Sunday, 30 January 2011

On Kitsch and Sementality (Robert C. Salomon)
As the notion of "truth" requires "falsity," the very notion of "taste" in art necessitates the existence of "bad taste" and, consequently, bad art. But bad art, like falsehood, comes in many varieties and is subject to different kinds of objections. There is sheer technical incompetence, just to begin with (although artistic inability as such is much less fatal than it used to be); there is ignorance of the medium, the tradition and its history, the current fashions and the tastes of the times. For those outside the bustling art centers, what seems to be bad art may be just bad timing. There is unimaginative imitation and straightforwardp lagiarism. There is such a thing as having "no eye," the failure to understand color or composition. But there is also an "ethical" dimension to bad art, as in the depiction of the forbidden, the blasphemous, the vulgar expression of the inexpressible, the provocation of the improper and cruelty. [...]

Once upon a time, bad art was, above all, such use of unacceptable subject matter, evoking the wrong emotions and provoking the wrong reactions (e.g., visceral disgust and nausea)- but this too seems to have recently dropped out of the picture. These days, it is far wiser for an aspiring young artist to offend or disgust the viewer rather than evoke such gentle sentiments as sympathy and delight.

So this is just what is particularly interesting, from a philosophical point of view, about that peculiar variety of "bad art" called "kitsch," and, in particular, that variety of kitsch sometimes called "sweet kitsch. " Sweet kitsch is art (or, to hedge our bets, intended art) that appeals unsubtly and unapologetically to the softer, "sweeter" sentiments. [...] Examples of sweet kitsch are often mentioned as paradigm instances of bad art, but
the nature of its "badness" is just what makes kitsch philosophically interesting. [...]

What is wrong with sweet kitsch? Its deficiencies appear to be just what we would otherwise think of as virtues, technical proficiency and a well-aimed appeal to the very best of the viewer's emotions.

What is wrong with sweet kitsch, first and foremost, seems to be its sentimentality, its easy evocation of certain "sweet" emotions. But what is wrong with sentimentality,a nd sentimentality in art in particular? I think that the heart of the problem lies in our poor opinion of the motions in general and in particular the "softer" sentiments. [...]

By the end of the [19th] century, "sentimentalist" was clearly a term of ridicule and abuse, connoting superficiality, saccharine sweetness and the manipulation of mawkish emotion. Kitsch was its artistic equivalent, and artists in Paris who had been praised only a century before as the "geniuses" of Official Art became figures of loathing and ridicule in retrospect, mere curators of kitsch who produced paradigms of "bad art" which we keep in our museums only for the sake of the historians, and as contrasts to the great art of the "Refused" in the room next door. [...]

To call someone a "sentimentalist" in ethics is to dismiss both the person and his or her views from serious consideration, adding, perhaps a disdainful chortle and an implicit accusation of terminal silliness. Sentimentality is roundly condemned in the arts as well, and to call a piece "sentimental" or "kitsch" is to say that it is very bad art-if, indeed, it deserves recognition as art at all-and to cast suspicion on both its creator and its appreciative audience. [...] Kitsch and sentimentality lead to brutality. Sentimentality and kitsch reveal not only woefully inadequatea esthetic sense but a deep moral flaw of character.

What's wrong with kitsch?

I think we can narrow down the leading candidates for an argument to six: (1) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality provoke excessive or immature expressions of emotion; (2) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality manipulate our emotions; (3) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality express or evoke "false" or "faked" emotions; (4) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality express or evoke "cheap" or "easy" or "superficial" emotions; (5) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality are self-indulgent and interfere with "appropriate" behavior and, perhaps the most dominant charge; (6) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality distort our perceptions and interfere with rational thought and an adequate understanding of the world. The charge is that kitsch gives us a false and fraudulent, overly "sweet" and benign vision of the world (or certain
beings in the world, notably children and puppies) and thus somehow "blocks" our larger, nastier knowledge of the world (children and puppies too). Underlying all of these charges, indeed, is the suspicion that kitsch and sentimentality are modes of distraction and selfdeception, shifting our attention away from the world as it is and soothing us instead with objects that are uncompromisingly comfortable and utterly unthreatening. [...]

