Kitsch

The Dictionary of Art, Macmillan, London, 1998.

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com

Kitsch (from German, pretentious trash, < dialect, kitschen, to smear, verkitschen, to make cheaply, to cheapen).

“Kitsch” has sometimes been used (for example, by Harold Rosenberg) to refer to virtually any form of popular art or entertainment, especially when sentimental. But though much popular art is cheap and crude, it is 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 ape whatever is conventionally viewed as high art. As Arnold Hauser has remarked, kitsch differs from merely popular forms in its insistence on being taken seriously as art. Kitsch can thus be defined as a kind of pseudo-art which has an essential attribute of borrowing or parasitism, and whose essential function is to flatter, soothe, and reassure its viewer and consumer.

In his 1757 essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume remarks 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, but he may have had something like it in mind. Clive Bell, in Art (1913), came closer to it when he denied that Sir Luke Fildes’s The Doctor (1891, London, Tate) was a work of art because its effect relies wholly on its sentimental subject-matter: 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.”

Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor (1891)

While Bell’s assessment of The Doctor is disputable, he makes a valid objection to art which, rather than demanding or even examining virtue, congratulates the viewer for already possessing it. This same idea is stressed by the novelist Milan Kundera in his meditation on the concept of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Kundera characterises kitsch as calling forth “the second tear.” The first tear is shed out of pity; the second we shed in recognition of our own feeling of pity. It is essentially self-congratulatory.

Kitsch includes what advertising blurbs might call “original hand-painted reproductions of fine works of art,” mass-produced tourist curios in imitation of honest folk styles, most cinematic versions of famous composers’ lives, much patriotic art, the funerary sculpture of California’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, 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. According to Tomas Kulka, 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.” Moreover, kitsch “does not substantially enrich our associations related to the depicted subject.” The impact of kitsch is limited to reminding the viewer of great works of art, deep emotions, or grand philosophic, religious, or patriotic sentiments.

Vladimir Tretchikoff, Green Lady

A major function of kitsch in the present century is to reassure its consumers of their status and position, hence its association with the ever-nervous 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 status and good taste. Straightforward reproductions are not in themselves kitsch, but objects which incorporate high art images to proclaim refinement and opulence are paradigmatically kitsch, especially if they alter or re-work an original piece in another medium—for instance, sculptural renderings of Dürer’s Praying Hands, Leonardo’s Last Supper in tapestry, or repainted versions of historical masterpieces which are adapted to the aesthetic expectations of the modern eye (a Mona Lisa copyist once told an interviewer that his paintings were always precisely true to the original, except that he improved on it 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) from the kitsch appearance of Leonardo’s painting on the top of a jewelry box. By poking fun at high art idolatry, Duchamp and the Dadaists pitted themselves against kitsch and intiated a modern tradition which has continued through Pop Art and the irreverent strains of Postmodernism.

Not only religion, but also popular politics is fertile ground for kitsch: Nazi art exploited kitsch imagery, as did official art in the Soviet Union. Kitsch is more difficult to identify in purely abstract painting or nonprogrammatic music because its effects so depend on descriptive elements. Still, the “contemporary decor” of many homes includes mass-produced coffee-table sculptures in crude imitation of modernist styles, suggesting, for example, Hans Arp or Henry Moore; along with reproductions of the Parisian scenes of Bernard Buffet (1928- ), such items qualify as modernist kitsch: they function to produce a thoroughly up-to-date aura of refinement.

Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Invading Cupid's Realm (1892)

Kitsch proper begins in the history of art with what has been called bourgeois realism in the salons of the 19th century. Some later Pre-Raphaelite work, with its romantic fantasies of a medieval golden age, comes close to the boundary of kitsch, while saccharine evocations of classical themes by such figures as William Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) often cross the line. The late output of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) has been called kitsch, but though some of this work may be grotesque, its flagrantly self-conscious bad taste saves it from being true kitsch, which always strives to please. Like forgery, kitsch is an inevitable feature of an art world in which money and desire are spread more widely than taste and knowledge.

Bibliography

A. Celebonovic: Some Call It Kitsch: Masterpieces of Bourgeois Realism (New York, n.d.)
F. Karpfen: Der Kitsch: eine Studie über die Entartung der Kunst (Hamburg, 1925)

G. Highet: Talents and Geniuses (New York, 1957)

G. Dorfles (ed.): Kitsch: an Anthology of Bad Taste (London, 1969)

H. Rosenberg: The Tradition of the New (New York, 1970)

L. Giesz: Phänonmenologie des kitsches (Munich, 2nd ed, 1971)

A. Moles: Le Kitsch: l’art du bonheur (Paris, 1971)

A. Hauser: Soziologie der Kunst (Munich, 1974)

A. Hauser: Sociology of Art, trans. K.J. Northcott (Chicago, 1982)

P. Crick: “Kitsch”, British Journal of Aesthetics, xxiii (1983), pp. 48-52.

M. Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (London, 1984)

T. Kulka: “Kitsch”, British Journal of Aesthetics, xxviii (1988), pp. 18-27.

 

Copyright © 1998 Macmillan. All rights reserved.