views updated May 14 2018


The word "kitsch" is perhaps one of the oldest, crudest, and most unclear terms used to describe the popular art of modern societies, though it is also a term which is almost universally understood. First appearing in the writings of cultural and social critics of the late nineteenth century to describe the effects of early industrialism on the common culture of Western nations, the term has evolved and taken on a variety of sometimes quite contradictory meanings throughout the century or so of its use. The precise etymology of kitsch is uncertain: some attribute kitsch to the Russian "keetcheetsya," meaning "to be haughty and puffed up," though a more widely accepted view attributes its origins to the Munich art markets of the 1860s, where "kitsch" was used to describe inexpensive paintings or "sketches" (the English word mispronounced by Germans, or elided with the German verb verkitschen, to "make cheap"). Kitsch artworks appealed to the naive tastes of the emerging, newly monied Munich bourgeoisie who, in typical nouveau riche fashion, desired objects they thought to be typical of "high taste," without knowing exactly what high taste was. Like "pornography," "art" or other slippery terms, kitsch is easier to demonstrate by example than it is to clarify by definition: kitsch tends to apply most easily to ornamental statuary, chachkas of different kinds, manufactured sentimental nicknacks, souvenirs, and decorative objects re-flecting a childlike simplicity—things that are simply meant to make us feel good about ourselves and the world. What makes kitsch kitsch, however, is not simply the fact of its being decorative, but that kitsch artificially inflates the comfort of decoration into a uniquely fake aesthetic statement.

Thus, there are two sides of kitsch which have to be explained: kitsch is a unique aesthetic style, but it is also the effect of specific social and historical changes. As an effect of historical changes, kitsch is caused by industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of a new middle class. As an aesthetic quality, kitsch combines an emulation of high art forms and styles with a dependence on comfort and very direct expressions of aesthetic pleasure. In what follows these two aspects of kitsch, its historical causes and its aesthetic dimensions will be considered in turn.

By the mid-nineteenth century, improvements in mechanized manufacture, distribution, and commercial retail, together with a trend toward urbanization made it possible for mass-produced cultural goods to reach vast numbers of people. In Europe and North America, clerical and lower-level management positions opened up by these economic changes created a new, largely urban middle class. Peasants and traditional workers who had previously been content with regional, rural, and traditional forms of culture found themselves buying mass-produced trinkets, decorations, and ornaments for the home. With disposable income and leisure time to kill, this new class of urban professionals sought distractions and amusements, but most importantly it sought to carve out a status for itself as "cultured" and "sophisticated" by exhibiting its taste for "fine things." These petty professionals swarmed over the new luxury items that were being churned out in mass volume, gravitating especially to the knock-off imitation luxury products, "fine art" items crudely and glibly manufactured to resemble the posh and high art objects of the old aristocracy: gilded furniture, glass-beaded jewelry, highly ornate candelabras, imitation oil paintings, miniature ceramic copies of ancient statues and other household ornaments meant to produce maximum effect without too much bother or cost. As societies industrialized and more and more people gained access to mass-produced cultural goods, kitsch emerged as the lowest common cultural denominator of modern society, cutting across old class distinctions through the techniques of the new "mass consumption." For this reason the rise of kitsch has been widely blamed for the erosion of elite "high culture" and the uprooting of regional "folk cultures," and the wider "dumbing down" of modern societies.

The influx of kitsch objects gradually brought with it an overall change in attitudes toward the definition of beauty itself. Unlike the traditional elite classes who exercised refinement and cultivation in their appreciation for the subtleties of true artistic expression, the new classes lacked any taste for subtlety, preferring art that was loud, direct, and excessive. Where true art required strenuous interpretation, a cultivated sensibility, and presented the viewer with personal and ethical challenges, the kitsch of mass-produced art sought to make itself available to the maximum number of people. It took the shortest, easiest, and most direct route, always preferring more intense aesthetic expression through added features and exaggerated effects. On the question of beauty, the purveyor of kitsch reasons according to the principle, more is better: Why have a chandelier hung only with cut glass baubles when you can afford one with cherubs and electric candles? Why be content with a plaster reproduction of the Venus in the foyer when it can be lit from behind, producing a more "dramatic" effect. Why settle for a simple oil seascape when you can have one with crashing waves, sea gulls, and a partially obscured full moon shining right through the towering curl of a cresting wave? The mass-produced art of the new classes simply declares the effect it intends: "beauty!" "exotica!" "sentiment!" The familiar earmarks of kitsch: exploding fields of flowers, the faces of cute children, etc., deliver aesthetic response with greater intensity and in a more direct manner because of its use of overstatement. However, even while kitsch maximizes aesthetic effect, it remains faithful to its vision of high art: kitsch believes itself to be sincere, graceful, even profound—like high art itself. Thus, this quality of maximized effect in the form of high culture defines an important aspect of kitsch.

