The Laws of Nature

Monday, January 25, 2010


Kitsch. We use the term all the time and apply it liberally. But what does the word really mean? According to one dictionary, kitsch is something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste. I’ve spent a little time reading about kitsch in various books and also on the web. One of the best sites I found is here. I’ll summarize a few of the ideas from this site and also embellish where necessary.

History of the word: The word kitsch may have originated in the 1860’s in the Munich art markets to describe cheap, hotly marketable pictures or sketches. It may have come from the German verb verkitschen, which means to “make cheap.” Eventually, the word was applied to works that were produced specifically to emotionally appeal to a particular consumers.
By the 1930’s the word kitsch became popular when the art theorists, Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, tried to differentiate between avant-garde and kitsch. These theorists defined kitsch by using the Marxist term “false consciousness” and Adorno embellished on this by applying the term “culture industry” to define kitsch as an art form that is market driven. He called this type of art a “parody of catharsis” and a “parody of aesthetic consciousness.” I think this fits together with Denis Dutton’s idea, which I posted earlier, that kitsch promotes self-consciousness and is self-congratulatory by openly declaring itself "beautiful" or "profound" or "important."

Hermann Broch went so far as to call kitsch “evil” because it systematically imitates creative art in order to achieve “beauty” at the expense of “truth.” This also fits Dutton’s ideas about authenticity and the purpose of the artist.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, felt that kitsch offers a sanitized view of the world that eliminates the difficult aspects of life including individualism, doubt, and irony. Perhaps it is for this reason, and also the market-driven aspect, that Thomas Kinkade’s work has been labeled as kitsch.

Denis Dutton’s illuminating discussion on kitsch may be found at this site, if you're interested. He writes that “kitsch can thus be defined as a kind of pseudo-art which has an essential attribute of borrowing or parasitism, and whose essential function is to flatter, soothe, and reassure its viewer and consumer.” He further discusses various examples that are worth considering if you’d like to take a look.

If you’re interested in expressing an opinion about a particular work of art, consider responding to the poll found at this fun site. Or, take the kitsch tour of the U.S.A. found online here. After all, kitch, when it's self-effacing, can be a lot of fun!

Finally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a wonderful website devoted to kitsch that’s well-worth reading. Great examples are offered. The opinion of the author of this site is that kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.

Why do I care about what is and isn’t kitsch? For a couple of reasons: first, I don’t want to be found guilty of creating it, so I need to understand what it is and where the dividing line exists and, second, as an artist and art instructor I think it’s important to help inform the general public about the difference. However, I don’t interfere with the taste and preferences of others. If someone wants to buy kitsch, that’s fine with me as long as they understand that they’re not investing in fine art. After all, how can I possibly criticize the tastes of others when I’ve got a beanie baby sitting on my bedroom dresser?!


Mark Sheeky said...

I was just thinking of this today, whether good art has to be popular to be good, whether art CAN be good if nobody likes it, or whether anything that is popular IS good.

I've seen some stuff that made my laugh with amazement. I'll not forget a singing multi-terraced rotating porcelain Christmas tree painted with lots of Elvises (Elvii?!). For me that went from Kitsch to genuis by going that one step too far!

hw (hallie) farber said...

An interesting link at Wikia--thanks. I have to admit that The Poker-Playing Dogs and Elvis on Velvet make me smile. I think they are tongue-in-cheek and poke fun at "serious artists."

I believe the Kincaid popularity is about marketing--it's glowing calendar art. I think one of your earlier blogs mentioned that many people think art is what they see on calendars. I understand that. If I had not left this area and, if my father had not subscribed to Fortune & Life magazines, I might have considered Kincaid's work "art." It doesn't make me smile, though.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - I don't think that popularity has anything to do with whether or not a work of art is "good." After all, the truly brilliant innovations in art are always met with disgust and resistance by both critiques and the general public. One of my instructors once told me that if my family and friends like what I've painted then I'm doing something wrong! I'd like to see that Elvis Christmas tree. Too funny :) Thanks for commenting.

