Kitsch – “A second hand experience”


Kitsch is art or other objects that, generally speaking, appeal to popular rather than “high art” tastes, something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.

The word Kitsch has first appeared In Munich, in second half of 19th century and was used in street markets for different kinds of souvenirs – quick sketches, postcards, small painted sculptures. Later the term became popular all over the Europe and included photos (especially erotic), posters, advertisement, comics and even Art of the Salon and Hollywood movies.

Attempt to consider Kitsch in a terms of genre or cultural phenomenon was made in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” essay by Clement Greenberg in 1939. He condemned Kitsch as a quintessence of all that is fraudulent. If you have time, take a look at the original essay here.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.” – Greenberg.

Sally Whitman Coleman

The origins of Kitsch Greenberg sees in urbanisation of 19th-20th century and related processes. Previously, art collecting was a privilege of high society, that always meant to have a good education, including historical and philosophical. Nobility had a chance to develop a good taste from childhood. When more and more people started to get access to education (at least some education) and moved to the cities, masses started to influence arts.

Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin by Alexander Gerasimov (1938)
Greenberg considered all Social Realism art as a Kitsch, but this is a discussion point…

Concerning visual arts, I would also like to mention an important thing, that Greenberg did not mention. Art education also became much more available. Plus, development of chemistry has made art supplies cheaper and more affordable for wider amount of people. So it was a mutual process, not only market demand, but also market supply.

Let’s remember Salon. Between 1748 and 1890 it was arguably the greatest annual or biennial art event in the Western world. Its golden years somehow coincides with French Revolutions. That Epoque of french national upsurge grew up many outstanding artists with revolutionary ideas, totally dedicated themselves to art. Wars and revolutions always have a negative influence on art market, so artists were less inclined for commercial component. But then, closer to the end of 19th century we can notice how the art of the Salon progress to the Borderline to Kitsch. Slow but sure…On the one hand in 1848 Salon was much liberalised and it violated the dominance of academism. On the other hand in 1849 medals were introduced. Getting a medal for the painting usually meant a commercial success. Artists who would like to reach this kind of success tried to replicate previous successful paintings of the Salon. And it was happening year after year. Many artists started to concentrate on technical skill, while the essence, expression, own opinion and point of view were abandoned.

Second hand experience” – also a term used by Greenberg concerning Kitsch.

Achille Zo – The Dream of the believer (1870) , an example of Salon Kitsch

On the other hand many artists noticed these trends and could not take it easy. It caused kind of rebellion in the art world. I am talking about impressionism and other experiments in art of the 19th century.

Development of printed products caused wider usage of visual arts in applied, practical aspects of life. Colourful advertising, posters, reprints allowed many artists to earn money by not only selling the original artwork. Commission work for mass product started to play more important role during years.

“Kitsch offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation.” – Walter Benjamin, German Philosopher, cultural critic.

The fantasy genre in visual arts is a great example of how “Kitsch happens”. I don’t want to dig into the origins of fantasy too deep, but mythology theme always took an important place in art. I mean even back to ancient times. Mythology is a kind of sublimation of social experience, wisdom and worldview into the symbolic form and image.

The Knight Errant painting by Sir John Everett Millais is a masterpiece of romanticism genre of 19th century. Natural beauty of woman and lyrical evening landscape in calm colours create a very contemplative mood. The image of Errant knight is a complicated symbolic medieval figure. For better comprehension this canvas a person should have a really good education, I mean especially for the 19th century. But I might say that it was painted for people with such education. Somehow it was not painted for wide audience, as they barely had a chance to even see it those times.

The Lady Shalott painting by John William Waterhouse also requires context and knowledge. But even so this painting is very expressive, and even without the background an observer can feel “innocence preserved by death”, tragedy, emotions and somehow artists own experience.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Johann Heinrich Fussli is an earlier example of romanticism art. The painting not only expresses strong emotion, but also has a strong symbolical meaning included into the mythological plot.

But just the same time, end of 19th century, we already can find other examples. For example, Luis Ricardo Falero. Most of his art is a step forward to Kitsch. One of the reasons of that is because he usually made commission works for commercial products. Look at his painting The Wine of Tokay (1886) and Fairy under starry skies (1883).

Iddilic naked girls, high dynamic and contrast composition are painted just to attract an eye. Lyrical, symbolic and semantic component are almost absent. Though we can still notice a very high technical skill of the painter.

Removal of symbolic, semantic and lyrical aspects from art, leaving only the naked decorations to please an eye – that’s how fantasy genre mostly forms up. Development of posters in the second half of 20th century, the art of such well-known fantasy artists as Boris Vallejo just increased the separation of this genre from traditional genres. Romanticism + Kitsch = Fantasy. Let’s just remember the reasons Greenberg described in his essay: mass market, low educated consumer, new art forms (posters, movies and many others).

Photo courtesy of Coastline Art Gallery

“The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest.” – Greenberg.

 Natalie Muir

Art was moving toward to Kitsch during all the 20th century. But now, in the 21st century Kitsch in visual arts really reached it peak. Internet totally moved us into the information Society. The new Global culture phenomenon replaces national culture. Mass media plays first violin in here. The global agenda is who would take an Iron Throne (popular TV series Game of thrones) almost all over the world. Many painters, artists in a pursue of commercial success does not want to translate their own opinion, they don’t want to set a topic for discussion, as it used to be. It is ineffective comparing to exploitation of mass culture and agenda. Many artists just afraid to translate their own opinion which does not correlate with mass social approval. Social networks work like filter, but usually they promote and encourage simple ideas and topics apprehensible by masses, that does not require much time. We live in a world where you can reach a global publicity in a day just by catching the right trend or hype topic.

Kyle Bookland, The Burning of Notre Dame

Internet also brought new possibilities for art education and self-education. And as I told before, more than 100 years ago it played important role in moving the art towards Kitsch. It happens on a grand scale now. A very good example is a digital art that is almost totally a pure Kitsch.

Art station, digital art

So what is in conclusion? Kitsch… Is it a fake art or still an art? Despite some critical quotations and some of my harsh judgements, still I am sure that Kitsch art is still an art. If such art objects invokes some aesthetic feelings in many people, why not? Is Kitsch a good art? Well, according to definition – no. (By the way, don’t forget, usually artists consciously use Kitschy style for ironic and other purposes, creating real masterpieces.) What is good art then? And this is a very complicated question. I hope some day I will gather my thoughts and experience and will try to share them.

Thank you!


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