Sunday, 25 December 2011

Kitsch II (K. M. Higgins)

1st part

"What, then, makes kitsch kitsch? Analysts of kitsch commonly associate at least three criteria with it:

1 Kitsch involves the formulaic and makes use of stock elements.
2 Kitsch evokes emotion that is enjoyed in an effortless way.
3 Kitsch presents reality in an unrealistic way.

The formulaic character and the effortless enjoyment associated with kitsch were among the features that led Clement Greenberg to denounce it in his famous 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Greenberg claimed that kitsch debases aesthetic sensibilities by encouraging mindlessness in its audience. He objected that its formulaic character effectively predigested kitsch for its audience. By contrast with the avant-garde, which aimed to confront the viewer and demand reflection, kitsch was an artistic type of pabulum, offering only familiar elements to elicit trained responses from spectators. Perhaps ironically, the primary example of kitsch that Greenberg employs, a painting by Repin that allegedly appealed to peasants, appears to have been an amalgam of various paintings that he had seen rather than a particular actual work.

Niño pescando
(hisforhomeblog.com)
Thomas Kulka emphasizes the formulaic character and the effortless enjoyment of kitsch when he defines kitsch as being charged with stock emotions, involving themes or objects that are effortlessly identifiable, and failing to substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted themes or objects. Like Greenberg, Kulka faults the derivative nature of kitsch and the unchallenging entertainment that it offers. These two features work together, so that one responds effortlessly to what is presented precisely because it is so familiar. Typically, the themes or objects depicted resonate with important concerns in human life, such as family, friendship, patriotism, etc. Kulka points out that the spectator responds to the gestalt of what is depicted, not to the representation as such.

Strictly speaking, then, the viewer is not responding aesthetically to the object at all, but using the object’s representational gesture as a basis for emotional response. The effect, as Kulka puts it, is entirely parasitic on the referent. Kitsch tends to be representational, and its representations refer to some element in a network of cultural associations. Kitsch treats subject matter that we associate with some basic human concern, and we respond to this general concern more than to the object itself. The object itself is relevant only to the extent that it conjures up an important human theme and prompts an emotional reaction to it.

Kitsch, generally speaking, trades in atmospheres. It evokes feelings, and the enjoyment of kitsch is largely a matter of taking satisfaction in the fact of having these feelings. Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, proposes that the emotions kitsch elicits are inherently reflective and involve our indulging the impression that the rest of the population shares our emotions with us.

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! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. (Kundera 1984: 251)

Kitsch, on this view, appeals to our sense of human solidarity and promotes the belief that the rest of the world values just what we do.

Despite its universal pretensions, the images (broadly construed) that kitsch presents make reference to cultural beliefs about the world and important human goals. These beliefs are semiconscious but reinforced through many cultural practices. They are also connected to other beliefs in a network of associations. Thus, an image of the American flag is related for many Americans, at least, to ideas of the United States, power, prestige, home, the American population, the American landscape, a comforting sense of membership, patriotism, etc. The image of the flag serves as an icon that brings to partial awareness the whole background structure of associations. And the satisfaction one takes in the kitsch is generalized to implicate this entire structure.

A consequence is that the kitsch object reinforces culturally embedded beliefs about the way the world is organized and where one fits within it. Kitsch allows one to enjoy one’s feelings about these beliefs, and the kitsch object seems to affirm these feelings. Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, takes the May Day parade in eastern bloc Czechoslovakia as an instance of kitsch. The aim of the parade is to arouse patriotic feelings by presenting organized formations of beautiful young people, who metonymically remind viewers of all that is great about their country. 

Many critics of kitsch have argued that it presents reality in an unrealistic way, and for this reason they see it as morally objectionable. Kitsch excludes whatever is objectionable in our world, thereby encouraging a distorted view of reality. Kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit,” in Kundera’s striking phrase (1984: 248). This deceptive portrayal of reality can be pernicious because it encourages a sense that some aspects of the world (children or one’s country, for example) are absolutely good, with the implication that some others are absolutely bad. Kitsch thus imposes an absolutistic schema of good and evil on whatever we encounter. This in turn can motivate a sense that the absolutely good features of the world must be protected against anything that would threaten them, that is, the completely evil. 

