Thursday, 17 May 2012

What is Kitsch? (T. Kulka)

Romanticism is outmoded, symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilization based on excess consumption.   - Jacques Sternberg
"One of the questions often raised in connection with kitsch is whether it is a distinctly modern phenomena, or whether it has accompanied art throughout its history. Is kitsch historically dated, having made its appearance some hundred and fifty years ago, or is it as old as art itself?
Most of the authors who have dealt with this issue believe that kitsch is indeed a relatively recent arrival in Western culture. Although the reasons they cite in support if this claim vary, two distinct lines of argument can be discerned. The authors who focus on the sociological and sociocultural aspects of the phenomenon emphasize that the proper conditions for both the consumption and the production of kitsch did not exist prior to the modern era (Greenberg, Morreall & Loy, Calinescu). They invoke factors like the emergence of the middle class, urbanization and the influx of peasant populations to the towns, the decline of aristocracy, the disintegration of folk art and folk culture, increased literacy among the ploretariat, more time for leisure, mass production, and technological progress, as preconditions for kitsch. Thus, for example, Clement Greenberg, who sees the emergence of kitsch as more or les simultaneous with that of modernism, claims that "[k]itsch is a product of the industrial revolution" (Art and Culture 9).

Authors who are more concerned with its art-historical, stylistic, and aesthetic aspects consider kitsch to be an offspring of the Romantic movement (Dorfles, Broch). Hermann Broch, for example, maintains that "every form of kitsch... owes its existence to the specific structure of the Romanticism." He claims that Romanticism, "without being kitsch itself, is the mother of kitsch and that there are moments when the child becomes so like its mother that one cannot differentiate between them".

The two perspectives support each other, since they claim roughly the same starting point for the appearance of kitsch. This stance seems to be further strengthened by the fact that the term kitsch has nowhere been recorded before the second half of the nineteenth century.

Yet there are dissenters. Arthur Koestler, for example, maintains that when Petronius in his Supper of Trimalchio describes the bad taste of the newly established class of the merchants, he is clearly referring to kitsch. A similar claim is made by Susan Sontag about Cervantes, who makes fun of seventeenth-century chivalric romances. Others maintain that the small Hellenistic painted statues that were produced in large quantities mainly for export, as well as many of the objects in Pompeii, can be seen as examples of kitsch from the distant past.

[...] Kitsch as we know it cannot be divorce from the socio-economic conditions described by those who see this phenomenon as a product of industrial revolution. It also seems true that of all artistic movements it is the Romantic movement that created the most fertile grounds for kitsch. One can hardly deny that Romanticism, with its emphasis on dramatic effects, pathos, and overall sentimentality, displays intrinsic affinities with kitsch. It seems also plausible to claim that since the term kitsch is relatively new, there was probably no acute need for its use in early times. Yet, the denial of the existence of kitsch prior to the nineteenth century seems too strong."

Kulka, Thomas (2002 [1996]) Kitsch and Art. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

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