Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, both
In literal and figurative sense of the word
(Milan Kundera)

Kitsch is one of the most disputable phenomenon. It is much easier to talk about what kitsch is not – non-art, non-style, non-beautiful – than to define what kitsch is. An existence of kitsch varies from a general negation to a full acceptance. Conservative critics absolutely deny its existence, and they don’t consider kitsch as an original style or as some valuable phenomenon of the design. In fact, kitsch is not a style, although it has quite often such a definition quite often. There is no an exact term or common opinion concerning its sense. Kitsch doesn’t apply to the design or art. Actually, it has nothing in common with art, as well as with aesthetics. Phenomenon of kitsch is more comprehensive and at the same time it is relative. This concept is a separate category, which rather has a common cultural meaning than a narrow-minded meaning.

painting, Donals Roller Wilson

Origin of the kitsch

Kitsch has neither its own epoch nor an exact year of its origin. Kitsch is not a degenerated form of the rebellion. No one has invented it, it appeared by its own way, “naturally”, in the “friendly” circumstance, which was created by the society and its culture, as well as by the disability of culture and society to see their own “face” in the distorting mirror.
It is known, this definition was used for the first time in a slang of the merchants in Munich at 1860-1870’s. There were special markets, where they were selling various stuff, which didn’t have a high artistic value or great practical importance. The word “kitsch” was used as a definition for the cheap objects of art, their fakes, reproductions, sketches and for the other “trash”, which was touching people with the “simple taste”, or with the full absence of the taste. A concept of kitsch was widespread, when an industrial imitation of the unique objects for the masses started in the second half of the XIX century – at the beginning of the XX century. In 1960-1980 kitsch became a distinctive phenomenon of the mass culture.

Origin of the kitsch
table, an example of the sculptural furniture

Term of the kitsch

The origin of the term “kitsch” is unknown, but it has a lot of variants with the similar connotation. For example, a “canonical” interpretation of the word “kitsch” (germ.) means “cheap stuff” or “bad taste”. This term was also associated with a word “sketch”. American society called it as a cheap stuff or drawings, which they were selling as the souvenirs. M.Calinescu proposed the next variants of the kitsch definition: it came from the word “verkitschen” (germ.) – “to make cheaply”, or from “kitschen” – “to collect rubbish from the street”, or the literal meaning – “to remake the old furniture into new”. In the anthology of Abraham Moles “Kitsch: L’art du Bonheur” (1971) a term of kitsch was associated with the whole spectrum of certain “kitsch-positions” in relation to a thing. Such conceptions as the asceticism, hedonism, agressivity, surrealism – were defined among these “kitsch-positions” in the context of replacing the idea of “Beauty” by the idea of the impressions, which was based on the sensuality and tastes of “masses”. Therefore, we can talk about kitsch as the “cult of things”.

Term of the kitsch
typical kitsch-interior

Jean Baudrillard associates the definition of kitsch with something garish and cheap, which has a lot of empty details. “The kitsch object is commonly understood as one of that great army of “trashy” objects, made of plaster of Paris or some such imitation material: that gallery of cheap junk – accessories, folksy knickknacks, “souvenirs”, lampshades or fake African masks – which proliferate everywhere, with a preference for holiday resorts and places of leisure”. At the same time he says that these objects shouldn’t be confused with “real” objects. “Kitsch can be anywhere: in the detail of an abject… in an artificial flower or in a photo-novel”. That is to say that kitsch can be in the details, but at the same time it is replete with details excessively. And Baudrillard defines it as a “pseudo-object”: “It can be best defined as a pseudo-object or, in the other words, as a simulation, a copy, an imitation, a stereotype, as a dearth of real signification and a superabundance of things, of allegorical references, disparate connotations, as a glorification of the detail and s salutation by details”.

Term of the kitsch

Kitsch VS aesthetics

We should not consider kitsch in the light of the aesthetic categories. Kitsch proclaims the humility of an aestheticism. Kitsch is neither beautiful nor ugly. It sets us free from Sublime and it gives us some easy, “non-conflict and non-stunning beauty”, neutralizing the tension of the aesthetical perception, which is connected with some shock, that an ordinary person could have due to some lack of mental experience. Sublime it’s just an illusion. The ideals of kitsch don’t scare us, they are “adapted”, comfortable, “domestic” and human.

