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.
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."
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