By virtue of the binary values that kitsch imposes, kitsch is particularly serviceable for propagandistic purposes. It facilitates absolute distinctions that propagandists can seize on. Merely presenting one’s party as the sponsor of some kitsch entertainment, such as the May Day parade, facilitates associations between one’s cause and the pleasure one takes in the kitsch. The propagandist can suggest, moreover, that one is really sharing one’s feeling, not with all people in the world, but with the good people, that is, those on the side of their cause by contrast to their opponents. The fact that kitsch was a favored propagandistic tool of the Nazis indicates that the ends supported by kitsch have sometimes been sinister. 

Despite these objections to kitsch and the general complaint that it is aesthetically shallow, some commentators see kitsch as relatively harmless. Some accept the verdict that kitsch is aesthetically worthless, but nevertheless think it is morally innocent. These critics tend to doubt that kitsch plays a very significant role in how people understand reality. Others consider kitsch to be innocently enjoyable if one approaches it from an ironical point of view. Such critics sometimes relabel the kitsch that is appropriated in this tongue-incheek manner “camp.” They tend to consider the bad taste or incongruity of kitsch to be part of its charm. Even some of those who take kitsch to be morally damaging believe that its harms can be defused by seeing its appeals for what they are. Kundera, for example, contends, “As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness.” An ironical stance is essential, as he sees it, for we cannot do without kitsch with its pretensions of human brotherhood and its oversimplifications. As he concludes, “No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition” (1984: 256)."

Davies, Stephen; Higgins, Kathleen Marie; Hopkins, Robert; Stecker, Robert; Cooper, David E. (2009) A Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp 394-396.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Kitsch I (K. M. Higgins)

"Kitsch is a category term referring to a type of aesthetically impoverished art, artifact, performance, or practice that commonly relies on banal subject matter and stock emotional responses. The term, however, is used more or less loosely, sometimes in reference to a wide variety of somewhat incongruous items made in a slapdash manner, sometimes making no reference to absurdity or poor technique but instead to a particular type of emotional appeal. 

Kitsch souvenir
(vayaseustedalamierda.blogspot.com)
Given the cluster of associations that has grown around the term, a precise definition of “kitsch” is difficult to formulate. The term was originally used in connection with sketchy tourist art that became popular in Germany in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Such sketches were cheap and produced in large quantity. (Indeed, the German verb verkitschen means “to make cheaply.”) Kitsch has accordingly become associated with consumer society and mass production, although being produced on a mass scale is not a necessary criterion. Early kitsch products appealed to middle class sensibilities, and the term has acquired the association of pandering to those who seek easy gratification and are not very selective about the style or quality of what they buy. In light of the fact that souvenir art was the initial paradigm of kitsch, moreover, the association of emotional appeal is a basic connotation of the term. 

Kitsch always involves some kind of deficiency, but a variety of particular inadequacies are associated with it, and this adds to the difficulty of defining it. Among its alleged faults are insincerity, bad taste, tackiness, a formulaic and facile character, incongruous juxtaposition, vagueness, incompatibility between form and function, overly simplistic presentation, and false representation of reality. The label has been applied to objects and performances on the basis of some but not all of these characterizations. 

A further complication for a definition of kitsch is that while the term is commonly used to identify certain objects, the nature of the appeals that kitsch makes is typically a basis for considering them to be kitsch. This being the case, it is possible that objects that are not themselves kitsch might be employed in a manner that yields kitschy results. An example might be the use of the image of the American flag on neckties or suspenders. The American flag itself is not kitsch, nor is an image of the flag. Serious historical paintings and works by Jasper Johns can utilize the flag in a way that is not kitsch. But by virtue of the incompatibility of form (the image of a banner celebrating a nation state) and function (to accessorize an outfit of clothing or to hold up a pair of pants) the flag on these items of clothing may well be kitsch."

2nd part

Davies, Stephen; Higgins, Kathleen Marie; Hopkins, Robert; Stecker, Robert; Cooper, David E. (2009) A Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp 393-394.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Discover (R. Koolhaas)

Zapallal, Lima (GoogleEarth)
"Two possibilities: either to change basic urban structures which would be a very long-term venture, or to perceive differently, to enjoy these particular shortcomings in the city - or to discover beauty where one would have never perceived it before."