But that is not all: more than simply graceless and overstated, what makes kitsch kitsch is its dependence on expressions of comfort, "happiness," and an artificial sense of well-being. Kitsch expresses a pleasurable experience of everyday comfort, coziness, and easy solace, an artificially simplified and synthetically comfortable image of the world, allowing an easy and gratuitous sense of bliss. Kitsch achieves this in many ways: in Norman Rockwell's paintings of small town America, for example, kitsch expresses a contrived sense of wonderment at the innocence and folly of everyday people and things, especially children, animals, and old people whose everydayness is raised up to the level of an important human virtue. In Rockwell's paintings there is little ambiguity about the people he represents: they are cute, and this fact hits the viewer with immediate and unmistakable force. Kitsch aims for the easiest responses it can get, preferring rather to deliver us back to the comfort of familiar feelings than to challenge us with new ones. For this reason, kitsch appeals to sentimentality, as demonstrated in the work of Margaret Keane, the notorious painter of teary eyed clowns and children with enormous almond-shaped eyes. The sappy figures in Keane's work squeeze out a response before we know what has hit us, and this response is a simple, obvious, and direct joy in what is simply and obviously joyful: cute little children. However, for both Rockwell and Keane, there is a pretentious aspect to their work: though their subject matter is comfortable and accessible it is not simply decorative. These are sincere, human expressions of a fundamental human quality, calling for the same respect and admiration we reserve for the humanity alone. In this way, cute kitsch makes the same appeal to the higher values of human beauty as does high art. And, more importantly for kitsch, the fawning sentimental reactions these images demand from its viewers are made to seem somehow virtuous, profound, and universally human. The viewer is flattered into feeling that the cuteness of one of Rockwell's everyday folks expresses the same essential value of human life that Michaelangelo gave to the David. All of this expresses the value of familiarity and comfort itself, raised up to the level of a true artistic statement, amplified through exaggerated effects so as to be easy and accessible to all. In short, kitsch tries to stimulate us in a direct and accessible fashion, passing off comfort and sentimentality as expressions of profound human significance, or deep personal meaning. Kitsch prefers to show us what we already know so as to save us the discomfort of experiencing something for the first time.

Kitsch, however, is a very volatile, flexible, and vague term, infinitely adaptable to the specific historical conditions of its use, conditions where popular culture is thought to be getting out of hand. Comparing a few of the most important uses of the term, we see how some uses of kitsch emphasize its aesthetic and others the historical and social dimensions.

The Austrian writer Hermann Broch has discussed kitsch's development in the nineteenth century, and its connection with romanticism: both kitsch and romanticism promised a uniquely modern flight from reality into a world that was sheltered from the tension and uncertainly of modern life. His essay, Notes on the Problem of Kitsch, points out how kitsch expresses that escape as a dreamy experience of happiness, tranquillity, and sugary harmony, and a flight into comfort. Broch's article goes to the heart of that comfort as the product of these historical changes: kitsch comfort has its origins in the rising middle class that invented kitsch. This taste for domestic comfort, Broch writes, became the badge of bourgeois identity, or the marker of their status as a legitimate class, rivaling the elite aspirations of aristocratic art. In this way, the middle-class valuation of comfort was inflated to the pretentious status of high art, as it was learned to masquerade as art.

By the twentieth century, kitsch was given a new set of meanings by the critics of "mass culture," particularly American Left intellectuals who used kitsch to criticize the culture of the new "consumer society" or mass society. With Dwight MacDonald, Irving Howe, and others, kitsch was no longer blamed for the erosion of elite or regional culture, but for the manipulation of the consciousness of the masses, controlling their thoughts and cultural outlooks through a kitsch bombardment of comic books, radio, TV shows, and movies expressing manufactured emotional, aesthetic, and social outlooks. Reducing adults to children, the new kitsch made masses easier to manipulate by reducing their cultural needs to the easy gratification offered by Disney cartoons, pulp literature, and romance novels. Macdonald wrote: "The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule." To these commentators of the 1950s, writing at the heyday of the mass culture theory, it seemed as if the same propaganda tactics that had worked so well for fascists and communists were operative in the kitsch of American capitalism and mass culture, draining the minds of consumers and ultimately cultivating a subordination to authority. So barbarous was the effect of kitsch that one commentator was inclined to compare the manic and violent behavior of Donald Duck to the sadism of the S.S. soldier. Kitsch also proved useful for advocates of avant-garde culture, most notably Clement Greenberg, whose classic essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch stands as one of the best known pieces on the topic. Greenberg, bent on marking a distinction between the avant-garde and the popular culture of the masses, trashed kitsch for its parasitic quality, drawing its life-blood from the creative sweat of "real artists," and keeping the masses in a state of cultural imbecility and confusion. For Greenberg, kitsch represented "the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times."

