What Exactly Is Kitsch Anyway?

Image for post
Image for post
The Barge Haulers of Volga, Ilya Repin, 1873 — to early 20th C art critic Clement Greenberg, this was this worst it could get.

Previously I explored the question: was 20th century album cover art kitsch? Let’s take a step back and explore a more basic question — what exactly is kitsch anyway?

Well, here’s the thing — while there’s a general notion there is no definitive answer.

In a 2014 article for Forbes, Roger Scruton wrote, “Whatever we think of the history of modern art since (Clement) Greenberg, we have to admit that the kitsch question is still with us. Just what is kitsch?”It is a worthwhile question. While a definitive answer is elusive, and as with so much in the world of art, in the eye of beholder, by comparing various commentaries on this question, it is possible to establish a baseline consensus.

There are of course other great compelling questions about kitsch. Does it have value? Is it intellectually, socially, or politically harmful? Although I would love to return to these questions at another time, I’m not going to touch them here.

Whether kitsch has value or not, whether it is harmful or in some way helpful to a given society’s development, it is clear that it is ubiquitous. A multitude of examples will be provided throughout. By exploring the visual and in some cases literary and audio evidence we can reinforce that kitsch is what one might label non-artistic art, unchallenging, non-thought provoking and while often capable of evoking emotion, limited in the scope of emotions likely to be evoked and often is produced (or reproduced) for ulterior purposes such as profit or the reinforcement of political or cultural dogma.

Kitsch in German means trash. What is it that separates kitsch from other forms of art? In short, why is it trash? Catherine Lugg points out that “kitsch can be disturbing occasionally, but is more likely to comfort and reassure the observer.” It also “sentimentalizes everyday experiences, or appeals to beliefs and emotions encouraging vanity and prejudices.” She also argues that the “manufacturers of kitsch are aware of a given audience’s cultural biases and deliberately exploit them, engaging emotions and deliberately ignoring the intellect.”Lugg goes on the show how kitsch can be used as a political tool but that is well beyond the scope of this essay, although worth mentioning in this highly polarized political era.

What can be gleaned from her arguments is that kitsch is intended to satisfy the masses, not challenge the individual and that it often, or perhaps always, has a purpose beyond the inherent meaning or purpose that one expects from other forms of art.

Let us return to Scruton for a moment. Although he seems to share Greenberg’s and Lugg’s general disdain for kitsch, he does point out that the intent of the artist is also relevant. He argues that the pop art of people like Warhol was not necessarily kitsch, at least not at first. Overall however, Scruton seems to reinforce that kitsch is overly emotional, and therefore evokes no authentic emotional reaction. Additionally, and this is an important point, he reminds us that kitsch is not limited to the visual arts, but appears in literature and music as well. Scruton argues that, “ Those ghastly scenes in Dickens, where the little victim dies, blessing from his innocent heart the grieving bystanders; those greeting-card lyrics by Patience Strong, dedicated to ‘dear old dad’ or ‘the new arrival’; those would-be profundities from Maya Angelou — all such things seem to be infected with the same disease. You can’t take them seriously, even though seriously is the only way they can be taken if they are taken at all.” Clearly pieces of this kind, while they may have value in the marketplace, offer little to those interested Greenberg’s “avant-garde.”

Among the ulterior motivations for churning out kitsch are political and social influence. Lugg makes this evident. However, perhaps Greenberg was correct all those years ago to be concerned about the profit motive. He wrote, “Kitsch’s enormous profits are a source of temptation to the avant-garde itself, and its members have not always resisted this temptation. Ambitious writers and artists who modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely.” One thinks about the underground cutting edge band that “sells out” in pursuit of wealth and fame or the gifted author, the potential vanguard of a whole new genre or movement who grows impatient and decides to just write a piece of shit to pay the bills. Greenberg’s observation not only gives us insight into the reasons for kitsch’s existence and proliferation, but also helps us identify and define it. It is rubbish, at least partially, because it was never intended to be anything other than that.

Stephen Zaima has pointed out that perhaps the definition of kitsch is not static. He says, “This was possible to answer, certainly in the 20th century where modernism was dominate. In the 21st century with post modernism, global perspective, politic, and several artists like Jeff Koons, the answer no longer has the same discourse or relevance. But this makes the question even more interesting and elusive.”

So while there may be components that are universally present in all productions and reproductions that one may consider kitsch, it is not clear that a definition will be universally agreed upon any time soon. Given this, my assessment of kitsch as unchallenging, unartistic art, would seem to be at least temporarily valid as an operational definition.

Does any of this matter? Probably not all that much. But in a world, especially in the west, where the idea of art for art’s sake is seen as wasteful, or even counter-productive, it might behoove those interested in preventing Madison Avenue and Hollywood from monopolizing creative endeavor to mull over this question at least a little bit.

Further Reading

Scruton, Roger. “A Fine Line Between Art and Kitsch.” Forbes21 Feb. 2014: n. pag. Web.

Lugg, Catherine A. Kitsch from Education to Public Policy. New York: Falmer, 1999. Print.

Greenberg, Clement. “AVANT-GARDE AND KITSCH.” Partisan Review(1939): n. pag.Clement Greenberg. Web. 22 June 2017.

Born Again Transcendentalist. Writing about life, death and everything in between. Editor of Other Doors. haroldpstinard@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store