Koolhaas, Rem (1995) S, M, L, XL. New York: The Monacelli Press

Sunday, 20 November 2011

From melodrama to kitsch (M. Mazzocut-Mis)

If, synthesizing, you try to line up the features that make a piece of literature, theatre, or cinema kitsch you come close to superimpose the kitsch to the melodramatic. Among the first features, universally recognized in kitsch, there are accumulation, repetition, synaesthesia, lyricism, which, if not make a work of art kitsch itself, can be used to call it melodramatic.

e. m. crawford @ flickr
It would seem then that kitsch embodies only a pejorative highlighting of melodramatic and that it is nurtured from it. The problem is not solved so simply. A distinction based only in degrees and not contents does not justify the emergence of a new category. The problem arises because the category of melodramatic as that of kitsch, is a "crossing" category. Melodramatic and kitsch need for an investigation, not through uniform literary genres, but passing all arts. From here there is the possibility for highlighting theoretical nuclei which make out of them two different aesthetic categories, although related.

A characteristic of kitsch, but lest present in melodrama is the light and feeling expression of the desire to escape. In melodrama, the emotions can last up to the breaking point, turning or revolting in the disgusting, although the sweetener moment will come soon to save the viewer. Kitsch is an complacent, projective and heady expression of the present. 

Kitsch does not want to resist the passage of time and embodies one of the most unsettling aspects of contemporary art: the ephemeral, that which evaporates, what you use and throw away, what you see once, if you're there to catch it, otherwise, you know you have lost one of the many enjoyable opportunities that life has in store for you. On the other hand the very ephemeral communication belongs more than ever to our present. It lies on the side of extemporaneous communication, fast, dead when it is consumed, but not because of that does it necessarily belongs to the lowest level. Although it is difficult to define melodrama and kitsch according to a final and stable set of features, it is certain, however, that both are not, as critics wanted them to be up to now, the expression of bad taste. First, because the reduction to bad taste is not simplifying, but confusing. Secondly, because the definition of bad taste has an implicit moral or moralising condemnation.

Mazzocut-Mis, Maddalena (2005) Il gonzo sublime. Dal patetico al kitsch. pp 179-180. Milano: Mimesis.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Crisis (R. Koolhaas)

"You know very well that at the high point of a crisis we always work by impulse, just the opposite of foresight, doing the most unexpected and wildest sort of thing. And at that moment precisely it could be said that there was a sort of saturation of reality, don't you think? Reality comes on fast, it shows itself with all its strength, and precisely at that moment the only way of facing it is to renounce dialectics, it's the moment for shooting somebody, jumping overboard, swallowing a bottle of gardenal like Guy, unleashing the dog, a free hand to do anything. Reason is only good to mummify reality in moments of calm or analyse its future storms, never to resolve a crisis of the moment. But there crises are like metaphysical outbursts, like a state that perhaps, if we hadn't chose the path of reason, would be the natural and current state of Pithecanthropus erectus." 

Koolhaas, Rem (1995) S, M, L, XL. New York: The Monacelli Press

Saturday, 8 October 2011

"Kitsch" and culture I (G. Dorfles)

Gillo Dorfles (gliitaliani.it)
"Culture can become part of the process of industrialization that has now, so relentless, extended its ramifications to all productive sectors. And by saying 'production' it is clear that I intend to extend the meaning not only to the material production, but also to the intellectual, social, etc. Production of 'consumer goods' then, but also images, art objects, as the shares of any other consumable product. 

And it is precisely on this consumability and their ability to be consider as the 'spiritual bread' the same way as the material which covers the question of industrialization of culture, or of a culture that is, little by little - and perhaps, in the future, globally - industrialized. The art and culture, in fact, in their becoming increasingly the prey of the industrialized production and consummation process, in their frequent loss of intentionality, are likely to become an element that is the opposite of art and that is usually now defined by the German word Kitsch.

[...] However, if the taste was to be discussed at length and in depth, if there are, in turn, some similarities to physio-psychological analogies between aesthetic sense and taste, [...] what had been done instead is to  address the question of a possible 'phenomenology of bad taste', comparing it with 'good taste'. Understanding precisely such 'bad taste' (or Kitsch) as something tied not only to products - objects, art works - which possess peculiar features, but also linked to the very user, ie the individual 'with a bad taste' , thus establishing a kind of phenomenological question addressed to a particular class of individuals having the property and the good fortune (or misfortune?) to enjoy the works of art with a particular attitude of 'bad taste', then taken to benefit also from original artwork in a wrong, erroneous, fake way. This fact seems to me really the crux of the problem, to turn from an examination of the object of bad taste to the person who enjoys 'in bad taste' any object. In this way, along with works of art (or pseudo-art) of bad taste, we would have 'men of bad taste' (Kitschmenschen) and moreover we will assimilate this class of individuals as a particular category of users in a certain sense opposed to cultural and artistic elite; that elite which is, or should be, the custodian of the most updated and refined 'taste of the time'."  