***let’s compare: at the first photo we see a figure of a dog, at the second photo – we see a legendary vase by Lalique. We need absolutely different experience and knowledge for perception of the dog’s figure and the bacchantes. In the first case it is enough to see a dog, but not a rare decoration. A simple white vase loses its antique shapes, because we focus our attention on pink feathers. Vase by Lalique becomes something more than just a decoration, it is a work of art. So, we should talk about its great beauty, about its designer, about its true artistic value. In case with dog’s figure it is enough to say “it’s cute”, and nothing more.

Kitsch VS aesthetics

Kitsch VS aesthetics
“Bacchantes” vase by Lalique (design Rene Lalique, 1927)

Kitsch naturalizes the idea of transcendent beauty, it becomes visible and “clear” for each person. And an effect of the “nostalgia” reveals from the “traces of beauty presence”. Kitsch cannot be based on an unusual situation. It is not a lie and it could not be – “at the moment when kitsch is realized as a lie, it appears in a context of non-kitsch”.
Kitsch is not tragic and it is not comic. Irony breaks the kitsch “because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously”, but sometimes kitsch permits us to speak ironically about itself. A tragedy is alien to kitsch, because kitsch is based on the truth , which excludes an ambivalence, doubts, moral choice and other forms of something, that burdens our perception. The scenes of kitsch are not pointed, but they don’t lead us to a catastrophicall end and they don’t “dissect” deep conflicts of reality. Kitsch becomes “the aesthetical ideal of the categorical agreement with being”. Kitsch can provoke us to the naïve tender emotions, but not to the true catharsis of a tragedy.
Nevertheless, the sketch gives us the right to define some extra elements. But kitsch doesn’t ask the questions, “in the realm of kitsch all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions” – “the true opponent of kitsch is the person who asks the questions”. Kitsch means exactly what it says. That’s why kitsch is also named as a virgin world, not touched by reflection”.

Kitsch VS aesthetics
painting, Donald Roller Wilson

Kitsch “parodies the catharsis”, inventing the non-existing feelings, and at the same time it neutralizes these feelings. So, we should talk about neutralizing of the aesthetical phenomenon. Kitsch makes an objectivation of the aesthetical values.
The aesthetic conception takes its origin from perception. But is a perception is typical to the nature of kitsch? Yes, it is. Kitsch is not a one-time fake. Kitsch is not based on a lie or fiction. It is real, and it is based on real reality, that’s why kitsch becomes a materialization of the aesthetical impression. A phenomenon of kitsch is based on the non-fictional and non-fake perception – “in the realm of kitsch the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme”. The feeling, generated by kitsch should be “clear” for the masses. According to the theory by M.Kundera kitsch “causes two tears”, that could be defined conceptually by as following way: the first tear says: “how nice to see the children running on the grass!”, and the second tear says: “how nice to be moved , together with all mankind, by children running on the glass!”. “It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch”.

Kitsch VS aesthetics
at first we see a cat, but not a painting technique (painting by Donald Roller Wilson)

It visualizes the objects or themes, which have high emotional status for the masses. It is a wrong statement that kitsch appeared from the sentimentalism or romanticism: it applies the sentiments or emotions, but it is about a special perception, which “is based on the basic images, fixed in the human memory”. It has nothing in common with the dual world of romanticists or with the grandiloquent images of the sentimentalism.
That’s why kitsch cultivates its own ideal, this is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist – “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word”. Even if it’s about the aesthetical “shit”. Kitsch parodies the catharsis, purifying our perception from the aesthetical categories.

Kitsch VS Art

Space of the kitsch seems like a vacuum, where
the tin and feathers are falling down equally fast.
(Stanislaw Lem)

Is the kitsch a copy or simulation of art? Neither simulation nor art. T.Adonrno once said that duplication is the central part of the mass’s culture. As kitsch is considered as “trash”, free-for-all and respected by the mass, a stereotype is formed: as though kitsch is the copying of art, simulation of art “for the masses”. Actually, thread of losing the authentic reality of “true art” was noticed at the beginning of the Postmodernism. Such as a work of art becomes famous through the duplication, through the copy, but not through its original. So, copy is beyond the original work of art in the context of postmodern culture, it replaces the original and becomes better it. that it. A concept of the phantom autonomy of art was based on the next statement: “copies are more lasting than originals”, and they are more available and adaptive for the masses. Moreover, as to the concept of W.Benjamin, duplication is based on the principles of copying and fragmentation. Proceeding from the fragmentary perception of reality, it meant that a copy “is not homogeneous and uninterrupted, it is heterogeneous and interrupted”. Therefore a perception of the copy and all its parts could be also duplicated and combined with the new integrities.
** a nice example is a Marylin Diptich painting by Andy Warhol. Having taken the Monro’s photos, he printed 50 the same images, using screen printing. The Warhol’s painting was only the one, but the quantity of its different copies (entirely or fragmentary) is innumerable.