Taken together, all these arguments hinge on the assumption of an objective standard of taste of one sort or another: one cannot call something kitsch without assuming that there is, somewhere, a universal standard of beauty against which an object can be judged and condemned as kitsch. By the end of the twentieth century, with an increasing emphasis on cultural diversity, and a "post modern" acknowledgment of the relative standards of beauty in different societies, this objective standard of taste was not so easy to argue. In a climate of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, "kitsch," as a term describing an inherently inferior variety of art and culture seemed to have no ground left to stand on. In fact, the tables had turned: in much cultural criticism of the late twentieth century, kitsch had fallen out of use. Particularly in the late 1990s, when the charm of camp (an ironic appreciation of kitsch, quite distinct from kitsch itself) defined so much of contemporary taste in popular culture, classical uses of the term kitsch seemed more and more difficult to justify. The "cultural studies" approach to popular culture had largely abandoned the term, at least in the morally charged, pejorative usage given it by nineteenth century and mass culture theorists.

Nonetheless, kitsch has refused to go away, and has appeared in some highly innovative commentaries. The closed, artificial world of kitsch, and the dreamy sense of pleasantness and well being it promises still puzzled cultural analysts, even when it was not tied to a strong judgment on the value of aesthetic content or on the control of the masses. Two commentaries on kitsch stand out: Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being discusses the kitsch of communist society, which trumpets an artificial joy in the spontaneous exuberance of socialist life and the strained comfort of the company of one's comrades. A darker side of kitsch is revealed by Saul Friedlander in his Reflections of Nazism: an Essay on Kitsch and Death. Friedlander discloses the ways in which Nazi kitsch, in a manner quite different from standard forms of capitalist "entertainment" kitsch, excites a morbid fascination with death, particularly in the melodramatic image of the tragic death of the soldier. In fact, freed from its elitist underpinnings, kitsch has proven more effective a term for describing the strange euphoria of the synthetic that characterized much of consumer culture at the end of the twentieth century.

—Sam Binkley

Further Reading:

Boyers, Robert, editor. "On Kitsch: A Symposium," Salmagundi.

No. 85-86, Winter-Spring, 1990, 197-312.

Broch, Hermann. "Notes on the Problem of Kitsch." In Kitsch: The

World of Bad Taste, edited by Gillo Dorfles. New York, Universe Books, 1970, 49-76.

Calinescu, Matei. "Kitsch." In Five Faces of Modernity. Durham, Duke University Press, 1987, 225-265.

Dorfles, Gillo. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste. New York, Universe

Books, 1969.

Friedlander, Saul. Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Death and

Kitsch. Translated by Thomas Weyr. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." In Art and Culture:

Critical Essays. Boston, Beacon Press, 1961.

Kulka, Tomas. Kitsch and Art. University Park, Pennsylvania State

University Press, 1996.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Translated by

M. H. Heim. New York, Harper and Row, 1984.

Macdonald, Dwight. "A Theory of Mass Culture." In Mass Culture, edited by B. Rosenberg and D. M. White. Glencoe, Illinois, Free Press, 1957, 59-79.


views updated May 23 2018

Kitsch. German term meaning rubbish or pretentious trash, anything that is shoddy, tawdry, mawkishly sentimental, and in bad taste. When applied to any of the arts it means something that is false, superficial, and a spurious imitation of real artistic creations, so implies that Kitsch art apes something without any understanding or depth whilst at the same time endeavouring to please, soothe, and reassure. However, it has also been described as the cultural revenge of the proletariat, and has been identified as part of Camp taste that values the outrageously hideous for its own sake. Much architectural Post-Modernism possessed Kitsch-like aspects (notably the allusions to Classicism made without any evidence of scholarship), but some designers have deliberately introduced reflections of Kitsch in their work for populist commercial reasons.


C. Brown (1976);
Dorfles (ed.) (1969);
Giesz (1971);
Saisselin (1985);
Steinberg (ed.) (1975);
Sternberg (1971);
P. Ward (1991)


views updated Jun 11 2018

kitsch / kich/ • n. art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way: the lava lamp is an example of sixties kitsch| [as adj.] kitsch decor. DERIVATIVES: kitsch·i·ness n.kitsch·y adj.


views updated May 11 2018

kitsch art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. The word comes (in the 1920s) from German.