Dorfles, Gillo (2003) Nuovi riti, nuovi miti. Milano: Skira.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Space to dwell - Space to live (F. Hundertwasser)


"Today, just like 100 years ago, urbanism must obey the most severe dogmatic rules. An urban planner must have the courage to chose plurality, especially when it is about romanticism and what is qualified as kitsch.

THE ABSENCE OF KITSCH MAKES OUR LIFE UNBEARABLE.

1977-86 Hundertwasserhaus, Viena
(Hundertwasser Architecture)
Architecture is always dominated by the totalitarian scheme of authority and those subjects who submit to it.

Architect and architecture are the reigning masters. Architecture's inhabitants and users are key. An urban planer should not become a minion of an international doctrine, poor and mediocre, which is currently in fashion.

Modernity has nothing revolutionary; it is the comeback to the human, to human dimensions, to the dreams of the individual, it is because of this it is revolutionary.

But fashion urban planers continue to abuse the man-inhabitant as if he was a guinea pig for dogmatic, educational and absurd architecture experiments.

Linearity, which is an alignment of windows the same size, absolutely straight skyline, flat floor, aggressive edges in straight angles are the signs of an oppressive architecture.

Architecture must elate man and not subject it. Just an urban planner who allows one building of a hundred to be different, away from the system of a totalitarian straight-line grid, especially industrial buildings which must be allowed to have the mark of a human romanticism."

Hundertwasser, F. (1993) Espace pour habiter - Espace pour vivre - Pour un autre politique du logement.
Entrevista escrita para una discusión, editada por la SPD Bundestagsfraktion, Bonn. Preguntas de Norbert mappes.Niediek, marzo 1993.


En: Taschen (1997) Hundertwasser Architecture. Pour une architecture plus proche de la nature et de l'homme. Köln: Taschen.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Il Giardino dei Tarocchi

Il Giardino dei Tarocchi
Gravicchio (Tuscany), Italy
Niki de Saint Phalle










Images: Fantasy Worlds
More info:
http://www.nikidesaintphalle.com/
http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giardino_dei_Tarocchi

Fantasy Worlds (I)

Deidi von Schaewen & John Maizels (1999) Fantasy Worlds.
Köln: Taschen.

The only book I know who presents more than a handful of out-of-the-box original and creative kitsch architecture... whether their creators (architects, sculptors, painters and the next door neighbour) aimed for kitsch or not!

Definitely makes us think about what would happen if we all had free time, some knowledge on sticking stuff together and a teensy bit of imagination. Some of the examples could make you smile, some others just make your eyes pop out of their sockets while your brain thinks "this cannot be, you've gotta be kidding me!", the rest of them are just too close to my dream house or park. 

It is amazing the way some of the examples showed are very much alike, even though they belong to distant corners of the world and are made by very different people. It makes me think about what Abraham Moles says about "the principle of variegation" in his book on Kitsch. Maybe most of us are just made like that, willing to collect stuff (colourful, shiny, diverse stuff) and to put it all together.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Arts and the Mass Media (L. Alloway)

Corbis
"Before 1800 the population of Europe was an estimated 180 million; by 1900 this figure had risen to 460 million. The increase of population and the industrial revolution that paced it has, as everybody knows, changed the world. In the arts, however, traditional ideas have persisted, to limit the definition of later developments. As Ortega pointed out in The Revolt of the Masses: 'the masses are to-day exercising functions in social life which coincide with those which hitherto seemed reserved to minorities.' As a result the élite, accustomed to set aesthetic standards, has found that it no longer possesses the power to dominate all aspects of art. It is in this situation that we need to consider the arts of the mass media. It is impossible to see them clearly within a code of aesthetics associated with minorities with pastoral and upper-class ideas because mass art is urban and democratic. [...]