Kitsch VS Art
“Marilyn Diptych”, Andy Warhol (1962) – original

Aesthetics of the simulation was opposed to the aesthetics of beauty and originality of art. In such context kitsch – “creates things bigger or smaller than the originals, kitsch imitates the materials, copies their forms or combines them freely”.
Kitsch doesn’t make the copies or imitations of art, it replicates art through its copies. Kitsch cannot be something, which is created for the first time. This is always something, that had once a glow of the originality and was licked, until it fell on a very bottom”.

Kitsch VS Art
Salvador Dali – “Self Portrait as Mona Lisa”, 1954

So, “kitsch must be separated from art”. Such a conception explains the main principle of the “aesthetical inadequacy” of kitsch concerning the art: to show something as art, which is in fact not art. Kitsch has a special “formula”: it is directed on reducing the tradition to reservoir of the formulas and themes, which are being replicated. From this, Grinberg defined the main claim of kitsch: to erase a difference between art and non-art. Odd Nerdrum says about kitsch as an antithesis to the contemporary art and as some united definition for everything, that had never been neither new nor intellectual”.

Kitsch VS Art
It is very “comfortable” to talk about kitsch in the context of Avant-garde. Avant-garde proposed us the deformation of reality and fetishization of object-things, throwing aside an idea of the “natural order of things”. It presented us new reality – textured and material. It was a nice environment, where kitsch could be revealed. Avant-garde cultivated destruction of the realistic concreteness. This destruction was based on the “auto-thematic”, such as a duplication of the artistic process and imitation of art as a kind of creativity.

Kitsch VS Art
“La traición de las imágenes” (“La trahison des images”, 1928–1929) – René Magritte.

Avant-garde tried to show certain procedurality of art, creating its own fetishes in place of the deformed, objectless reality (for example, there were household goods as the artifacts), but in fact it was overtaken by “materiality and the end of itself”.

Kitsch VS Art
“Fountain” (Marcel Duchamp, 1917) – urinal

If the Avant-garde was imitating the artistic process, kitsch imitated its effects. And kitsch could propose easily the material reality instead of Malevich’s Black Square. Yes. Let it be a substitute and mechanical, but it applies to the sentimentality and emotions, which could be shared by “masses”.
The objects-fetishes, produced by kitsch, could be copied (entirely or fragmentarily) and everyone could appropriate them as a true “incarnation” of beauty. T.Adorno compared kitsch with the “little dewil which was hidden in each work of art, and he jumps out at the first opportunity”.

Kitsch VS Art
Matthew Groening

It is wrong to talk about kitsch, basing on the opposition of the perfect and non-perfect art, which is separated from the ideal of beauty and considered as a “bad taste”. If kitsch is a “bad taste”, it is always – demonstrative. If kitsch is a “trash”, it is made very carefully with the smallest details. Kitsch doesn’t hide its defects, it is not ashamed of them – it boasts of them. Composition of kitsch has been “already stiffened forever on assigned scheme”. It is wrong to opposite Michelangelo as an alternative to Picasso, because “The alternative to Picasso is not a Michelangelo, but kitsch”.

Kitsch VS Art
“My Own Marilyn” (David LaChapelle – “a king of the surreal-glamour”)

An antithesis “kitsch VS art” could be interpreted as a kitsch space which seems like a vacuum, where the tin and feathers are falling down equally. Concerning to art, kitsch is as “a later degenerated form of the myths – it is flat, flatland and depraved. Although it was initially a central Pleiad of sense in the present cultural circle”. Kitsch is a myth about endless art, about something, which one “was saint, but now it is sketch or composite element for momentary use”. This is a myth about degradation of art, which has a status of the merchandise due to duplication for mass. It became a “festival”, which is always with you. Kitsch is always equal to itself.

Kitsch is not a falsification or fake.
Falsification or fake is a label SHANEL instead of CHANEL.
Kitsch is not a crime.
Crime is an imitation of “Self-Portrait” of Dürer in the Louvre.
But the whole street, where we can see each the second young lady
with the SHANEL bag – this is kitsch.
The public toilet, where you can admire
“tenderness and bestiality, bashfulness and concealed voluptuousness” of Mona Lisa –
this is kitsch.


Author: Marina Schultz

The sources used for this essay:

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