The strangely enduring power of kitsch
December 23, 2014 7:40 AM   Subscribe

 
As everyone knows, kitsch is the most fascist form of art.
posted by PMdixon at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2014


Kitsch: The World Of Bad Taste
posted by robbyrobs at 8:08 AM on December 23, 2014


Interesting read. I see kitsch as a necessity. Having a fireplace in the 21st century? Kitsch. An oriental rug in my Chicago living room? Kitsch.

Just a matter of degrees from paintings of big eyed kids. Modernism is important too. Things that are unalike can co exist.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:15 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


ELI5: what is kitsch vs. schlock? Is schlock self-aware?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 8:18 AM on December 23, 2014


–1 to both carrioncomfort and the BBC for not using the headline "Scrutonizing Kitsch".
posted by Kabanos at 8:19 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


Also, in case anyone misses it, here is Scruton's follow-up piece:
A Point of View: How do we know real art when we see it
posted by Kabanos at 8:21 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was bothered by the author applying the term modernism to art that is definitely contemporary or postmodern, but an interesting article nonetheless.
posted by rocket88 at 8:23 AM on December 23, 2014


And the fear of kitsch is one reason for the compulsory offensiveness of so much art produced today. It doesn't matter that your work is obscene, shocking, disturbing - as long as it isn't kitsch.

Ouch.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:32 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was bothered by the author applying the term modernism to art that is definitely contemporary or postmodern, but an interesting article nonetheless.

It's a little tricky because I think the author is using it in a way that is accurate in cultural history - talking about "modernity" generally - not directly describing art movements. This quibble comes up a lot in the museum world. Historians and art historians use the terms "modern/modernist" differently - neither being wrong, but you have to know whose frames you're wearing. It does strike me strangely since he's a scholar of philosophy and aesthetics and I assume he knows this, but maybe he's got his historical hat on today.

I'm afraid I personally agree with the commenter who says "in short, postmodernism." Yes. I feel like this ground has been trod. We're humans, we live our lives in a mirror-hall of self-consciousness and accumulated meaning. We are products of modernity, we yearn for connection.

Next up from the BBC: why you should despise yourself for smiling when you see puppies and kittens, you shallow git.
posted by Miko at 8:39 AM on December 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


Interesting read. I see kitsch as a necessity. Having a fireplace in the 21st century? Kitsch. An oriental rug in my Chicago living room? Kitsch.

Huh? Your categorizing doesn't make sense. With the fireplace, you seem to be implying a functional distinction. But there's no such thing as a purely functional object; aesthetics are inherent in all objects.

What's more, it isn't like fireplaces provide only heat and light, they provide both a lovely smell and a visual feast.

And how is an oriental rug kitsch? Because it's 'foreign'? Would a locally killed bearskin rug be acceptable? It's not like cotton or linen are local to Illinois.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:44 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


An oriental rug is a choice I made to have a thing that is decorated with the curlicues and customs of a land where I have never been, in a tradition that has no relevance to me. Much like the garish adornment on the buildings in Vienna referenced in the article as kitsch.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:47 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


When he was making Pink Flamingos, John Waters caught Divine decorating the trailer park set with the titular lawn ornaments, and discovered the Divine really thought that they were pretty. He named the film because he realized that the people who have pink flamingos on their lawn likewise had them as an unironic gesture, and he wanted the title of his outrageous (and deeply ironic) film to reference something that people adore unironically.

"My movie wrecked that,” he once told an interviewer.

We all have our kitschy tastes, but they are invisible to us, because the nature of kitsch is its unknowingness. If it becomes self-aware, it becomes camp.

I try to be tolerant of things that people adore without irony, even if I consider it tacky, because I would not appreciate them pointing out the kitsch that I love and how tacky it is. I'd rather love it without irony and without knowing.

Sometimes they are the most important things in the world. When your heart has been broken, your life is stripped of irony, and suddenly the tackiest love songs become unbearably heartfelt.

