Tomas Kulka on Kitsch

Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997): 208-11.

Denis Dutton

In a review of the new Macmillan Dictionary of Art, the art historian Christopher Green says of “kitsch” that “it is a term whose application has never been consistent enough for there to be any consensus.” He is therefore surprised that the Dictionary could present something “so definitive” as its entry on the subject. Green is right about the slipperiness of kitsch in general usage, which is a challenge for anyone wanting to give a rational, manageable account of the notion. A definition of “kitsch” (or other loaded type-terms, such as “baroque,” “primitive,” “decadent,” or “stylized") that tried to acknowledge every disparate application of the term would end up useless. The only thing for a dictionary writer to do is to take a deep breath and argue for some plausible, historically informed idea of what kitsch is — above all one which explains or at least implies what kitsch isn’t and what a misuse of “kitsch” would be. Whether or not a definition commands general agreement, it’s at least got to provide a foothold.

Tomas Kulka, a philosopher at the Tel Aviv University, has provided the first solid, book-length foothold on the subject produced in English: Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, $32.50 cloth, $16.95 paper). Plenty of others have had things to say on the concept of kitsch, but this book, which extends arguments presented in an essay on kitsch Kulka published in the British Journal of Aesthetics in 1988, is so far the only sustained philosophical account of it. At the center of Kulka’s argument are three criteria, “necessary and sufficient conditions,” for kitsch in visual arts. First, “kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.” A little girl, holding a puppy, with big tears rolling from her eyes (and aren’t those eyes the size of grapefruits!). Sad clowns, mothers with infants, cute, baby animals (mainly mammals), cheerful hobos, Swiss Alpine scenes with lovely, blond Swiss girls in folk dress, dolphins sporting in the water, and so on. Second, the subject of kitsch must be “instantly and effortlessly identifiable.” No visual ambiguity: the audience must never have to strain to recognize what is depicted. Finally, a purely negative condition: kitsch does nothing “to enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”

For Kulka, kitsch is essentially transparent: the audience for kitsch is not focused on the formal or technical features of the work as art, but looks through the kitsch work to a subject-matter, normally something sentimental or morally edifying. The self-consciousness of the appeal of the kitsch subject is also important, Kulka indicates, echoing Milan Kundera’s notion of the second tear. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Kundera has written. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! The second tear makes kitsch kitsch.” There is a sense of self-congratulation in that second tear, but also an enjoyment of the fact of universality. So when Bambi appears on screen, and everyone sighs, “Awaaah,” part of the appeal of the event is the recognition that everybody’s awaahing at the same time. “Since the purpose of kitsch,” Kulka says, “is to please the greatest possible number of people, it always plays on the most common denominators.”

Kulka intends his definition of kitsch to be classificatory, meaning I take it that it can be applied by any rational person without the exercise of aesthetic judgment. His vigorous defense of this position makes for provocative reading, but I’m not convinced. Why it is that one Italian madonna and child does not enrich what we already know about the Italian madonna tradition (or mothers and children), and is therefore kitsch, while another does, and is art? Deciding this question seems to require aesthetic judgment, a capacity for evaluation; if so, Kulka’s necessary and sufficient conditions are already logically connected with evaluation of an object as kitsch, and do not precede evaluation in the way he apparently wants. He claims at one point that it is not the philosopher’s job to identify individual works of kitsch, but the art critic’s. Fine, but what’s needed for informative definitions are sets of necessary and sufficient conditions for the identification of any disputed class of objects which do not require that you can already identify objects of that kind in order to apply the conditions. Otherwise, we’re moving in a circle.

Nevertheless, we should welcome Kulka’s style of approach. Since every contemporary source I can think of tends to treat kitsch from a social-reductionist standpoint, it’s most refreshing that Kulka has attempted to examine kitsch within the tradition of analytic aesthetics. The predictable price for this strategy is that Kulka sometimes misses or underplays important social aspects of kitsch. Take, for instance, the notion of parasitism which is closely associated with kitsch. Although Kulka mentions it repeatedly, his emphasis on transparency means that he treats the parasitism of kitsch as a matter of the kitsch object simply borrowing its appeal from its subject-matter.