If justice it to be done to the mass arts which are, after all, one of the most remarkable and characteristic achievements of industrial society, some of the common objections to it need to be faced. A summary of the opposition to mass popular arts is in Avant Garde and Kitsch (Partisan Review, 1939, Horizon, 1940), by Clement Green berg, an art critic and a good one, but fatally prejudiced when he leaves modern fine art. By kitsch he means 'popular, commercial art and literature, with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc.'. All these activities to Greenberg and the minority he speaks of are 'ersatz culture... destined for those who are insensible to the value of genuine culture... Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academic simulacra of genuine culture welcomes and cultivates this insensibility' (my italics). Greenberg insists that 'all kitsch is academic', but only some of it is, such as Cecil B. De Mille-type historical epics which use nineteenth-century history-picture material. In fact, stylistically, technically, and iconographically, the mass arts are anti-academic. Topicality and a rapid rate of change are not academic in any usual sense of the word, which means a system that is static, rigid, self-perpetuating. Sensitiveness to the variables of our life and economy enable the mass arts to accompany the changes in our life far more closely than the fine arts which are a repository of time-binding values."

Alloway, Lawrence (1958) in Architectural Design, London.
In: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell. p 715.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education III (J. Morreall & J. Loy)


Kitsch as 'Instant Art'

"With the lack of developed taste in our society goes an inability to make subtle discriminations and a tendency to evaluate things by their most obvious features. What sells today are slickness, gaudiness, flashiness, and sentimentality-in general, whatever elicits a quick automatic response from a passive perceiver. We want things to trigger a momentary "Wow!" and then let us go on to something else. We don't want anything that calls for attention to detail, interpretation, analysis, or any reaction other than "I like it." This love of simple passive experiences explains the popularity of not only kitsch but also alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and our many other drugs.

In films, television, and now video, we like spectacle-people in flashy clothes chasing each other in expensive cars. In our domestic life we seem to value convenience above all-the TV dinner which, if spilled on the nowax vinyl floor, can be wiped up in a second with the superabsorbent paper towel. Where convenience and flashiness converge, we have gadgets, which as a culture we crave. The same person who has kitsch sculpture in the garden may also own a golf cap with a little solar-powered fan in it or a telephone in the shape of a duck that quacks instead of rings.

Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.

The fact that kitsch can aim for only a passive response explains why so much of it is sentimental, achieving its effect by evoking simple emotionslove of children, patriotism, religious devotion, and nostalgia-in utterly obvious and predictable ways. A good example here is the use of cuteness in kitsch. Cuteness is a group of features that evolved in mammalian infants as a way of making them attractive to adults. These "releasing stimuli" for nurturant behavior, as ethologists refer to cute features, include a head large in relation to the body, eyes set low in the head, a large protruding forehead, round protruding cheeks, a plump rounded body shape, short thick extremities, soft body surfaces, and clumsy behavior.5 The manufacturers of dolls, children's books, and greeting cards exaggerate all these features to get a positive response from customers. Now to portray a cute child in a painting, for example, is not by tself aesthetically objectionable, but to do so by painting the child's eyes four times the size of real eyes, with three-ounce tears in their corners, is objectionable. For it hits viewers over the head with its message; it tells them just how to react to the painting and
so leaves them with no cognitive steps to go through.

A basic feature of great art, we think, is that it challenges the audience to interpret it and react to it. Within limits, aesthetic value is proportional to the effort needed to process the work cognitively. That's why we prefer works which have subtlety and multiple meanings and which cannot be taken in at a glance. By eliminating these features, kitsch eliminates the potential for aesthetic experience of any worth.

The effortless response kitsch aims for is manifested in kitsch's lack of risk taking and genuine novelty. Kitsch always uses representation, for example, in a straightforward way; there is no questioning of the relation of the representation to what is represented, as there is in so much twentiethcentury at.

Corbis
Aesthetically, politically, and religiously, kitsch is always conservative. Aesthetically, it looks for images from traditional art that have already become icons, such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Eiffel Tower. It tries to tap their established acceptability and value to get a predictable reaction. In this way, kitsch is the opposite of avant-garde art, which tries to break with tradition and be appreciated in new ways. The political conservatism of kitsch comes out in its celebration of uncritical nationalism and nostalgia for the good old days. The past is seen as understandable, safe, and morally superior; that is why so many kitsch objects are, as the ads say, "antique style," e.g., the smoking stand designed as a miniature colonialstyle, potbelly stove, with an American eagle insignia on it. Religious kitsch, too, tries to tap feelings of satisfaction with tradition rather than, say, feelings of moral outrage at hypocrisy. People who love kitsch want no cognitive challenges and no social or ethical challenges. They want to live in an unambiguous world where each thing has one obvious meaning and is immediately recognizable as either likeable or not likeable.

