An Excercise in Bad Taste. Etymology and Social Development of the Polemical Term Kitsch (1/4)

Published: 27.11.2017
Carolin Denter Carolin Denter
Carolin Denter
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Kitsch is the German word for trash, and is used in English to describe particularly cheap, vulgar and sentimental forms of popular and commercial culture. But the term is of dubious origin and has no defined meaning. It is characterized by empiricism and objectivism concerning aesthetics. It is founded on knowledge and based on experience.

Kitsch was the main topic of my thesis and graduation work. Still, I am working on this topic. Through the research I have done, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the dominant opinion that kitsch is cheap, artistic rubbish and the opposite of art. 

This is the first part of a text that will be published in 3 more individual articles:
(2/4) Kitsch. Cultural and Geographical Investigation.
(3/4) Kitsch, Exoticism and Escapism.
(4/4) Kitsch & Horror.

It is the artist who reflects himself in his art,  marked by learned automatism, self-reflection and by his cultural environment. Kitsch roots as well in Zeitgeist but reproduces emotions and utopic perceptions of the own cultural environment. 

Kitsch is strongly connected to emotions, it occurs when something ethical relevant is happening. Kitsch is as well strongly connected to our own opinions and prejudices. It is characterizing a society and it can be received in different ways, depending on the ethnical background. But in common sense it is accepted, that the Person which accepts Kitsch, seems to have a simple or poor taste.
The Term Kitsch appears first in the German history around 1860. Mainly called as “place of birth” for the term, were artistic communities in Munich.  Around 1881 the term appeared the first time in the art scene of Berlin.

Seen in a historical context, it’s been manifested in the end of the 20th century. People earned for the first-time enough money, to afford luxury goods. So, the general public began to ask for furniture and everyday live objects, inspired by the elite lifestyle. An industry of forgeries and cheap copies started to grow. At the same time, these people started to travel for their own pleasure which resulted in a first, what we would call it, touristic boom. This as a starting point, combined with the emerging industrial production in Germany, the tourist and souvenir culture was the moving force for the evolution of the Kitsch culture. The number of low-quality Paintings and cheap souvenir products increased, through the new technical standards, it was possible and affordable to produce objects in large numbers for sale.

Sailors’ Valentines: Shell mosaic c. 1870, Barbados. During their travels, sailors often acquired mementos for their loved ones back home. 
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Atlantic City glass 1902, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition pitcher 1909, Hot Springs, South Dakota glass 1908, 
Eastern United States, Courtesy of Ian Berke, San Francisco, California.
Ruby glass was a popular keepsake found at world’s fairs and regional fairs as well as popular resorts, such as Atlantic City. Etchers inscribed the ruby-stained decoration with names, dates, and places, noting various cities, towns, and resorts. Often verses expressing the sentimentality of the Victorian era were inscribed on the glass such as, “for my wife from your loving husband” or “remember me.”

To find out, where the roots of the word itself came from, is more difficult. With all knowledge we have, we can’t tell the exact etymologic origin of this word. In south of Germany, the word Kitsch, was used to describe a short piece of wood or trash. But the term, how we use it nowadays, seems to originate from the expression „verkitschen“, which can be found in the German language as well as in the Yiddish language, with almost identical meaning:

Verkitschen“  is a synonym for „to sell off things“, as much and as fast as possible, [1]
or „to fob off something on someone “.

Other dictionaries explain, the word would originate from the English word „“sketch“ and could be caused by fast sketches, made for tourists or the picture postcard culture starting around 1869 in Austria and Hungary.