True enough, but this is only one way kitsch can be parasitic. Consider my personal Franklin Mint collection. Actually, while I don’t collect the gee-gaws marketed by that company, for years I’ve been saving magazine advertisements for Franklin Mint offerings as they are a goldmine for students of kitsch. The ads illustrate the tendency of kitsch to soothe and reassure its consumers that they are people of refinement and good taste. Here, for example, is some brochure copy for a porcelain figurine of a Sioux medicine man in ritual dance: “A work of truth, power and majesty. . . . Hand painted in the deep, rich colours of the earth itself.” This “dramatic” sculpture has been “commissioned by the American Indian Heritage Foundation Museum . . . to inaugurate its newest gallery. And, by special permission of the Museum, you may acquire this spectacular sculpture for display in your own home or office, as well . . . an inspired and dynamic work of art. Pulsating with action. Packed with authentic historical detail. . . .” Later on, the ad tells us, it will be passed “along proudly to future generations” — an instant heirloom.

You never buy anything from this company, you acquire it. The objects aren’t even sold, they’re issued. Needless to remark, they’re always unique, authentic, classic, hand-crafted (or at least hand-painted), custom designed — in fact, they’re treasures, created by distinguished artists. Franklin Mint trinkets are usually rich, and beautiful, and traditional, and if they aren’t then they’re precision, and state of the art. What is being appealed to here is not just artifacts with special aesthetic qualities, but a particular self-image of their potential consumers. The statue’s values tend to derive from socially desirable elements (money, taste, status, “heritage,” education, etc.) quite outside the artifact itself but which surround it like a halo — or a smell. Buy this statuette and you will become an improved person — or better, you will be recognized for being the very high-class person you already are. Ownership of Franklin Mint products and self-esteem go hand-in-hand.

This is consistent with Kulka’s astute observation that kitsch works are seldom criticized in specific aesthetic terms. It isn’t just prejudice, Kulka explains: good works of art can be ruined (or, much less likely, improved) by the slightest changes; kitsch is resistant to improvement or damage. The irrelevance of specifically aesthetic characteristics is, however, part of the transparency of kitsch for Kulka; I’d see it more as having to do with the social functions of kitsch. If I display whale pictures on my wall to convince myself and others that I care for the environment, exactly what the pictures look like is secondary. Franklin Mint ad copy normally tries harder to persuade customers of how purchase will enable them to enjoy elevated status, refinement, and opulence than it tries to exalt the peculiar aesthetic qualities of the objects on offer. In this sense, the kitsch game, while it intends to look like the art game, is played by quite different rules: it is more about the consumer than about the artifacts.

I doubt if Kulka would dispute any of this. In fact he quotes with approval a remark by Hermann Broch: “Kitsch is certainly not ‘bad art,’ it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, or which, if you prefer, appears alongside it.” Kulka says that a kitsch painting functions “more like a pictogram” than a work of art. He might have said magic charm. The kitsch object’s very presence in the living room is supposed to do the trick, working as an emblem of respectability, or a sign of a worthy regard for religion, or whatever replaces religion in middle-class households, such as popular environmentalism. (Of course, anyone may buy a real work of art and use it as a status symbol — but that’s not the art’s fault, and works of art can outlive owners who are impervious to their real charms.) This dimension of social rather than strictly aesthetic concern seems to me to get at part of what Broch means: in a sense, the kitsch is not merely a bad part of the art world; it constitutes a separate world of pseudo-art, a realm whose ambitions are not even the ambitions of art.

But having said all that, it is still, art or not, bad, and it is one of the virtues of Kulka’s Kitsch and Art that it shows us that underneath the social questions kitsch presents an aesthetic side that, however meagre, begs for evaluation. Kulka’s lucidly philosophical treatment of kitsch is in strong contrast to the shallow, politics-soaked accounts now prevalent in cultural studies. This bracing, provocative book is bound to become a mandatory starting point for future studies of kitsch.


Copyright 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.