This lack of an interest in novel and challenging experiences shows up graphically in a pastime that is closely related to kitsch and which supports the sale of many kitsch objects-tourism, travel sold as a commodity. The tour guide takes groups of tourists through "15 cities in 9 days," showing them sights familiar from postcards. They travel with people who speak their language, and the tour guide makes sure they never have to use the language of the countries they're visiting. Their prearranged meals are taken at restaurants that can serve them the kind of food they have at home, and nothing happens that the tour company can't handle for them. Indeed, they are treated much like spoiled children at summer camp. What they are paying for are easy, passive experiences with just a hint of the exotic to them, but not anything really strange and difficult to understand. The roaring mechanical hippos at Disney World are about their limit.

Just as tourists need do nothing but get on and off the bus, eat the food, take the standard photos with their instant cameras, and buy the souvenirs, so kitsch consumers in general do not have to meet any experience halfway- it comes all the way to accommodate itself to them, predigested and ready to be assimilated."

Morreall, John; Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 67-69.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Discussing Expressionism (E. Bloch)

Vasily Kansinsky - Picture with an Archer 1909
(MoMA, NY)
"There is surely no denying that formalism was the least of the defects of Expressionist art (which must not be confused with Cubism). On the contrary, it suffered far more from a neglect of form, from a plethora of expressions crudely, wildly or chaotically ejaculated; its stigma was amorphousness. It more than made up for this, however, by its closeness to the people, its use of folklore. [...] It is enough, of course, that fake art [kitsch] is itself popular, in the bad sense. The countryman in the 19th century exchanged his painted wardrobe for a factory-made display cabinet, his old brightly-painted glass for coloured print and thought himself at the height of fashion. But it is unlikely that anyone will be misled into confusing these poisoned fruits of capitalism with genuine expressions of the people; they can be shown to have flowered in a very different soil, one with which they will disappear.

Neo-classicism is, however, by no means such a sure antidote to kitsch; nor does it contain an authentically popular element. It is itself much too 'highbrow' and the pedestal on which it stands renders it far too artificial. By contrast, as we have already noted, the Expressionists really did go back to popular art, loved and respected folklore - indeed, so far as painting was concerned, were the first to discover it. [...] The heritage of Expressionism has not yet ceased to exist, because we have not yet even started to consider it."

Bloch, Ernest (1962) 'Discussing Expressionism'
En: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell. p 532.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education II (J. Morreall & J. Loy)


Postindustrial Culture

"Today, of course, we are far beyond the Industrial Revolution. The vast majority of workers are now in the service sector, using their hands and eyes to enter data into computers, drive trucks, and put cheeseburgers into paper bags. And because few work with materials such as wood, fabric, and metal, and fewer still do anything artistic, most are unable to appreciate or evaluate things aesthetically, or in many cases even functionally. [...]

Corbis
The self-deception purveyed by the "craft stores" is bad enough, but most people today don't even get as far as feeling a need to make anything with their hands. Nor do they see the connection between the general lack of such skills in our culture and the prevalence of bad taste. Indeed, they don't see the taste all around them, especially their own, as bad taste. Whatever the advertisers say is in vogue, they simply accept as in good taste. Their choices of home furnishings, for example, do not spring from any knowledge of how such things are made, nor even from any personal set of preferences. The furnishings in their homes are mere purchases dictated by advertising. Their "taste" comes from magazine articles and catalogs or, if they have more money, from a decorator. When next year new items, styles, and colors are declared in vogue, they are only too happy to replace the current contents of their home. Indeed, if their supply of money permits, they may buy a whole new house.

Most people today don't see planned obsolescence as a marketing gimmick; they embrace it, for it gives them a chance to make new purchases, and a good part of their identity lies in the act of purchasing. The bumper sticker "Born to Shop" and the Bloomingdale's motto for sales "Shop Till You Drop" are only partly ironic. For many people who make nothing themselves, shopping represents at least some connection to the world of material things and-perhaps a greater boon-some structure to their daily lives. They can shape their identities, too, of course, by their association with what they buy, the Rolex watch, the Calvin Klein jeans, the BMW.

