Monday, 19 March 2012

Kitsch (C. Dreifuss)

According to Moles, the word kitsch has German origins and appears in Munich around 1860. “Kitschen means to mess and, particularly, to make new furniture with old ones, it is a well known expression; verkitschen means cheating, selling a thing in lieu of than what had been agreed.” (Moles, 1972, pág. 10). Other definitions also mention a possible origin in the Anglo-Saxon word sketch, a simple and cheap drawing that often mimics a true picture of much greater value (Dorfles, 1969 [1968]; Crick, 1983). 

A common feature of all the possible origins of the word kitsch is the pejorative connotation of the term. The fact that the term is recent also indicates that the phenomenon itself is not very old. While fraud and imitation products probably existed throughout the history of mankind, there are certain peculiarities of kitsch phenomenon that distinguish it from a simple forgery. 

Firstly, there is its modern character: just as mass art, kitsch is possible only in an industrialized society, capable of rapidly producing replicas in a significant amount and, therefore, reducing costs production. It is no coincidence that many times kitsch is equated with the avant-garde or some of the phenomena clearly linked to modernity (Greenberg, 1965 [1939]; Calinescu, 1995). Meanwhile, the existence of kitsch implies the existence of a society willing to consume it, formed by what Broch calls Kitsch-Menschen or Kitsch-men (Broch, 1966 [1950]). There are groups aiming to be entertained, and which not necessarily have access either to the original sources of so called educated art, or - in many cases - to the training needed to like them. They will prefer the copy already processed, cheap and understandable that satisfies this need for entertainment, in a way both economically and culturally assailable. 

Abraham Moles will single out five principles that, in a unified way, but more often put together, define the characteristics of kitsch, both as an object and as an event. 

(1) The principle of inadequacy, which has to do with an existing deviation “in relation to its nominal target, deviation in relation to the function which is supposed to fulfill, in the case of a product [...] deviation in relation to realism in the case of any figurative art.” (Moles, 1972, pág. 71). Under this principle, an object is placed simultaneously right and wrong: it may be an alteration of proportions, a change in the materials used, the use of the object in a singular context, the relative independence between object and function, etc. 

(2) The accumulation, that is to say, to collect with a sort of frenzy to ever more. It has to do with the horror of the void, with giving more than one function to one object, to combine in one space objects from diverse backgrounds. 

(3) The synesthetic perception, understood as stimuli to the greatest possible number of sensory channels simultaneously. This aspect, closely related to the accumulation, has to do with promoting aesthetic experiences that fully capture the consumer's attention by the assault on his or her senses, with a certain theatricality and deployment of resources; often kitsch is based on the technology to achieve this effect in its production. 

(4) Being average; even if there is a vast quantity of resources in place, it stops midway of becoming new, opposing to avant-garde and remaining essentially an art of mass. (Moles, 1972, pág. 75). 

(5) The perceived need to generate comfort, Gemütlichkeit, through all these forms than seek to easy acceptance, and that to achieve this, cast away from his speech any form of conflict, tension or difficulty, even if it means moving away from the real world. 

Beyond these five principles, we can identify other characteristics typical of kitsch, such as the will of imitation: the essentials of a work of art or kitsch event for those who consume it is not only in its formal characteristics but and above all in that to which it is hope through the copy. That's why Calinescu (Calinescu, 1995, pág. 229) argues that kitsch can be defined as specifically aesthetic form of lying. 

This desire of imitation turns into alienation, another essential characteristic of kitsch (also related to the principle of inadequacy), which “manifests itself as a sum of global changes in attitudes.” (Moles, 1972, pág. 40) It is not that kitsch objects that require this alienation, but the mode of appropriation and use of these objects can become alienating to the user in reference to the group to which he or she belongs. 

One of the most criticized aspects of kitsch refers to a sort of shallowness in awakening emotions. The scenes presented tend to introduce simple emotions, linked to a kind of romanticism that idealizes the happy ending or, in any case, that clings to sentimentality. 

Returning to the idea of kitsch as a product of modernity and industrialization, Calinescu sees in it a triumphant demonstration of ethics and aesthetics of consumerism. At the same time, its occurrence and distribution is invariably a sign of modernity so obvious “that one could take the presence of kitsch in countries of the 'second' and 'third' world as an unmistakable sign of 'modernization'.” (Calinescu, 1995 , p. 226) Clearly this circuit of production and consumption drives away from other type of user of kitsch, who is often both manufacturer and consumer, in a way close enough to craft production, which provides an aesthetic relationship with the object produced. This consumer does not view the object, event or experience as kitsch, but often reaches the point of comparing its qualities with those of high art that has no access.


Broch, H. (1966 [1950]). Notes on the Problem of Kitsch. In G. Dorfles, Kitsch, the World of Bad Taste. New York: Bell Publishing Company.
Calinescu, M. (1995). Five Faces of Modernity. Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press.
Crick, P. (1983). Kitsch. British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 23, No. 1 , 48-52.
Dorfles, G. (1969 [1968]). Kitsch. The World of Bad Taste. New York: Bell Publishing Company.
Greenberg, C. (1965 [1939]). Avant-Garde and Kitsch. In C. Greenberg, Art and Culture. Critical Essays (pp. 3-21). Boston: Beacon Press.
Moles, A. (1972). O Kitsch. Sao Paulo: Perspectiva.

From L'estetica (del huachafo) nell'architettura contemporanea a Lima. PhD thesis at Università degli Studi di Roma, La Sapienza. June 2011.
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