Upon hearing the word ‘kitsch’, we might be struck with images of the excessively lurid but popular paintings of Vladimir Tretchikoff, the wide-eyed children in Nara’s Japanese mangas or the discombobulated forward-but-also-sideways-looking faces of Picasso.
The visceral reaction of repulsion need not end at the images of gaudy, lowbrow, fantasy art; they might be accompanied with the much abused sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon (every serious cellist’s nightmare) or the sentimental melodies of Yiruma’s River Flows in You (every serious pianist’s nightmare). And in literature, we might be transported to Dickens’ laughable death scenes or the platitudinous ‘wisdom’ from Maya Angelou.
Even the quality of kitsch itself seems to be declining, for the more modern examples of kitsch might include porcelain plates of Princess Diana’s face, the Hello Kitty range of merchandise and the entirety of Walt Disney’s output.
Despite agreement that ‘kitsch’ as a descriptive term originated in the art markets of Munich in the 1860s and 1870s to describe cheap but fashionable pictures and sketches, there is no consensus between scholars as to how the word was derived. Some suggest it comes from the Germans where kitschen means ‘to smear’ and verkitschen means ‘to cheapen’ whilst others believe it is just a mispronunciation of the English word ‘sketch’. Or perhaps it has Russian roots where the word kishitsa means ‘to pretend to be more than one actually is’.
Oxford Dictionary gives this bold definition on kitsch,
“Art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.”
Jean Baudrillard added,
“The kitsch-object is collectively this whole plethora of “trashy”, sham or faked objects, this whole museum of junk which proliferates everywhere…Kitsch is the equivalent to the cliché in discourse.”
Despite the term being somewhat vague in its origins and having various definitions, experts generally accept that ever since the word was coined in the latter half of the 19th century, kitsch has amassed generally negative connotations.
Kitsch and Shit
If ‘kitsch’ denotes ‘art that is poor taste’, then what differentiates, say, the bucolic prints of Thomas Kinkade (below left), whose works have been criticised for being substance-less ‘mall art’, from the innocent crayon drawing of a house by a 5 year old (below right)?
I mean, there is a clear difference in quality – in all its nauseating romanticism, the picture on the left surely employs more artistic skill and deserves more praise than the adorable but horribly disproportional yellow house (I mean, the sunflowers are nearly as tall as the house and there are butterflies which are as large as the windows…a truly terrifying prospect) drawn by a toddler who only recently learnt how to hold a pencil?
Why is the latter not laughed at (other than sadists without a life, such as me), nor labelled ‘kitsch’ whilst the former mocked and detested as artistic deception, little more than commercially successful ‘kitsch’?
In order to answer this, it might be useful to consider one further definition of kitsch by Milan Kundera in his book ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
[Kitsch is an aesthetic ideal] in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.
Kitsch can, therefore, be defined as ‘the denial of shit’ (probably my favourite definition of kitsch).
Imagine a treasure chest encrusted with gold embellishments and precious diamonds – inside the chest is a pile of crusty toenail trimmings of some 79 year old pirate who raided the chest a long time ago. Oh, how he’d laugh at the future generations who’d salivate at the thought of a diamond crusted box, sail through tempestuous seas and battle other pirates for a box of his toenails (I imagine this is how art elite feel when they see Salvador Dali’s bizarre but well-known portrait of Mona Bismarck auctioned for £2 million).
Or imagine a world where horse meat was sold to the public as ‘beef burgers’ (perhaps the outrage that was the horse meat scandal a few years back was less to do with eating horse meat, but rather the ‘kitsch’, that is, horse meat masking as some other animal’s).
Back to Kinkade and Little Miss Ruby. Despite his success in selling his prints, Kinkade received an overwhelming no-no from the fine art world who criticised the superficiality and idealism of his works. Even Kinkade himself admitted ‘I am really the most controversial artist in the world’. Miss Ruby’s yellow house offers no kind of pretension; there is still neither depth nor substance, but at least it is acknowledged that the work is ‘shit’ (sorry Ruby) and thus no ‘denial of shit’.
