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
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
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.
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