An Excercise in Bad Taste. Kitsch & Horror (4/4)

Published: 05.01.2018
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:
(1/4) Etymology and Social Development of the Polemical Term Kitsch
(2/4) Kitsch. Cultural and Geographical Investigation.
(3/4) Kitsch, Exoticism and Escapism.
(4/4) Kitsch & Horror.
Kitsch is characterizing a civil society and can be different depending on heritage and ethical education. In Europe, a person which accepts or likes Kitsch, is seen as an uneducated person, poor in taste. In the following research, i will try to point out, what Kitsch is, why Kitsch and Horror goes hand in hand and which role plays the personal taste and the educational background. To explain the connection between Kitsch and Horror, we need to go back to what Kitsch is.

Kitsch in general counts as bad taste or not educated aesthetic view, the good taste should be a sign for the educated aesthetic view and a critical mind.
Kitsch is used in a negative way to describe something and is often seen as the opposite part of art. Kitsch counts as the queasy conscience of Art. (ugly little brother).
On the other Hand, Kitsch can be a challenging aesthetic comment, something that attracts us more than we would expect. Kitsch is strongly connected with emotions and it occurs when something ethical relevant is happening, such as Weddings, Birthdays or Funerals…

Kitsch is as well connected with a ritual character, that might be the reason why we find Kitsch souvenirs in religious surroundings. Trough these souvenirs and the simple aesthetic stimuli, you can recover your sentimental feelings and take them home. You can see the same with patriotic Statues or Monuments, here the kitsch is caused by the feelings people have for the leader or dictator, they are always strong in a good or bad way.

Sculptures by Soasig Chamaillard, 2011. The playful interaction of society’s many icons, physical transformations, and the resulting improbable combinations, have culminated in my vision of a woman’s role and place in our society. This inner questioning of a woman’s role, has led me to use one of the most sacred icons in my work, namely, the Virgin Mary. Initially, I begin with damaged statues, either donated or discovered in garage sales, which I then restore and transform. I surely do not mean to chock those who believe but rather to move those who see.

Kitsch lives from our Mortality. It lives through our fear of the dead and our broken souls. Kitsch lives from our longing for love. That’s one reason why Kitsch appears in times of Wars and Violence. Without Horror no Kitsch! We all deal with the insecurities of our future in a different way. We mix our imagination with feelings such as Hope, Fear, Wishes, utopic dreams (…).[1] Is this the source of the need for Kitsch?

It caught my attention, that after each catastrophe, there was a huge amount of Kitsch object appearing on the market. For example, after the Titanic accident happened, it gave kitschy postcards, poem about the dead and the survivors, pictures, and drawing of the Titanic before the accident, on the sea in full power. This kind of events, make us weak for Kitsch. It is something that makes us feel attached, it doesn’t matter if its well made or not. Without the longing for Harmony, there would be no Kitsch!

War Kitsch
As automatically after all cruel incidents of the world, the human culture reacts with kitsch. Kitsch means in this case, to remember the event, there are hymns and music, Printed memories as postcards, Benefiz concerts etc. „The first world war appeared as well in the children rooms of the burgeoisie. Toys and Nippes talk about the War. They Talk about the try to make the war acceptable in a playful way.” [2] The Kitsch dominated the everyday life of the people in every detail. To keep the mood up, there were Beer glasses or chocolate boxes with happy war motives and as mentioned above, there were many toys and games as Trench football, (England, similar to Flipper), and even a card game with motives of dead, executed people (France). There was a strategic Game with dices, which would introduce children the topographic specials of some parts of the war land (never too early to prepare them).

Marble Game „Trench Football“, unknown british producer, um 1914, wood, glass, lithography, 23 x 18 x 2,5 cm

To come back to our time: Everyone remembers 9/11. After the first patriotic suggestions for the Ground Zero Memorial, some citizens started all around macabre sales, which objects can easily count to Kitsch. There were Tissue Boxes, Drink bottles, Golfballs, Pins, Candy, Pensharpener, Skateboards, Milk bottles and Airfreshener matching the tragic events of 9/11. Even big Brands took part in this million dollar business. Yankee Candle and Hasbro changed their packaging to a special 9/11 packaging and a Merlot from 2001 was sold for 9.11 Mio. Dollar to make a Statement and a 9/11 Museum opened ist doors, with of course a lot of Kitsch Souvenirs.
In the end, 9/11 became almost a Brand.

Souvenirs from the 9/11 Museum in New York

Invented from the American Artist Art Spiegelman, the word Holo-Kitsch came to life. In the so-called Holo-Kitsch, the reality is shown in an extreme, mostly dreamy almost romantic way, which makes us believe a reality, which never happened. The main question in this part of the Kitsch is how to deal with Holocaust Survivors and their families in the respectful way, they deserve. Questions arise, how the Germans as a nation of guilt in the Holocaust actions, can build a Monument for Jewish survivors and their families, without making it kitsch. Since this topic is for both sides an emotional one and is loaded with memories, it seemed to be impossible to build a monument without kitsch aesthetics.