Kitsch and ‘the Observer'
Roger Scruton defined kitsch as:
“Fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.”
The key word here is ‘deception'. This relates to the distance between object and observer and how that space is twisted in a way that tricks the observer into seeing the object as something other than what it is.
Furthermore, deception requires a decent amount of similarity between what-is and what-it-pretends-to-be. That’s why Ruby’s drawing could never be kitsch. It is simply too bad to be mistaken as good art.
Walter Benjamin, a German scholar in the study of kitsch said:
“[Kitsch] offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation.”
Kitsch existed, for example, back in the Hellenistic period with its prose narratives, which are written in imitation of the great epics of Greece’s Golden Age. The purpose in these grand and romantic stories was to entertain the unrefined masses and give them the illusion of reading highly sophisticated works of literature without an inkling of mental labour.
When we watch a Disney movie, or see an ‘inspirational’ quote posted by an Instagram model – is that not what we get? Instantaneous emotional gratification? Hedonistic pills and wisdom unearned?
Milan Kundera said,
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. 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!”
Perhaps, then, kitsch has less to do with the object that is observed…rather it is more to do with the observer. We are not moved by the children running on the grass, rather, we are moved by our own emotions when we see children running on the grass.
“[Kitsch] does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how loveable.”
We are not, in fact, in love with the object, but with ourselves.
Kitsch and Ideas
Deception is not confined to Michael Jackson sculptures and weird balloon dogs, it is found abundantly in the world of ideas.
At Christmas, kitsch is found everywhere – the Christmas songs around the tree and that clip from the Mean Girls. And millions of us take part, either as devoted believers or facilitators, in the make-believe that is Santa Claus (or Father Kitsch-mas). It feels good to pretend. Pretending that our moral efforts not to be ‘naughty’ this year will be rewarded is reassuring. Believing that your good intentions will lead to good results, and bad intentions to bad results, and that there is someone up there to make sure of it, gives us the illusion of limitless power.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with Christmas kitsch – when my friends suggest that we learn the choreography to ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, I just laugh (and inevitably succumb to peer pressure). I do, however, have a problem with a different type of kitsch.
One of the defining features of kitsch is its mass appeal. Given that kitsch imitates beautiful art, and there is a natural inclination towards quick fixes and instant gratification, kitsch has an undeniable mass appeal. And when we all join in with these collective fantasies, it makes it easier to fall in and forget that we ever fell in the first place.
There is a particular kitsch that involves the marketing of a particularly problematic ideology as some perfect egalitarian utopia – which has killed four times as many as those killed by the Nazis.
In Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, there is a character Sabina who says,
“My enemy is kitsch, not communism.”
The abysmal Russian gulags, the Great Leap Forward in Maoist China with all its failed promises and horrific famines, the Khmer Rouge disaster in Cambodia – all do not cause Sabina to bat an eye?
She’s not against Communism, or rather, she’s less opposed to it compared with kitsch – the masking of communist horrors as some sort of perfect paradise. She’s angry that people have justified the death and suffering of millions in the name of some collectivist utopia. She’s angry that people are denying…shit.
And Sabina’s right - it is not shit we should be afraid of. Communism as an idea on its own killed nobody – but together with communist kitsch and all its shiny lights and mass appeal, it had the means to put communist ideas into practice and was therefore responsible for the deaths of some 100 million people and the suffering of even more.
If we are to use Kundera’s definition of kitsch as ‘the denial of shit’, than in art, kitsch is the enemy of the good, for it ‘aims to copy the beautiful, not the good’ and bypasses the potential of art to enrich the observer with some deeper associations with the depicted subject. In the realm of ideas, kitsch is the enemy of truth, for it preys on the human tendency to believe in fictions such as Father Christmas or a communist paradise, that aim to comfort us and protect us from the harsh realities of life.
All we can do, therefore, is to cultivate some doubt and healthy scepticism. ‘Good intentions’ need to examined with a closer eye, and unintended consequences also need to be considered. Sincerity, as Harry Frankfurt said in one of his famous essays, is bullshit. We need to see shit for what it is, without the kitsch curtain, because as history has taught us, our lives literally depend on it.