Thursday, 27 September 2012

Kitsch and Its Object (T. Kulka) I

"Let us begin by imagining the following situation: Our friend, a competent artist, needs, for some reason, to produce a commercially successful work of kitsch. However, he had no idea what kitsch actually is, and is requesting our advise. What kind of advise could we offer him for creating convincing kitsch? What kind of instructions could we devise, which, if properly executed, would produce a successful kitsch painting?

As we can distinguish between the subject matter of a painting and the manner of its rendering, we can accordingly distinguish between the instructions pertaining to the question of what to paint and those pertaining to the question of how to paint it. In other words, let us consider what sort of objects would be most suitable as subject matter of kitsch, and what kind of rendering would be best suited for this task.

Since figurative and nonfigurative painting are equally legitimate today, the first question is whether our painter should go for a figurative picture or for an abstract one. The answer is clear. It would be evidently more difficult to produce a commercially successful abstract kitsch picture than a figurative one. We seldom call an abstract work kitsch, even if we think is bad.

The next question is whether all objects or themes are equally suitable as the subject matter of kitsch. Clearly, some are more suitable than others. Fluffy little kittens or children in tears would surely do better than an ordinary chair or a washing machine. Let us list some more examples of typical subjects exploited by kitsch. Among the themes that figure most prominently in kitsch pictures are puppies and kittens of various sorts, children in tears, mothers with babies, long-legged women with sensuous lips and alluring eyes, beaches with palms and colourful sunsets, pastoral Swiss villages framed in mountain panorama, pasturing deer in a forest clearing, couples embracing against the full moon, wild horses galloping along the waves of a stormy sea, cheerful beggars, sad clowns, sad faithful old dogs gazing toward infinity... the reader could easily extend the list.

What do these themes have in common? The answer is: they are all highly emotionally charged. They are charged with stock emotions that spontaneously trigger an unreflective emotional response.The subject matter typically depicted by kitsch is generally considered to be beautiful (horses, long-legged women), pretty (sunsets, flowers, Swiss villages), cute (puppies, kittens), and/or highly emotionally charged (mothers with babies, children in tears). This emotional charge does not just typically concur with kitsch; it is a sine qua non. Consider ordinary objects of everyday life that are devoid of any emotional charge: an ordinary chair, or a washing machine. It would, of course, be easy enough to paint bad pictures of chairs or washing machines. However, no matter how hard our painter tried, his efforts would not be rewarded by clear-cut examples of kitsch. Take, on the other hand, an object that is generally considered cute and elicits a ready emotional response: a fluffy little kitten, for example. Not only would it be quite easy to produce such a kitten-depicting work of kitsch, it would actually take some ingenuity to steer clear of it. This dependence on the emotional charge of its subject matter may also explain the difficulty of producing a nonfigurative work of kitsch. Our first advise to our painter should thus be: Choose a subject matter with a clear emotional charge that triggers a ready emotional response."

Kulka, Thomas (2002 [1996]) Kitsch and Art. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. pp 25-26.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Architects are the last people that should shape our cities (J. Meades)

Originally published in The Guardian, September 18th, 2012.
Full article by Jonathan Meades

"Architecture, the most public of endeavours, is practised by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish. If this sounds far-fetched just consider the way initiates of this cult describe outsiders as the lay public, lay writers and so on: it's the language of the priesthood. And like all cults its primary interest is its own interests, that is to say its survival, and the triumph of its values – which means building. Architects, architectural critics, architectural theorists, the architectural press (which is little more than a deferential PR machine) – the entire quasi-cult is cosily conjoined by mutual dependence and by an ingrown, verruca-like jargon which derives from the more dubious end of American academe.

[...] Architecture talks about architecture as though it is disconnected from all other endeavours, an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself. Now, it would be acceptable to discuss opera or sawmill technology or athletics or the refinement of lard in such a way. They can be justifiably isolated, for they don't impinge on anyone outside, say, the lard community – the notoriously factional lard community. To isolate architecture is blindness, and an abjuration of responsibility.

If we want to understand the physical environment we should not ask architects about it. After all, if we want to understand charcuterie we don't seek the opinion of pigs. Architects make the error of confusing a physical environment with what they impose on it. Wrong. What is going on around us is the product of innumerable forces. Accidents – some happy, some not – clashes of scale and material, municipal idiocies and corporate boasts – these are some of the more salient determinants of our urban and suburban and extra-urban environments. Buildings are, of course, the major component of these environments. Some of those buildings will be the work of architects. But with the exception of those places where they have been granted the licence to do what they yearn to do – to start from zero – architects have less influence than they believe.

[...] It doesn't matter what idiom is essayed, it is the business of attempting to create places that defeats architects. Architects cannot devise analogues for what has developed over centuries, for generation upon generation of amendments. They cannot understand the appeal of untidiness and randomness, and even if they could they wouldn't know how to replicate it.

New buildings are simple: imagination and engineering. New places are not. It seems impossible to achieve by artifice the parts with no name, the pavement's warts and the avenue's lesions, the physical consequences of changed uses, the waste ground, the apparently purposeless plots.
It shouldn't be impossible. One cause of this failure is architects' lack of empathy, their failure to cast themselves as non-architects: architect Yona Friedman long ago observed that architecture entirely forgets those who use its products. Another cause of failure is their bent towards aesthetic totalitarianism – a trait Nikolaus Pevsner approved of, incidentally. There was no work he admired more than St Catherine's College, Oxford: a perfect piece of architecture. And it is indeed impressive in an understated way. But it is equally an example of nothing less than micro-level totalitarianism. Arne Jacobson designed not only the building, but every piece of furniture and every item of cutlery.

At macro-level, a so-called master planner will attend to the details of streets, avenues, drop-in centres, houses, offices, bridges. The master planner is almost certainly an architect, even though planning and architecture are contrasting disciplines. There are countless differences between a suburb and, say, a shopping mall in that suburb. We are all familiar with the hubristic pomp that often results when actors direct themselves. Appointing architects to conceive places is like appointing foxes to advise on chicken security.

The human ideal is to revel in urbanistic richness, in layers of imperfection. [...] The overlooked can only survive so long as authority is lax. When authority goes looking for the overlooked, the game is up – as it is today in the Lea Valley in east London. The entirely despicable, entirely pointless 2012 Olympics – a festival of energy-squandering architectural bling worthy of a vain, third-world dictatorship, a payday for the construction industry – occupies a site far more valuable as it was. It was probably the most extensive terrain vague of any European capital city. The English word "wasteland" is pejorative, lazy and more or less states that the place has no merit – so why not cover it in expressions of vanity?

[...]What an architect sees, blindly and banally, is not richness and severality. But, rather, something that is crudely classified as a brownfield site, that is tantamount to being classified as having no intrinsic worth. It is a non-place where derivative architecture can gloriously propagate itself with impunity. A brownfield site is a job opportunity, a place where the world can be physically improved. The architectural urge doesn't acknowledge the fact that it'll all turn to dust."
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