At the same time as the Kitsch culture began to rise, the first voices started judging it. Members of the educated classes, lead to fighting the triviality. Already in an early state, pedagogues warned people about the trash phenomenon, the poor taste and the confusions with the term art. Before this time, the term „ars“  or „techne“ was synonym with „skill and beauty“, going all the way back to ancient Greece. The theory of art as „form“  became popular in the modern era with Kant.[2]

Since the beginning of the 20th century, art historians, philosophers, sociologists and writers trying to investigate the definition of the meaning of Kitsch. Caused by the big cultural diversity, we cannot find one correlate version until today. In 1909 a first exhibition with the title „Geschmacksverirrungen im Kunstgewerbe“  („Lapse of taste in Arts and Crafts) , curate by Edmund Pazaurek was shown, with an incredible success, visited from an international audience. The exhibition aimed to contrast good and bad taste, Pazaurek wanted to train and educate the visitor’s aesthetical mind. He divided the exhibition into departments, titled as „Kitsch überhaupt“ (generally Kitsch, defined by the misuse of material), „Hurra Kitsch“ (Hooray Kitsch, graphics of World War atrocities), „Aktualitätskitsch“ (currency Kitsch, for example the Zeppelin hype), „Vereins Kitsch“ (association Kitsch, for example the Paintings of a Student) and some more.  With its overwhelming success, this exhibition was the first step, to spread the term Kitsch to an international public.

From the private collection of Edmund Pazaurek.
Pazaurek believed in the possibility of designing a system or catalog of formal errors in art, whit which everyone could be able to define bad taste and Kitsch and prevent it.

In 1933 Norbert Elias [3] gloomed, the term Kitsch would be blurred.  In his opinion, Kitsch describes more an attitude and would be identical with the relationship between men and thing, as long as time is changing, Kitsch would be changing,[4] what suggest us, Kitsch is changing with owner and observer. [5]  Kitsch counts as second-hand experience, as fake emotions. It stands for the unreal of our Lives and our time. The art critic Hermann Broch[6] said during the period of modernism: “ Kitsch is the Anti-Christ, stagnation, and death , he even defined the term of a highly dangerous human being, a so-called „Kitschmensch“.  In his eyes, the epitome would be Adolf Hitler[7]. Since World War II, more and more philosophers and art critics started to think this way. Kitsch was the synonym for the manifestation of a wrong cheated and conscious mind and signified the antithesis of modern art. Kitsch became the unified concept for all that what wasn't intellectual or new, for all that was conceived as brown, old-fashioned, sentimental, melodramatic and pathetic.

The American art critical Clement Greenberg[8]  wrote an Essay about „Avant-garde and Kitsch“ in 1939, in which he claimed, Avant-garde and modernism were meant to resist the fall of a culture, caused by consumerism. His most ambitious and criticized statement was his belief, that everything besides Avant-garde, particularly Academic-art, would be Kitsch: "All Kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is Kitsch."[9]. Based was his argument on the fact that in the 19th century, this academic art was centered in rules which tried to make it into something easily learnable and expressible. His conclusion was, there would be just the alternative between Avant-garde and Kitsch, between the real-art and the non-art which pretends to be art.

During the next half a century, the term becomes synonym with non - art, trash, bad taste, mass production, imitative period or form. Kitsch started to affect besides the field of Painting now as well music, cinema and other fields of art. The intention started to get differenced. „kitschen“ in the production,  „verkitschen in the distribution and kitschig“ in the aesthetical perception.[10]

While people debated semantic and definitions of it, the art scene started changing: A new movement was born, the so-called Kitsch movement[11], founded upon a 24 September 1998 by Odd Nerdrum. [12] During the opening of the large 1998 retrospective exhibit of his paintings at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Nerdrum apologized for masquerading as an artist, and agreed with his critics, his paintings would be Kitsch. Since he was branded with this term, he could now wear it with pride, he said. Many artists followed his line and declaim themselves as “Kitsch Painters”. These artists embrace it as a positive term: not in opposite to art, but as its own independent superstructure and as a philosophical movement, a superstructure of values and philosophy which are separate from art.

Painting by Odd Nerdrum. The Bridge, 2014.

To conclude we can declare, the term Kitsch is of dubious origin and has no defined meaning. It is characterized by empiricism and objectivism concerning aesthetics. It is founded on knowledge and based on experience.[13] Since many different ideologies, dogmas and social perspectives exist around the world, the Kitsch philosophy asks for individualism and liberty.