If someone responds tenderly to a little girl in a painting, is that not a good indication that they will tend to do so in the case of a real little girl? And if they respond with cold contempt to the painting, isn't that a warning, that this is a person deficient in essential human feelings? However sophisticated we may be, we respond to representational  art as if the subject in question were real and actual and the way we respond to art says a great deal about how we respond to life. It is not self-indulgence that motivates us to absorb ourselves in a painting and welcome the emotions it evokes. It is part of our emotional engagement in the human drama.

Once we remove from consideration those concerns that are appropriate to art and aesthetics rather than ethics, it seems to me that the real objection to kitsch and sentimentality is the rejection (or fear) of emotions and, especially, certain kind of sentiments, variously designated as "tender" or "sweet" or "nostalgic." But the rejection extends as well to the gloomier emotions, and Karsten Harries warns us: "how easy it is to wax lyrical over despair, to wallow in it, to enjoy it. This too is kitsch, sour kitsch." Mary Midgley points out that "thrillers" have much in common with kitsch and sentimentality, for they too distort reality and manipulate emotion (though different emotions and to a very different end). So what emotions are legitimate, "true" and undistorted? Can art evoke any ordinary human emotions without being condemned as kitsch? Is there any room left in our jaded and sophisticated lives for the enjoyment of simple innocence and "sweet" affection? The trumped-up charges against kitsch and sentimentality should disturb us and make us suspicious. These attacks on the most common human sentiments-our reactions to the laughter of a child, or to the death of an infant-go far beyond the rejection of the bad art that evokes them. It is true that such matters provide a facile vehicle for second or third rate painters, but if such incidents are guaranteed to evoke emotion it is because they are indeed a virtually universal concern. The fact that we are thus "vulnerable" may make for some very bad art but this should not provoke our embarrassment at experiencing these quite "natural" sentiments ourselves, nor should it excuse the enormous amount of sophistry that is devoted to making fun of and undermining the legitimacy of such emotion.

Solomon, Robert C. (1991) "On Kitsch and Sentimentality" 
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 1-14
Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics

Sunday, 23 January 2011

On D. Libeskind being kitsch

"'Have you seen theTimes yet?' she asked. 'Get it, get it, get it.'

It was early in the morning and I wasn’t quite awake. Yet.

In the Times, it turned out, Herbert Muschamp had offered 'an appraisal' of the two finalists [for the Gound Zero project]. 'Taken together as a kind of shotgun diptych,' he wrote, 'the two designs... illustrate the confusion of a nation torn between the conflicting impulses of war and peace.' Shotgun diptych?

'Daniel Libeskind’s project for the World Trade Center site is a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun. The THINK team’s proposal, on the other hand, offers an image of peacetime aspirations so idealistic as to seem nearly unrealizable.

'While no pacifist, as a modern-day New Yorker I would like to think my way to a place beyond armed combat. ... [The THINK design] is an act of metamorphosis. It transtforms our collective memories of the twin towers into a soaring affirmation of American values.' [...]

I went back to reading. Muschamp was not remotely finished. He derided my attempt as a 'predictably kitsch result.' Whoa. That’s as low a blow as you can deliver in architecture criticism—to call something kitsch. You can say a design is ugly. That it is impractical. You can even say it’s a rip-off of another design. But don’t ever call it kitsch."

Libeskind, Daniel (2004) Breaking Ground. Adventures in Life and Architecture. New York, Riverhead Books, pp 167-168.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Kitsch (P. Crick)

"It is a surprise to find how, in the biological realm, the endlessly evolving forms of life appear as anticipations of distinctive forms of human social behaviour. Ignorant of the slur which we place upon them and of the effect they have upon our metaphors, parasites such as ivy, mistletoe, or the pernicious flea, pronounce the joys that can be gained just by shaping one's life around the life style of a host. Why struggle for support or food when you can get someone else to do all the hard work for you? Such is the question parasitism suggests. A refutation of the argument is hard to find.

The price which the parasite pays for its upkeep is dependence, but offered such support by a more energetic organism, all else follows. Generally, in the natural world the right degree of maintenance is forthcoming; but should the host die, then the parasite will probably follow suit. The key fact in this sort of relationship is that it is a very one-way affair, and irreversible.