Questions arose during the building of the Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin: for which social and national purpose we want to build this monument? Loud and emotional discussions start to arise, the winning ideas for the monument were changed, since they were not acceptable in a political way. Again questioning: was the monument exclusively for Jewish people to mourn their loss, for Germans to remember what the Germans have done, or for the Jewish people to show what the Germans once did?

The problems of remembering the Holocaust in a way the Jewish deserve, without making it a farce or hurt someone, is well known by other nations too. In other parts of the world, things are handled differently. Writer Gabriel Schoenfeld once visited St. Petersburg and became a Map with „40 funny things to do in St. Petersburg” and on number 1 he found “Remember the Holocaust”. ''Those out for an enjoyable afternoon are invited to visit the local Holocaust museum, where for $39.95 they can purchase a scale-model replica of a Polish boxcar once used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others to the concentration camps. (If that's not enough, they can donate $5,000 or more to the museum and receive a genuine railway spike from Treblinka preserved in Lucite.) “ [3]

Mirroring Evil, Exhibiiton view. A man walks through a room at the Mudac decorated with wallpaper bearing the images of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and French artist Marcel Duchamp, by German artist Rudolf Herz.

It was just a matter of time, until Holo.Kitsch appeared in art. The best known Art-show ever about this topic, was the “Mirroring Evil” exhibition in the Jewish Museum in New York, 2002. Shown were Lego System Boxes, to build your own Konzentrationcamp, Comics in which the Nazis won actually the War and a Giftgas Eau de Parfum from Chanel, remembering the Gaschambers in Auschwitz. Holo Kitsch appears as well in Literature and Movie culture. The Movie Schindlers Liste, for example, shows a scene in which naked Jewish girls take an actual shower in the toxic chambers of Auschwitz, which would have never happened in reality. Jenny Witterick is famous for her Holo-Kitsch Novel. She wrote the “true” story of the Polish farmer's daughter Franciszka Halamajowa, which was hiding Jews in her House. The writer imagined, to add more drama to the topic, a German soldier which fell in love with the Jewish farmer's daughter. After being one of the best selling books of this year, she got sued, by Judy Maltz. Judy Maltz is a Film Maker who made the documentary „No.4Street of Our Lady“ which tells the story of Moshe Maltz, her Grandfather, who was actually hiding in the farmhouse of Franciszka Halamajowa. In opposite to the Book, the real story tells us from the Jews, suffering from the Nazis, from his 4 year old nice, which was crying for days, until the others decided to poison her, to avoid that the Nazis will find them. Love stories you will not find at all. In many new American novels, the genocide is just the background story for epic love and sentimental sex stories. 

Why am I telling you this? Because there is one important point: After the Holocaust survivors, which tell their stories are gone, what is left to educate us about our past? Movies, Literature!

Life is Beautiful (1997) The Italian joker Roberto Benigni dares to do the impossible: coping with Nazi horror with humoristic means

I will finish here with the War- and Holokitsch, to introduce some other Kitsch terms.

Sentimental Kitsch appeared in the mid of the 18th century. Divided into two parts was there the sweet kitsch which lets us enjoy our feelings and the utopic world and the bittersweet kitsch, which always includes a little bit of a dramatic aspect. The oldest known is the religious Kitsch. Main points are baby Jesus and dramatic gestures in religious paintings. Important is to exclude all religious objects before the 17th century. In this time the faith was authentic and can not be classified as kitsch. Erotic Kitsch is mainly found in novels. Mainly divided into two parts, in one the love would be shown as pure an innocent, without any sexual interactions, as the ideal utopic idea of love, in opposition to the second idea of erotic kitsch, in which the woman is more a demonic creature, longing for sexual interactions. Ideologic Kitsch. Most of our Ideologies are kitschy. It hast he simple reason, that Ideology, same as kitsch, has one really simple and straight state of mind. For example in the german nazi ideology, the “Vaterland” would be the ideal and is the perfect utopic vision of a land. Everything is simplified and what doesn't fit in the vision, would be ignored. Monumental Kitsch. In this Kitsch, everything is about our own perception. For example, the pyramids cant be classified as kitsch, since they show the subjective seen size of the pharaoh (in that time). On the other hand, can we consider Mount Rushmore and the presidential portraits as kitsch, since the size of the monument is kind of a heroisation and gets in conflict with our concept of democratic equalization of us humans.

All of us have a Kitsch-Point, a point where the kitsch can catch our feelings. Kitsch allows us to dream, to run away from the reality. As a tool in times of war, it works to calm people down. If we can project our fantasy, our kitschy dream of our everyday life, it allows us to find peace, but it stops us as well from the need to change the reality.

[1] Auf der Klaviatur der sozialen Wirklichkeit von Stephanie Ernst „Fürsorgliche Kritik utopischer Rhetorik“/Gibt es Kitsch auch in der Wissenschaft? Von Martin Doehlemann
[2] Süddeutsche Zeitung, Donnerstag, 27. März 2014, 13:50 Uhr , Raphael Zehnder
[3] “Death Camps As Kitsch” By Gabriel Schoenfeld Published: March 18, 1999

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.