In other languages, except the Spanish “cursileria and the Russian “пошлый“ they just adapt the German word “Kitsch” in the absence of an own term. Until the late 1960s the term Kitsch whit its actual meaning was not existing in the Spanish language. Kitsch and lo cursi are for sure members of the same family but at the same time cursilería is already existing for a few centuries, with a different aesthetic meaning. The interesting point is, that until the German term Kitsch came to Spain, there was no social or cultural awareness of it.[14]  
In other cultures, we find the word Kitsch, but some subgenres of it, are more known and famous, so they get confused with it. In the English language, for example, the term “camp” stands for a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality. Camp aesthetics disrupt many modernists' notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and consumption, and is definitely part of the meaning of Kitsch [15]

To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization (...) All Camp objects and persons contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy. (...) Camp is the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling. The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary "avant-garde" art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over "morality," of irony over tragedy. Camp and tragedy are antitheses. There is seriousness in Camp (seriousness in the degree of the artist's involvement) and, often, pathos.”[16]

Photography "The Rape of Africe" by David la Chapelle.
Inspired by Botticelli’s Venus & Mars, American commercial photographer David La Chapelle recreates the image under a modern context; Mars, who is shown sleeping on all of his riches, represents greed, while Venus, which represents Africa, is onlooking with dissatisfaction.

Painting by Istvan Nyari, "The wedding of my parents ten years before their divorce", Acrylic on canvas. 2005.

Camp-art always intends something artificial as well as homosexual, with a wide sense of humor, the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful and anti-serious.

Like this, I could go on and on. I think what was the most important point in this first step of my research, was the fact about how different Kitsch would be seen. How persons, different cultures or just if you set kitsch in a different content can change its meaning and value completely.
The next step for myself must be a cultural research about the term Kitsch.


[1] Source, 18.03.2016
[2] *22 April 1724; †12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is considered the central figure of Modern
[3] Norbert Elias (* 22. Juni 1897 in Breslau; † 1. August 1990 in Amsterdam) was a sociologist from Germany which emigrated 1933 to 
England and  the Netherlands.
[4] Abraham A. Moles, Psychologie des Kitsches (Le Kitsch. L’Art du Bonheur, 1971) aus dem französischen übersetzt 1972, S. 29
[5] Erich Kästner, „Die Straße des Kitsches“ (1928), Gemischte Gefühle. 1923–1933, Bd. 1, S. 226.
[6] Philosopher and Austrian writer, *November 1, 1886; † May 30, 1951) considered one of the major Modernists.
[7] Adolf Hitler (20 April 1889 – 30 April 1945) was a German politician who was the leader of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Führer ("leader") of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945. As dictator of 
Nazi Germany, he initiated World War II in Europe with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and was a central figure of the Holocaust.
[8] Clement Greenberg (January 16, 1909 – May 7, 1994), was an American essayist known mainly as an influential visual art critic closely associated with American Modern art of the mid-20th century.
[9] „
Avant-Garde and Kitsch“ Essay by Clement Greenbaum, 1939
[10]   Die Bildung des Geschmacks: über die Kunst der Sinnlichen Unterscheidung, S.135, Eckart Liebau, Jörg Zirfas
[11] The movement defines itself as synonymous with the ars of ancient Rome or the techne of ancient Greece. Kitsch painters embrace it as a positive term not in opposition to "art", but as its own independent superstructure. Kitsch painters assert that Kitsch is not an art movement, but a philosophical movement: a superstructure of values and philosophy which are separate from art. The Kitsch movement has been considered an indirect criticism of the contemporary art world, but according to Nerdrum and many Kitsch painters, this is not their expressed intention.
[12] *8 April 1944 in Helsingborg, Sweden,  is a Norwegian figurative painter
[13] Source, 18.03.2016
[14] The culture of Cursilería: Bad Taste, 
Kitsch and Class in modern Spain, Page 16
[15] Source, 18.03.2016
[16] Notes on „Camp“ by Susan Sontag, Essay from 1964


About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2015 she made an Internship at Klimt02, where she is working since 2016 as Content Manager. In 2017 she graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working part-time as Marketing and Design management Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement.