What’s Kitsch?

In order to discuss the meaning of kitsch, you first need to know it’s definition. So I grabbed my copy of Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles (with contributions by John McHale, Karl Pawek, Ludwig Giesz, Lotte H. Eisner, Ugo Volli, Vittorio Gregotti, and Aleksa Celebonovic; and essays by Hermann Broch and Clement Greenberg). In the book kitsch is defined as follows:

The word kitsch could derive etymologically from the English ‘sketch’ or, according to the other opinions, from the German verb ‘verkitschen (‘to make cheap’). According to Giesz (Ludwig Giesz: ‘Phanomenologie des Kitsches’ …1960) which is without doubt the most complete work on the subject, the word kitsch could approximately be said to mean ‘artistic rubbish.’

However, “artistic rubbish” is as “I know it when I see it” as porn is. To simply define something as “bad” without considering the pure subjectivity involved is nearly nonsensical.

While Dorfles et all go on at great length about how they arrive at the wrinkling of their noses, the definitions are less than satisfactory — especially as they point to a real case of monetary snobbery.

For example, posters of the great art classics are considered to be kitsch. Translation: Unless you can afford an actual Rembrandt or other Master, your taste, however classy, will be defined as bad and kitsch by virtue of simply having a thin wallet.

In fact, Dorfles really, really, not only dislikes copies or reproductions of any sort, but is not exactly happy with any sort of consumerism (he would hate today’s art museum gift shops). Nor does he limit himself only to the visual arts; along with film literature and music are judged, their medium and means of consumer acts equally under attack.

Dorfles is not an complete idiot, however; he senses the reader’s potential ire:

If anyone is not satisfied with our choice and finds some of the images artistic which we will present as pseudo-artistic, un-artistic, too bad! To us at least it will mean that our reader is really a ‘kitsch-man’ of the first water; and that the psychological test has worked properly.

What Dorfles (and anyone else who uses insulting as a judgmental intimidation tactic) fails to recognize here in such a confirmed stance of absolutes, is that a kitsch-woman of the first water (me!) will find his awareness of discord and dispute wins him no favor intellectually. The gloves are now off. Any potential shield of ignorance leaves him standing naked before me, facing a battle to the inevitable intellectual death.

If all this seems to imply that Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste is a book to avoid, please do not misunderstand. I love a good book I can sink my teeth into — even if that means I’m growling when I do it. (And I’ll likely visit this book often for argumental posts.)

But if Dorfles brings us closer to a true understanding of what kitsch really is, it is purely by accident.

This book was published in 1969 — and contains essays written up to three decades earlier. Viewed with the benefit of time, or hindsight, I find a great contextual definition of kitsch. Or maybe I should say, a definition of kitsch as a defensive reaction to the preservation of Art.

Some love this book for opening “your eyes to the avalanche of junk that makes up popular culture” and others loath it for failing to recognize the “the signifigance of the narrowing gap between high and low art,” but both sides miss the real point. Defining art as high-brow or low-brow, dismissing popular culture and ourselves as collectively low-brow, isn’t just an over-simplification; it’s a poor assessment.

Art as a form of human expression is not a static thing. It changes. Like everything else. Even removing the individual voices and processes of the creators, artworks are offered to a public which changes. Not only did we once love Rubenesque women, but Ruben himself; now, meh, not-so-much for either of them. What we value, and how we value it, changes. The conversations we have, the issues we explore, change. And, perhaps most dramatically, the ability to produce, show, and critique art has changed.

If low-barrier equals low-entry equals low-brow is the math being used, people need to reconsider. The converse certainly does not hold true. And those who, like Dorfles does with machines, blame technology for the copious amounts of kitsch ought to remember the battles for freedom of access for all. And the remarkable artworks we’ve had, strides taken, as a result.

I don’t want to be equally guilty of passing judgment on those who are quick to condemn popular culture, kitsch, etc., but the very people who “feel overwhelmed by the tasteless tides of popular culture” are not only, as they whine, so afflicted by it, but they are employing it. It’s obvious they are digging such pop culture adventures as publishing sans gatekeeper with a big spoon. Self-publishing their high-brow opinions is a low-brow, kitsch activity.

But back to the book.

Contextually, this book of essays stands as a defense against Modernism and those art movements after it which reject tradition. It’s the defensive posturing of an establishment wishing to retain authority, to rally the museums, galleys, and wealthy who must guard the integrity of Art. It’s not that these people have better taste with which to form the definitions and standards of Art, or even the right to do so; but they do have a reason to try. For you see, what they truly hope to guard so zealously are their investments in it.

But you can’t insulate your investments in art. Art is part of a living, breathing, culture which, as stated, changes. As the cultural values change, so do the monetary values of art. Not always in the art investor’s favor.

And no desperate debates designed to keep the established art status quo can thwart it.

So, the definition of kitsch…

On one hand, kitsch is purely subjective in the sense that each of us knows it when we see it and we ascribe different attributes to it. “Bad,” “atrocious,” “so bad it’s grand,” “funny,” “too funny,” “cheap,” etc. Which is why kitsch rather defies a classification. (What pleases or amuses one, insults another).

But kitsch, as it is often used in the art world, often has quite a different distinction. I see it as more than a slur, but an actual means to limit and control the art market, if not the art world.

Image credits: As all images are scanned from Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles. Presented in order placed in the post, with author comments, if any.

Vintage ad, found on page 177: “An example of facile and grotesque copyfitting in this attempt to identify the inimitable blue of a painting by Cezanne with the blue of a man’s sportshirt.”

Film still, found on page 195: “The depiction of a famous painter on the screen is painful even in the hands of a director with taste. Vincente Minnelli’s film about van Gogh, Lust For Life (1956).”

Mona Lisa “kitsch,” found on page 21: “10. The Mona Lisa myth appears once more against the tiles of a shower. 11. A spectacles-case”

5 thoughts on “What’s Kitsch?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *