Tate) was a work of art because its effect relies wholly on its sentimental subject-matter. Bell insisted that the painting is ‘worse than nugatory because the emotion it suggests is false. What it suggests is not pity and admiration but a sense of complacency in our own pitifulness and generosity.’ Bell’s objection is to an art that, rather than demanding or even examining virtue, congratulates the viewer for already possessing it. This same idea was stressed by the novelist Milan Kundera in his meditation on the concept of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (trans., London, 1984). Kundera characterized kitsch as calling forth ‘the second tear’. The first tear is shed out of pity; the second is shed in recognition of the feeling of pity. It is essentially self-congratulatory. According to Kulka (1988), the standard kitsch work must be instantly identifiable as depicting ‘an object or theme which is generally considered to be beautiful or highly charged with stock emotions’, even though it ‘does not substantially enrich our associations related to the depicted subject’. The impact of kitsch is therefore limited to reminding the viewer of great works of art, deep emotions or grand philosophic, religious or patriotic sentiments.

A major function of kitsch in the 20th century is to reassure its consumers of their social standing, hence its association with the middle classes. Just as an ostentatious set of ‘great works of literature bound in hand-crafted buckram’ is not intended to be read but to confirm the literacy and wealth of its owner, so works of self-consciously ‘fine’ art may appear in domestic surroundings as emblems of their owner’s status. Straightforward printed reproductions of famous paintings are not in themselves kitsch, but objects that adapt high art images from one medium to another are paradigmatically kitsch, for instance plastic or fibreglass sculptural renderings of Dürer’s Study of Praying Hands, Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–7; Milan, S Maria della Grazie) executed in tapestry, or stained glass, such as that at the Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles, or repainted versions of historical masterpieces that are adapted to the aesthetic expectations of the modern eye (a copyist once told an interviewer that his paintings of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa improved on the original by ‘taking a bit of the chill out of her expression’). Solemnity and a complete absence of irony also mark kitsch: this distinguishes sharply the presentation of a bearded Mona Lisa in Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919; Paris, priv. col., see Marcel Duchamp, exh. cat., New York, MOMA; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.; 1973, opposite p. 128) from the kitsch appearance of Leonardo’s painting on the top of a jewellery box. By poking fun at high art idolatry, Duchamp and the Dadaists pitted themselves against kitsch and initiated a modern tradition that became a factor of later Pop art (e.g. Tom Wesselmann: Bathroom Collage #3, mixed media, 1963; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig) and the irreverent strains of Post-modernism. The late output of Salvador Dalí has been called kitsch, but, although some of this work may be grotesque, its brazenly self-conscious bad taste saves it from being true kitsch, which always strives to please. Kitsch includes mass-produced tourist curios in imitation of honest folk styles, most cinematic versions of famous composers’ lives, much patriotic art, funerary sculpture and all manner of religious reproductions and souvenirs. The kitsch object declares itself ‘beautiful’, ‘profound’, ‘important’ or ‘moving’, but such values are not internally achieved; they derive merely from the kitsch object’s subject-matter or connotations.

Popular politics frequently provides a fertile ground for kitsch: Nazi art exploited kitsch imagery, as did official art in the Soviet Union. Clement Greenberg, in his essay ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch’ (1939, see Dorfles, pp. 116–26), identified political kitsch as playing to the uneducated, sentimental tastes of the masses by providing them with objects to wonder at or to admire, for example in over-sized public monuments to the glories of a regime. Kitsch is more difficult to identify in purely abstract painting or non-programmatic music because its effects so depend on descriptive elements. In the domestic sphere, the contemporary décor of many homes included mass-produced furniture in crude imitation of modernist styles. In the late 20th century the advertising industry has perpetrated a type of kitsch that seeks to raise the status of products by the flagrant, often comical, use of the fine arts, the exoticism of foreign places, music, literature and even religion. Advertisements that graphically juxtapose products with elements taken from a higher cultural or a fantasy plane successfully exploit the general aspiration among consumers for something ‘better’. Like forgery, kitsch is an inevitable feature of a world in which money and desire are spread more widely than taste and knowledge.

Denis Dutton
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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