The lack of taste so prevalent today results not only from people's lack of skills in making things, but also from their lack of skills in any of the performing arts. Consider music, which used to be something that ordinary people did-they played instruments, they sang, they danced. In the last half-century music has become less an activity and more a commodity to be passively consumed. Manufacturers and advertisers know that they can make more money by selling us records, tapes, compact disks, concert tickets, nd all the T-shirts and other paraphernalia that go along with today's music business than by selling us musical instruments and sheet music. And so that's what they sell us. Instead of getting together to play music and sing, we go to a concert to hear someone else play and sing, or worse, we clip the miniature tape player to our belts, the earphones to our heads, and we listen individually. The producers of popular music, and mass entertainment generally, of course, have a vested interest in a public that cannot play music or sing and has no fixed standards or personal taste; that is just the kind of malleable people who will buy whatever they are told to buy."


Morreall, John & Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 66-67.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Into the Future: Tourism, Language and Art (P. Wollen)

"
Church of Pomata, Puno (Peru)
Since Champfleury [Histoire de l'imagerie populaire, 1869], at least, this discursive circulation has been the acknowledged or unacknowledged constant of modern art. It is important to stress that this circulation has always been a two-way process, and yet the two contrary flows have been customarily treated in very different ways. On the one hand, the flow from low to high and from periphery to core has been discussed in terms of appropriation and innovation, while the opposite flow has been seen as vulgarization and its end product has been dismissed as kitsch. In this perspective, the argument against tourist art simply recapitulates the argument against kitsch, seen now in terms of global mass consumption rather than of the effects of mass production within the core. Again, the flow from core to periphery and its appropriation by artists on the periphery is nothing new. The rich nineteenth-century tradition of Haida soapstone carving developed directly because of the new market of sailors and travellers, who began to visit the Northwest Coast for trade or tourism. At the same time, Qajar painting in Iran developed as a complex synthesis of traditional Persian with imported Frankish forms. Spanish baroque was appropriated by indigenous artists in Mexico [and Peru], and increasingly complex forms emerged (as we can see, for instance, in the work of Frida Kahlo and, more recently, artists on both sides of the Mexican-United States frontier). Indeed this new baroque once again is beginning to redefine Americanness, in a complex composite of differential times and cultures.

As the world economy becomes increasingly globalized and core and periphery are redistributed across old boundaries, this process can only accelerate and become more elaborate. The old barriers between 'Western' art and 'Third World' art (once known, symptomatically, as 'primitive' art) will dissolve even further - in both directions. Thus artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Audrey Flack or Francisco Clemente or Cheri Samba can be seen not in simple terms of identity and difference but as part of a dynamic system of aesthetic circulation. Modernism is being succeeded not by totalizing Western postmodernism but by a hybrid new aesthetic in which the new corporate forms of communication and display will be constantly confronted by new vernacular forms of invention and expression. Creativity always comes from beneath, it always finds an unexpected and indirect path forward and it always makes use of what it can scavenge by night."

Wollen, Peter (1993) Raiding the Icebox. Reflections on Twentieth Century Culture. London: Verso.
En: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education (J. Morreall & J. Loy)

The Origin of Kitsch

"The term "kitsch," like the phenomenon, is modern. Coming into use in the 1860s among Munich artists and dealers, for whom it meant cheap artistic stuff, the term was in international use by the turn of the century. Several sources have been suggested for the word, among them the German kitschen, meaning to cheapen or to make do, and verkitschen, meaning to switch-sell. Today the word is applied far beyond painting and sculpture to furniture and interior design, to landscaping and television programs.

Perhaps the most often cited characteristic of kitsch is that it is in bad taste, but that is not enough to make something kitsch. There must also be an element of display. Kitsch objects call attention to themselves and their owners, who think of them as artlike and stylish, as endowing them, in Curtis Brown's words, "with an air of richness, elegance, or sophistication." (1)

Most scholars reckon kitsch to be less than two centuries old, although a few, citing Hellenic miniatures and medieval devotional pictures, have suggested that there was kitsch in mass cultures of the distant past. But even if we admit these few early examples, it is clear that kitsch was not a widespread phenomenon until the Industrial Revolution. Before modern times there were painters and sculptors with little talent, but their work was not kitsch. Nor were works of folk art, peasant art, and primitive art. Compared to works in the high European traditions, some of these items may have been simpleminded, even knick-knacks, but they lacked the pretentiousness of kitsch. The people who bought kitsch had at least a little familiarity with fine art and were looking for something equivalent to it, though not something involving the education and expense required by fine-art connoisseurship. These people and the objects they sought came together in the new manufacturing-commercial culture that followed the Industrial Revolution.

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Before manufacturing, only the wealthy and aristocratic had the means to be well educated, cultured, and intellectual and so to participate in the world of the fine arts. Most people were kept busy with the simple necessities of life and had neither the education, time, money, nor interest to patronize the fine arts. What art they had was folk art and grew largely out of their craft traditions. (Indeed, "folk art" is still often used to mean the crafts.) With the Industrial Revolution, however, thousands of people were drawn into the cities to work in the new factories or to sell the products of the factories. There they did not get an education in fine art, but they did learn one of its features, a social rather than aesthetic feature, the use of fine art by the rich to mark their wealth and status.

When factory workers and members of the middle class had a little extra income, they often wanted to buy things to decorate their homes as well as to give them a little status among their neighbors. The folk art traditions of their ancestors had largely been lost, and they did not have the money, time, or education for art patronage. But while they could not afford real fine art, they could afford mass-produced copies of fine art and other artlike objects-they could afford kitsch.

The lower classes bought kitsch in emulation of the rich. While the folk art of their grandparents had been made by "the folk" themselves, kitsch was designed by the upper classes to sell to them. It came from above. (2)

There were two ways in which the new industrial and commercial culture made kitsch possible. First, the new factories could mass-produce artlike items at prices the lower and middle classes could afford. And being able to afford kitsch was the only requirement for owning it. No involvement in the art world was needed-kitsch owners did not have to know artists, learn about their techniques and reputations, or patronize the arts. They didn't need to deal with artists at all; they bought the stuff from retailers. While it was not possible to be a mere art consumer, at least before the modern age, being a consumer only of kitsch was the norm.

But it was not only by mass-producing artlike objects that the new culture made kitsch possible, it was also by producing the people who would find these objects appealing, people who knew little about fine art, who had not developed aesthetic sensitivity, but who wanted nonetheless to decorate their homes and show off with artlike objects. These people were the aesthetically deprived lower class and a good proportion of the middle class."


Notes:
1. Curtis Brown, Star-Spangled Kitsch (New York: Universe Books, 1975), p. 9.
2. Dwight MacDonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture," in Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David M. White (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957), p. 60.

Morreall, John & Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 63-65

Monday, 30 May 2011

Garden Gnomes (E. Londos)

"The very first object to be mentioned, when asked what is considered the most disgusting and unacceptable in the garden, is the gnome. Nevertheless, there are people who shelter them in the garden, valuing them as pleasant, agreeable, and indispensable. Decorations like animal statues, windmills, sundials, symmetry, and disorder were equally beloved or detested. There was only one item that everybody liked—the purling brook combined with a glittering pool. Across all social and cultural borders, in town and in the countryside, independent of age, gender, and ethnicity, flowing water is appreciated as a true source of enjoyment to the senses and a symbolic requirement for life in the garden. So, water in the garden is never kitsch, while the garden gnome turns out to be the key symbol above all others in the genre deemed to be kitsch.

This research caused me to focus on the garden gnome phenomenon because it raised several questions: what fs kitsch, does kitsch really exist, or is it only in the eye of the beholder, what existed prior to kitsch? The fact that so many of my informants seemed so absolutely sure of the existence of something objectively beautiful, judging other things as just kitsch, surprised me [...].

I consider the garden gnome as a soldier at the front of the battle between good and bad taste in the garden. Or—to paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist of culture—the antagonistic fight between different groups about the right to define good and bad taste, branding what is kitsch and non-kitsch (Bourdieu 1984)."


Londos, Eva (2006) "Kitsch is Dead - Long Live Garden Gnomes" pp 293-306.
Home Cultures, Vol. 3 Issue 3.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Kitsch (M. Zátonyi)

"Pero en sí, no hay objeto kitsch. Lo que es kitsch es la relación del sujeto con un objeto, artístico o no, con un fenómeno material o no, con otra persona, cercana o lejana, con su mundo. Cuando me regalan una flor de papel, y no la exhibo porque tengo miedo de lo que van a decir de mí o la pongo pensando que todo el mundo va a admirar lo original que soy, es kitsch, es una actitud kitsch, es una relación kitsch. Pero si la pongo, porque principalmente y ante todo, valoro el cariño con que me la regalaron, entonces no es kitsch."

Zátonyi, Marta (2002) Una estética del arte y el diseño de imagen y sonido. Buenos Aires: Kliczowski
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