I don't know. I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If something gives you pleasure, love it for that, and don't hedge your bet with any acknowledgment that you should feel guilty. You shouldn't. We all get our tastes, and today's fine art is tomorrow's kitsch, and vice versa. You're not tacky. You're just ahead of the curve.
posted by maxsparber at 8:52 AM on December 23, 2014 [38 favorites]


An oriental rug is a choice I made to have a thing that is decorated with the curlicues and customs of a land where I have never been, in a tradition that has no relevance to me

As a Canadian this leaves me what---Hudsons Bay Point Everything?
posted by Hoopo at 8:52 AM on December 23, 2014


Heheh. Just making a point about our need for kitsch, and that it's not necessarily a Bad Thing.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:54 AM on December 23, 2014


An oriental rug is a choice I made to have a thing that is decorated with the curlicues and customs of a land where I have never been, in a tradition that has no relevance to me.

Surely by this point (over 150 years since becoming commonplace in the west) an oriental rug has drifted so far from its original signifier that no one would assume any significant connection between it and the traditions and customs of Persia.

There seems to be some kind of assumption of cultural purity, or at least authenticity, which I think has always be illusory.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:54 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


As a Canadian this leaves me what---Hudsons Bay Point Everything?

And this is bad, why?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:55 AM on December 23, 2014


As a Canadian this leaves me what---Hudsons Bay Point Everything?

I'm pretty sure you can take all your aesthetic cues from Twin Peaks without anybody complaining.
posted by maxsparber at 8:56 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Heheh. Just making a point about our need for kitsch, and that it's not necessarily a Bad Thing.

I agree completely.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:57 AM on December 23, 2014


I draw the line well before Precious Moments® figurines.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:01 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is a delightful bit:

It the end of all this pretense, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretense come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself - namely its money value

I also really appreciated his point about modernist kitsch. We're certainly at the point where modernist gestures have become signifiers of their own modern-ness, standing in for a bunch of emotions whose time has perhaps passed, and therefore very much available to serve as the kind of counterfeit currency that kitsch props up. Many a university music department is populated entirely by producers of modernist kitsch.

It's worth cf.'ing this with Nabokov's discussion of poshlost, the Russian equivalent of kitsch: "not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive." Also of note, from John Bayley:
One function of art is to de-kitschify kitsch. It can do this by the rousing call, the authentic sentiment, something perceived for the first time. But more often, and more mysteriously, it takes the situation that is, has been, and will again be kitsch, and purifies it by some complex alchemy of its own.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:02 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


I try to be tolerant of things that people adore without irony, even if I consider it tacky, because I would not appreciate them pointing out the kitsch that I love and how tacky it is.

I got a little lecture about this when I was a college student collecting all the over-the-top Catholic stuff that was available in the Mexican grocery stores. It was pointed out to me that a lot of people get a lot of comfort and meaning from the same things I was ridiculing and buying "ironically", and that although it was fine to do this in my own home, making my comments in the store was thoughtless asshole behavior.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:05 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


So glad they referenced Jeff Koons' 1988 piece, 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles', something that was part of my Art History curriculum upteen years ago. Hated it then, now I kind of have a fondness for it. Kitsch indeed.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:07 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


You should really check out the Precious Moments Chapel. It is, next to Neverland Ranch, the temple of kitsch.

My therapist swung by there with his boyfriend and they were just ...overwhelmed. They felt like they needed to look at some Robert Mapplethorpe photos just to disinfect their brains.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:08 AM on December 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


I feel like Thomas Kinkade should be somewhere in the pantheon of true kitsch, as well. Monetizing false significance for the purpose of conning rubes.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:10 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


This was a theme expressed in Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman: the idea of sentiment rather than kitsch, being damaging cause it makes you feel good for feeling the 'right' things (feeling sad at a story about sick orphans being helped by a selfless nurse) so you can check off your 'I'm a good person' box without actually doing anything.
posted by The Whelk at 9:16 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


This was a theme expressed in Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman: the idea of sentiment rather than kitsch, being damaging cause it makes you feel good for feeling the 'right' things (feeling sad at a story about sick orphans being helped by a selfless nurse) so you can check off your 'I'm a good person' box without actually doing anything.

