An Excercise in Bad Taste. Kitsch, Exoticism, and Escapism. The Souvenir object and a short characteristic of its value (3/4)

Published: 18.12.2017
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 third part of a text that was published in 3 more individual articles:
(1/4) Etymology and Social Development of the Polemical Term Kitsch
(2/4) Kitsch. Cultural and Geographical Investigation.
(4/4) Kitsch & Horror.
The emotional value of Kitsch is above the information value. It lives through reliability. Best examples for this are Soap Operas, Novels or Kitsch Images, in which the same specific schemata and flat characters get used all over the world and during history. Trough this standardization, the outcome and emotional state of the audience can be calculated and replayed again and again. Kitsch appeals to us through transcendence, we can project our very own wishes and dreams into it. Kitsch makes us experience an ideal world from a second-hand view. 

As result, we find some subtypes of Kitsch in this Genre, for example, exoticism, which describes the central European view of the foreign. It is a stylistic device in music, literature, movies or sociology until today. Starting during the time of colonialization and growing during the time of the German empire, the objective was to distract us from our reality, projecting hope and wishes into the new land and its possibilities. Mostly used in advertising graphics or later in movies, the exotism is trying to take us the xenophobia through a soft racist view of a quaint country and erotic savages. This kind of exoticism is always combined with escapism, which describes the escape from reality and shows us a fictional better an ideal life we wish to live in.

Advertisement from mid of the 19th century, Image from 1743.

Kitsch aims a total emotional effect, as many different stimuli as possible merge, gets aggregated or gets confronted with each other, which releases a lot of emotional force. Kitsch can be a situation or a vision which deprive us of a reachable perfect reality. Because serial produced Kitsch triggers a feeling, which we occupy personally for ourselves, is it provoking us. It touches our Heart with this strong feeling which belongs to us until we realize the fact of mass production. Confronted with the reality, our feelings are not individual emotions, we get disappointed and angry. As always when emotions are involved, it is possible that we see ourselves confronted with the „Antikitsch effect“. This effect appears, as soon as the Kitsch has a moral message. You find yourself in a situation, attracted by an unrealistic idyll, knowing already that this is not your own reachable reality. This makes us aggressive and puts us in a hostile attitude.

Self Portrait by Kourtney Roy. “Ideal Woman” is a series of self-portraits based on kitsch stereotypes about women inspired by advertising, movies, and pornography of the 50’s and the 60’s.

Next, to this obvious fictional Kitsch, we found objects and art which not demand to be Kitsch in common sense, for example, the Souvenir. The common perception is, that all souvenirs are Kitsch but the meaning of this term is very various.

In the beginning of the 18 century, the souvenir was a little notebook or ivory tablets for the pockets, to remember something. At the same time a culture of the so-called „Andenken“ raised. In the beginning, it was just used as a memento of god, later as a memory of an absent person and finally to remember past experiences, which leads us to nowadays souvenirs.

A Souvenir is an object, a person acquires for the memories the owner associates with it. A souvenir can be any object, collected or purchased and transported home by the traveler as a memento of the visit. While most of the souvenirs were meant for persons who stayed at home, it was a sign of good etiquette, to buy something cheap, that the gifted will not feel uncomfortable with the received gift. The symbol itself has a strict value or is simply a symbol of past experience. Without the owner's input, the symbolic meaning is invisible and cannot be articulated.[1]

Souvenirs include mass-produced merchandise and non-mass-produced items like folk art, local artisan handicrafts, objects that represent the traditions and culture of the area, non-commercial, natural objects like sand from a beach, and anything else that a person attaches nostalgic value to and collects among his personal belongings.[2] A souvenir can be a piece of cultural exchange. Identity is generated from memory, which is made of memories. A memory is a personal narrative resulting from an experience. There are many methods to preserve them from oblivion.The Photographer, Toni Amengual, born in Mallorca, is dealing with the Topic of the Identity, the Memory, and the Souvenir. In his eyes, the culture should keep an eye on, trough which objects they represent themselves: „Probably, photography is the most widely used one for this purpose. In this context, a photograph becomes an object capable of bringing this lived experience to the present and thus shares it. Some other objects posses this great symbolic power; among them, a very particular case, the Souvenir."

Photography project by Toni Amengual. He put the souvenirs in a new context, trough extracting them from the off the shelf products, setting them into high fashion photography to give them a new attitude. 

Photography project by Toni Amengual. He put the souvenirs in a new context, trough extracting them from the off the shelf products, setting them into high fashion photography to give them a new attitude. 

Photography project by Toni Amengual. He put the souvenirs in a new context, trough extracting them from the off the shelf products, setting them into high fashion photography to give them a new attitude. 

As its French name indicates, a souvenir is an object that contains a memory, the memory of an experience associated with a touristic trip. Tourism, traveling to a different location, different from the usual environment, is one characteristic of industrialized societies and pleasure is the travel goal. In the industrialized society, pleasure is a synonym of an activity without productive intent. The same as the souvenir, a futile object where capitalism and “culture” meet.
The souvenir goal is to generate memory and thus, it creates an identity. On the one hand, it contributes to the personal identity of the souvenir purchaser, while on the other hand, it contributes to generating a collective identity of the place where it was purchased.

In other words; as we can get an idea of the tour and tastes of a person who likes buying souvenirs in the places he or she visits. We can also get an idea of what a particular place is like through the souvenirs that can be purchased there.

Read the Article part 4: Kitsch& Horror.

[1] Source, quoted freely, 08.03.2016
[2] Source,08.03.2016

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.