An Excercise in Bad Taste. Cultural and Geographical Investigation of the Term Kitsch (2/4)

Published: 11.12.2017
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 second part of a text that will be published in 3 more individual articles:
(1/4) Etymology and Social Development of the Polemical Term Kitsch.
(3/4) Kitsch, Exoticism, and Escapism.
(4/4) Kitsch & Horror.
International established since 1909, the term Kitsch describes the opposite of Art. I would like to find out more about the cultural origin oft he term Kitsch and his international use so I take a look what more experienced people in history thought about it. 

Clement Greenberg is sure, Kitsch is a product oft he industrial revolution. Urbanisation and education were available for the mainstream, but not insight, leisure or comfort what would be necessary to understand and enjoy the art of the urban culture. Kitsch counts as a replacement, made for those who are immune but greedy for culture and art.

In the eyes of Herman Broch, Kitsch is rooted in the bourgeoisie during the romantic era, between courtly, aestheticising, effusive tradition and puritanical decoration, an object of desire was pieces of art from overwhelming beauty, disconnected from the mundane. In his opinion, art is an open system, in which perfect beauty never can be reached, just as a platonic idea. Art must not follow the rules of beauty; it should create his own rules, its own reality. Kitsch would close this open system; it aims to show pure beauty in every piece. In the art of the romantic era, this idea is already present. Broch concludes: the goddess of beauty in art, is the goddess of Kitsch.[1]

Kitsch can be spotted in every field of art. Music, Movies, Jewelry, Paintings, Design of everyday object and Architecture. But we have to make a difference between the aesthetical and the ethical use. In our aesthetical use, Kitsch has usually a negative connotation, the ethical use described by Hermann Broch, describes Kitsch as the Evil in the system of values in Art.[2]

Unknown Woman showing her collection of Novels, Germany 2013. For Broch, detective or love novels describe kitsch as a failed imitation. 

Mostly in a cultural context, Kitsch is seen as a phenomenon, looking back through the eras of art, only the medieval epoch seems to be resistant against Kitsch, measured by the criteria for evaluation from Frank Wedekind.[3] With nowadays criteria, even in the ancient Greek art, where „ars“ and „techs“, the beautiful and well made counted as art, Kitsch was found[4] and is not temporarily finite which means it has to count as an anthropological constant term. In the book „Kitsch und Nation. Zur kulturellen Modellierung eines polemischen Begriffs“ the author tries to answer the question, if Kitsch is used in other languages as a term, or if these people know about the phenomenon Kitsch and use it to express a specific kind of aesthetic comment, even if they have an own impression in their language. In North Korea, is no word for Kitsch, still we would find a lot of the Architecture and Interior Design there quiet Kitschy:

Soviet-era fittings and kitsch retro props: North Korea n interiors in pictures. The multi-purpose 1st of May Stadium, completed in 1989, looks more like a model house than a sports facility. Photo by Oliver Wainwright.

The Grand People's Study House is the central library located in the North Korean capital and features a gigantic statue of Kim Il Sung with a mosaic picture of Mt. Paekdu in the background. Photo by Oliver Wainwright

Instead of a painting or art piece on the wall, the Changgwang Health and Recreation Complex, Pyongyang features a large poster of 
government-authorized North Korean haircuts for women . Photo by Oliver Wainwright

Contemporary art and Kitsch in ethnology another important part. Since ethnology is dealing with current affairs of our time, ethnology is always investigating contemporary art as well. New developments in art processes are usually affected by the heritage and the surrounding of an artist. In our, more and more, globalized world, it takes more effort for the audience to realize the ethnical background of the artist. This diversity and the new hybridity is part of our art – era and we deal with it, but it brings as well problems. One of the main problems you will find during the research about contemporary art related to ethnology is the question, if contemporary art with a specific, for example, an indigenous background is understandable for a western European audience since most of the indigenous groups uses art as an important communication system for autonomy and national discourses. In this art, every detail has a meaning: colors, motifs and so on. It is necessary to study these meanings to understand the art. Extracted from its surrounding, presented in a Gallery or a Museum it would become a different meaning to the unaware audience.

Exhibition Display at AAMU, The only museum in Europe entirely dedicated to contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. Photo by AAMU

Most of the contemporary art can’t be associated with one significant aesthetic, culture or social group. Because of the globalization, the use of materials, aesthetics, and iconography slowly overlap worldwide. The opposite problem is, that many ethnological styles are not recognized by the audience, because of to less knowledge. Eva Raabe writes in an article about art from Papua New Guinea: …contemporary paintings without obvious traits of Pacific traditions are not accepted by the public as authentic Pacific artworks…“.[5] The reason for the appearance of art without specific traces of the cultural heritage of the artist is simple. The artist tries to avoid the use of for example cultural specific background elements, to not appear idealistic or kitschy.

Kitsch is the opposite of Art, we come back to my first sentence of this article. But why is there this fear about kitsch in art? The answer seems simple: Since in our world everything gets more similar, through mass production, it should be necessary for art to focus on the differences. The Term of Kitsch often implies conformity, what scares people which compete nowadays to show uniqueness. In my research, it was Time to focus more on value.

[1] Poetik des Abfalls? Zwischen Kitsch, Ekel und Trash von Maria Schrögenhummer, 12.05.2009 Zitat von Clement Greenberg: Avantgarde und Kitsch (1939) In: Dettmar, Ute / Küpper, Thomas (Hg.): Kitsch. Texte und Theorien, Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007, S. 203-212
[2] Hermann Broch: „Das Böse im Wertesystem der Kunst“, in: ders., Dichten und Erkennen. Essays, Zürich: Rhein-Verlag 1955, S. 311–350.
[3] Frank Wedekind: „Kitsch. Entwurf zu einem Drama und erste Niederschrift verschiedener Szenen“.
[4] Broch, „Das Böse im Wertsystem der Kunst“, S. 348.
[5] „Was ist die Kunst Wert? Eine ethnologische Betrachtung bildender Kunst als Medium für das Bild Brasiliens.
Von Katrin Sperling, S.37

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.