Upworthy?
posted by codacorolla at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2014 [8 favorites]


I think calling Persian rugs kitsch is confusing bourgeois for kitsch. Kitsch is the mass produced rug with a farmhouse print prominently featuring rosters.
posted by aspo at 9:25 AM on December 23, 2014 [7 favorites]


I want to respond to the contention that kitsch is kitsch because its unreality is reflexive, that it isn't about feeling emotions but rather feeling things about feeling things. So kitsch is a lie because it doesn't make us feel, it makes us think we're feeling.

So, two days ago there was a horrible car crash near my house. As anybody who's been in this situation (most of us I'd wager) knows, this is just a moment of absolute raw emotion - horrors on display, in broad daylight, and you have to go help out, and not run away, so you see everything up close.

So what is my reaction to this absolute moment of 'realness'? Well I'm feeling... shaken still, I guess, it's only been a couple of days. But I'm mostly feeling about feeling: the damage to the city infrastructure is repaired, the accident has been swept away like a sort of evil sandcastle. I am cut off from these people whose lives intersected with mine: did that poor lady live or die? How can I say how sorry I am? Did I do everything right? How, in short, does all this important stuff relate to me, the most unimportant, peripheral bit player?

The most real, raw, effecting thing in the world has transmuted into something that behaves exactly like kitsch. A car accident is, indeed, banal in the artistic sense. We've all seen it before. It's the real-life-sucky-stuff version of a cliché.

I don't think that kitsch makes us pretend to feel. I think it makes us feel, which is why we feel like we're feeling. I think the difference between kitsch and regular art is that it hasn't the sophistication to move the sophisticated, in the way that a sugar cube tastes good but doesn't have the complexity to impress a gourmet.

If the difference between kitsch and art were the 'realness' of the emotional experience, then why would real life feel so much like kitsch?
posted by Dreadnought at 9:28 AM on December 23, 2014 [8 favorites]


If you like something or think something is cute or moving or it invokes a positive emotion in people, that's fine by me.

Because I'm getting tired of snark and cynicism.
posted by discopolo at 9:31 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


An older German doctor I used to know once told me a room should be furnished according to the the three K's: "Kunst, Kitsch und Konvention" (Art, Kitsch and Convention).
posted by kandinski at 9:31 AM on December 23, 2014


Aren't these conversations a few decades old by now? Koons is well on his way to irrelevance. The kids these days are into "post-internet" art or something.

I keep thinking of an oddly beautiful paragraph from this story about a vandal at a Koons exhibit:

"Beyond the graffiti incident, there was a generally apocalyptic atmosphere to the late-night scene. Two young girls navigated the artist’s hardcore 'Made in Heaven' series with unsettling nonchalance. Someone opened an emergency exit on the second floor and the shrill beeps joined drunken voices echoing through the stairwell. A woman wearing a wedding dress drifted past Hulk (Organ) (2004–14) like it was a roadside attraction in the desert on the way to her Vegas chapel. Only a very skeletal crew of museum staff appeared to be on hand. It almost felt as though the building was going to be torn down after this one last blowout."
posted by naju at 9:34 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm reminded of a passage from Vonnegut's Bluebeard:
"Do you know the meaning of the word 'kitsch'?" I said.

"I wrote a book called Kitsch," she said.

"I read it," said Celeste. "It's about a girl whose boyfriend tried to make her think she has bad taste, which she does -- but it doesn't matter much."

"You don't call these pictures of little girls on swings serious art?" jeered Mrs. Berman. "Try thinking what the Victorians thought when they looked at them, which was how sick or unhappy so many of these happy, innocent little girls would be in just a little while -- diphtheria, pneumonia, smallpox, miscarriages, violent husbands, poverty, widowhood, prostitution -- death and burial in potter's field."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:53 AM on December 23, 2014 [11 favorites]


a farmhouse print prominently featuring rosters.

I love this what-I-assume-is-a-typo.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:20 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is bringing to mind what J.K. Rowling wrote about Dolores Umbridge and her taste for kitsch:
“I have noticed more than once in life that a taste for the ineffably twee can go hand-in-hand with a distinctly uncharitable outlook on the world,” Rowling writes in her Pottermore essay, recalling a time when she shared an office with a woman fond of “pictures of fluffy kitties”, who was also “the most bigoted, spiteful champion of the death penalty”.

