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.

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