Hi Hallie - True! I can't helping thinking, however, that Kinkade is laughing all the way to the bank. Thanks for commenting.

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layers said...

I went to the Met website to see the examples because I was curious to see if Jeff Koons works would be there-- because I would definitely put some of his stuff there-- my son and daughter in law both work for Jeff Koons in NYC-- as you know JK does not do any of his own work but hires talented young artists to do it all for him. and I did see an example of JK there-- was surprised to see Thomas Kinkade there-- never thought of his stuff as kitsch-- but just really bad painting.

Dan Kent said...

Many skilled artists labeled "serious", create art that has aspects that are "borrowed" (since they do not live in a vacuum) and that cater to a popular taste for financial or other reasons (such as the fact that they are human). Yet their works are not considered kitsch if they manage to avoid mockery, or the tawdry or cliche. And we can tell it's not kitsch. It's just second-rate art. This, I suspect, is even harder to avoid creating than kitsch, even when one is skilled.

Casey Klahn said...

Every time I copy myself, I see kitsch. Ugh.

Four Seasons in a Life said...


Having just returned from Santa Cruz I am late joining in. One item of many I consider Kitsch was not mentioned and sadly I do not know the term that is associated with these porcelain figurines of Hansel and Gretel manufactured in Bavaria, German. When I see these and anything similar, I am ready to gag. We already have mentioned Kincaid and velvet paintings.
In simplified terms, kitsch represents mass marketing of the cute.
Wonderful post Katharine and the links are well researched, especially Wikia.

Warmest regards

Mary Paquet said...

Wow, kitsch pays -- found some Jeff Koons work and how about this one of a wood sculpture of two people holding a string of blue puppies:

Jeff Koons
Wood painted sculpture:
String of Puppies
wood painted
42 x 62 x 37 in.
$288,500 at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 17, 1998

And now I find out that all you need is the idea and some artists to render it.

Fascinating post and I have no desire to produce kitsch, though I might do so without realizing it!

Unknown said...

Great post, thank you for taking the time to post the interesting links also. Unfortunately kitsch may have more 'mass' appeal because most of the masses are ignorant about what is fine art.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - some kitsch, when it's acknowledged as such, is a lot of fun! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Donna - interesting that your son and his wife work for JK! And yes, JK's work was on the site. I've heard the term "kitsch" associated with Kinkade's work for years, so someone tagged him a long time ago. Thanks for your comments.

Hi Dan - so true!! Thank you for adding your comments.

Hi Egmont - in this country we have collectors of figurines that are called Hummels. Is that what you're thinking of? Thanks for commenting.

Hi Casey - interesting perspective. I never thought about it that way. Thanks!

Hi Mary - I think it was Duschamp who championed the notion that the artist only needs to have the idea. Execution of that idea is either unecessary or secondary. Thanks for commenting.

Hi Sheila - you touch on something that we can't overlook: personal taste! People are entitled to collect whatever they're attracted to. I think the dividing line is the artist's purpose and intent. Thanks for commenting.

Mary Paquet said...

I have to agree with Pam - kitsch can be fun. In fact, Jeff Koons' blue puppies brought a smile to my face. Pam has such a great sense of humor that a kitsch blog, should she choose to do one, would surely be a hoot. Sometimes we need an escape from the tribulations of life (right now, we can list many). I believe that is why the masses are attracted to kitsch.

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Mary Paquet said...

Pam, maybe our fellow bloggers have some thoughts. I love decorative art. Lately I've been exploring more interesting and complex backgrounds. Might I cross the line, if there is one, between fine art, decorative art, and kitsch.

Casey Klahn said...

Hi, PAMO. You know, Henri Matisse was happy to describe his art as decorative. Design elements that are universally understood were much used in his art. Another term may be, "composition."