In human culture, a nearly identical partnership is that which holds between Art and Kitsch. They are interinvolved, but in an irreversible mode. Lift, for example, all trace of Kitsch from a society and Art would still be able to flourish. It might, indeed, expand its range and become more successful. Extract, however, Art from the structure of a culture— prise out its nervous system—and, after a sufficient pause, any sign of Kitsch would also vanish. Perhaps in this instance the culture might vanish, too.

What, then, are the characteristics of Kitsch as a phenomenon which define and ensure its dependency on Art as the prior form ? [...]

Firstly, then, a work of art, although always the product of thought and imagination and, of course, very hard work, is not deliberative. The creative artist never sets out to calculate responses, for calculation would inevitably destroy the spontaneous character which enters into the development of the artefact. The creative act, the work of making the poem, the painting, the sculpture, does not preclude reason or reasoning; but the intellect combines with and fuses into the passionate element throughout the process, under a principle which ensures that the completed work will submit itself to an open and diverse response on the part of each differing perceiver. A work of art does not make use of its understanding of the nature of the medium being employed to control the psyche of the responding individual, as is the case in the sophisticated product of advertising on television where Kitsch photography and montage both of shot and of speech are the order of the day. Art does not seek to manipulate. It does not take up a position of power in relation to the recipient, as advertising will. It does not see the properties of the language of the medium as a weapon of approach. The artist is not self-conscious in that sense. Calculation as to effect will always mean that one who does so also calculates the precise reward of that effect. Calculation of effect is also the path to the manifestation of the sentimental. In Kitsch, deliberation and indulgence walk hand in hand, as courtier and courtesan. Flattery is its essence. [...]

Secondly, Art knows nothing of closure. The artefact may sometimes be simple; but it is never simplistic. Art does not insult the complexity of nature and of Man through an act of reduction. Nor is there any finality in a true work of art, either in its internal state, nor when it is experienced from the outside. The completed form of the work, its structural harmony, is a resolution of conflicting forces in the originator—a momentary resolution,
not a terminal fusion of those forces. In its external aspect, the artefact gives the observer or participant work to do. It puts questions, starts a mystery, inseminates the observer with new unforeseen questions, leaves itself open, leaves itself exposed to the world like a flower; all this, while giving delight; whereas a Kitsch product is final in quality, says one borrowed definite thing, and then, no more. It arouses certain secondary pleasures in those who crave Kitsch but asks no questions, is unmysterious and shallowly explicit. Kitsch is very much a by-product of social anxiety, and tries very hard to reassure. It seeks to protect both its maker and its consumer from the rigour of the real. [...]

The third negation of Kitsch is a double negation. Art is never un-selfreferenced. Kitsch, on the other hand, bears the stamp of its own ignorance. Whenever a Kitsch product falsely offers itself as a work of art, analysis of it gives no evidence that the work anywhere knows itself to be a work of art. The authentic work knows itself to be such because the creator of it discovers as he goes along that he is a maker of the new (and not just the maker of a novelty). There is always concrete evidence within a work of art of a technical kind which will show on inspection that not only is the artist engaged in a search but that he is searching with a method which is provisional in its essence. Moreover, this note of provisionality always enters into the expressive form which the act of search takes. Such an attitude shows what it means to assert that a work of art is self-aware. It is just one step beyond this from self-awareness to self-reference. Selfawareness of this tentative order ensures that the work of art will indirectly comment upon its own use of the medium. It will show itself to exist in a state of tension with its own technical means, and its own specific cultural inheritance.

A further aspect of the self-referencing function resides in the fact that a work of art, simply by existing in its 'resolved' state, can be seen by observers to relate both to past works by the same artist, and to those which will emerge in the future. The relationship articulates the general quest of that artist. Kitsch can never exemplify either search or quest in this sense. The third great difference between Art and Kitsch occurs in the sphere
of decoration. Art is not self-indulgently decorative. In a Kitsch product, there is no inner formal necessity between the ornamental element and motif. The decoration is used simply as cosmetic to whatever is being
centrally presented. [...]