“A love of all things saccharine often seems present where there is a lack of real warmth or charity,” Rowling writes, adding that Umbridge was “one of the characters for whom I feel the purest dislike”
posted by hippybear at 10:23 AM on December 23, 2014 [16 favorites]


More Kundera musing on kitsch:

"When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme."
posted by e1c at 10:37 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


“A love of all things saccharine often seems present where there is a lack of real warmth or charity,”

That's a really good point. I recall Stalin as being a good example of this. Hemingway made a similar observation about his father, that he was ‘a deeply sentimental man. And like all sentimental men, he was also very cruel.’
posted by leotrotsky at 10:50 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have to agree that there are few contexts in which an oriental rug would be an example of kitsch, in and of itself. Context, of course, is all when speaking of kitsch. Consider the roster -- er, the rooster. Well, the big metal chicken, anyway. There is almost no context in which a giant metal chicken in a residential decor setting is not kitsch -- except, crucially, the context in which The Bloggess positioned it where it became a social object ("Knock, knock, motherfucker.") So, really, jeff-o-matic, I'm forced to disagree -- you're missing this crucial aspect of transformation (or lack thereof) as a line between functionally beautiful objects and awful, intentionally sentimental decor like Hummel figurines.

Sticking with the interior decorating theme, kitsch is not the fireplace, but a gas heater with a molded plastic brick facing, or in more modern terms, a TV screen playing a burning log. Although the latter is already flirting with irony, the type that makes wallowing in kitsch a form of whimsy or at times condescension.

I have an example -- there's a cast iron tub my dad removed from an upstairs bathroom when we put in a fiberglass enclosure. For years, we kept it around, and for a few of those early years we put it next to the side porch and had a small bubbler running into it. Thus, the tub became a garden fountain. Unfortunately, my own view (increasingly apposite as time passed) is that this ironic juxtaposition of the tub as elegant fountain was undercut by its being positioned in a run-down neighborhood where it begged to be interpreted as left-out trash ("redneck style" as it's come to be appropriated, another dash of irony and transformation). For a while I contemplated actually fitting the tub out with a shiny brass shower head, to sort of complete the joke, but we've come full circle and now I'm planning to re-install the tub in one of our rentals that used to have one, because that sort of elegance is back in style.

Anyway, I hope this enlightens you a bit about what is, and isn't, kitsch.

(And while we're on the topic, here's a piece KQED did on Margaret Keane in the vanguard of the film.)
posted by dhartung at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


"When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme."

This is my new explanation for why, every time that damn Christmas Shoes song comes on, I not only listen to it, I effing SOB even though I know it is bad. IT IS SO BAD! It is terrible and manipulative and schlocky and awful and I hate it and think it's stupid and bad and has LAYERS of being awful (Jesus Christ, a children's chorus? Really?) yet EVERY DAMN TIME IT COMES ON I am completely undone emotionally even though I know exactly how bad that song is and that I am playing into its hands by reacting so viscerally. I listened to it twice on Sunday night while clutching my husband and wailing. Thank you for providing me with a way to explain this with (some) dignity.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


“I have noticed more than once in life that a taste for the ineffably twee can go hand-in-hand with a distinctly uncharitable outlook on the world,” Rowling writes in her Pottermore essay, recalling a time when she shared an office with a woman fond of “pictures of fluffy kitties”, who was also “the most bigoted, spiteful champion of the death penalty”.

“A love of all things saccharine often seems present where there is a lack of real warmth or charity,” Rowling writes, adding that Umbridge was “one of the characters for whom I feel the purest dislike”


HOLY SHIT YES
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:15 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think when those things coincide it may reflect a world view that is obsessed with purity, like the fantasy of a totally innocent child or animal uncorrupted by the base, fallen world. Of course, such a child or animal, no matter how compliant, doesn't exist in reality, which I think gets at the "fakeness" of some forms of kitsch.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:22 PM on December 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


Jesus Christ, a children's chorus? Really?

Buy your Christmas Shoes at Walmart.
posted by Jpfed at 1:35 PM on December 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure you can take all your aesthetic cues from Twin Peaks without anybody complaining.

Strangely enough, drive an hour out of Vancouver in pretty much any direction and things start to look a bit like Twin Peaks, and on any given day even in town people dress like the Renaults. Well, aside from the bolo tie Renault. Not sure what that was about. Kinda kitschy.
posted by Hoopo at 1:47 PM on December 23, 2014


Strangely enough, drive an hour out of Vancouver in pretty much any direction and things start to look a bit like Twin Peaks,

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, one thing I loved about Peaks was how well it portrayed the ubiquitous Tlingit kitsch.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:07 PM on December 23, 2014


Interesting to see people making the connection between sentimentality and cruelty. There was the recent thread about the Wildrose Party in Alberta. I knew nothing about the party beforehand, but something about the name made me suspect that they were conservative and unkind. I think it was the same connection being made unconsciously.

Though sentimentality isn't quite the same thing as kitsch. Maybe
kitsch : sentimentality :: HFCS : sugar cane,
a regular emotion concentrated to the point of overload.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:26 PM on December 23, 2014


An oriental rug is a choice I made to have a thing that is decorated with the curlicues and customs of a land where I have never been, in a tradition that has no relevance to me.

Surely by this point (over 150 years since becoming commonplace in the west) an oriental rug has drifted so far from its original signifier that no one would assume any significant connection between it and the traditions and customs of Persia.


Kitsch? I think not. I bought my oriental rugs and kilims because I fiercely admire them as art. I can admire the colors and the designs without knowing the customs or traditions behind them, but learning Amazing skill goes into weaving these rugs. I watched women making them in Anatolia, and one of the rugs reminds me of an afternoon spent with a weaver with a wonderful sensibility about her life.

Seems to me admiring the what another culture produces and being willing to admit that into your life is less kitschy and more cosmopolitan.

(However, I do truly love pink flamingos, and I even own one that sings Don't Worry, Be Happy in my basement. (for parties, not the lawn)
posted by BlueHorse at 4:57 PM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


I really liked this article, and it's an appropriate follow-up to yesterday's great article on authenticity.

The thing about kitsch being a simulacrum of emotion helps me to understand why I (unironically!) love naturalistic photos and videos of kitties, but despise them if they're frosted with soft focus and precious music and cutesy slogans.

Much of the aesthetic realm we call "kitsch" is coded as feminine, but there's definitely masculine kitsch as well (though it isn't always acknowledged as such). There's a coffee shop around the corner owned by a guy who loves the Steelers, and it's filled with cornball Steelers knickknacks – it's as kitschy as any display of Precious Moments figurines. And you see similar things with flag-waving nationalism and militarism (although that's a little more unisex, I guess).
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:04 PM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Masculine kitsch is all over the Internet, mall ninja swords, tough guy vamping, the entire 300 movie series....

One of the themes of TFLW that hit me reading it again as an adult rather than a teenager was how much it was about the poisonous nature of living ironically - our middle-class Victorian leads agree that society is absurd and silly and convents are arbitrary and take part in them with a knowing smirk -- buts that still taking part in them , and without their inner monologue about it and deeply sarcastic conversations, their life looks exactly like the kind of conventional nonsense they're constantly making fun of. The actual rebel, the Woman of the title, feels things strongly and passionately without filters, to an embarrassingly unsophicated degree .. Actually thinking art is important rather than something of a game to play with or some kind of official badge of Good Personhood (there's even an Umbridge sequence matron, who keeps the "bad arts" out of her family Bible and lords her kitschy version of "concern" over her charges.)
posted by The Whelk at 5:28 PM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


OIGUWTFLW.

That stands for "Okay, I give up. What's TFLW?".
posted by benito.strauss at 11:54 PM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


The French Lieutenant's Woman.
posted by asterix at 7:41 AM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thank you. I'd given up, too.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:08 AM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


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