The last and fifth major contrastive difference between the two modes of making is to some extent a continuation by other means of the issue of decoration. A work of art, if looked at in terms of its rituahstic aspect, is never ritualistic without substance. The ritualism of Kitsch, however, gives full reign to the resources of human fancy and fantasy without regard to the traditional base of accredited ritual. The authenticity of the ritual domain in Art is derived from its historical validity—the ideological validity of the field of ritual reference at the time at which any given work of art invoking it is made. A work of art can, of course, evoke past ritualistic forms, not (as may be the case) as quotation, but rather in the form of celebrating the climate of a previous epoch and its value-system. But whenever that happens, it will treat the material referred to in the language of the present and not just naively import the ritual mode unaltered. Kitsch imports, and borrows, intact. Art alludes, and transforms. [...]

Today, Kitsch is the flourishing formula of a mass culture. Its presence can be detected in every social practice from religion, through all mediacommercials, to athletics, even. Kitsch is the great hedonist vehicle of our time, a parasite now grown to leviathan maturity, while the host on which it feeds remains comparatively small. But to this depressing fact there is an opposing optimistic parable. In certain Latin American countries, the scourge of extreme poverty has brought into being a type of artistcraftsman, who lacking all plant or technology has taken to recycling chosen items of garbage (Strassenschlamm) into new and beautiful and useful individualized products, such as oil-lamps, which' are sold at local street-markets. They are sold not (yet) to tourists, but to ordinary local people.

This model of creative courage in which an innovation drawn from the uninviting gutter of industrial waste breeds beauty alongside utility, has something in common with the way in which Western artists have taken up facets of the enormous Kitsch output in their own culture and through a deft act of allusive irony incorporated them into fresh aesthetic statements. Modem art therefore engages in a crucial if low-key dialogue with its feverish parasite. On each occasion where that irony is manifested a work of art becomes a work of criticism, and a work of criticism becomes a work of art.

Crick, Philip (1983) "Kitsch". In: British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 23, no. 1.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Architecture in Everyday Life (D. Upton)

"The everyday comprises 'seemingly unimportant activities'. Or it is 'a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct' (Lefebvre) [...].

For one architect, 'The everyday is that which remains after one has eliminated all specialized activities' (Harris). According to another, everyday space lies 'in between such defined and physically definable realms as the home, the workplace, and the institution, [it] is the connective tissue that binds everyday lives together' (Crawford) [...].

Architecture is inescapably concrete and it forms the fabric and the setting of everyday life. Consequently, to approach everyday life through architecture - architecture with a lower-case a, understood in its broadest sense to encompass the entire material world (or "cultural landscape") that people make and think - is to be forced to pin down, in ways too often lacking in theories of the quotidian, the precise ways in which everyday life is experienced and the specifics of its relationships to other aspects of life and landscape. So architecture's materiality makes it a natural conduit to the specificity of everyday life. [...]

Unlike, say, literary critics or sociologists, who study the works, actions, and values of other people at a distance, builders intervene directly in everyday life. This means that architects must examine their own professional practices and social identities as well as those of the people for whom they build. This habit of self-scrutiny long antedated Architectural interest in the everyday, so called. Since the beginnings of European-American professionalization two centuries ago, architects (expanding that term to include landscape architects and urban designers) have struggled to differentiate themselves from builders and clients and to establish a clear social identity that would give them the cultural authority to dominate the building market and control the shaping of the landscape. They have failed. Many nonarchitects - builders, clients, critics - continue to claim some authoritative knowledge of the field and decline to grant architects the absolute authority they seek. [...]

The idea of the everyday forces us to acknowledge that Architecture is part of architecture, that designers are a part of the everyday world, not explorers from a more civilized society or detached doers for clients and to cities."

Upton, Dell (2002) "Architecture in Everyday Life". In: New Literary History, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 707-723. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Etymology of Kitsch (O. F. Best)

Three quick notes:

- Kitsch is a synonym of Kolportage (cheap sensationalism / trash, rubbish / peddling).
- Ketschen / schleppen / schleifen : to draw, to tow.
- Kitschen is used as the verbs verpassen and verschwenden (to fritter away / to waste), but also means "to negotiate on a small scale and to sell in an artful way.
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