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IS KITSCH REALLY ALL THAT BAD? | Mon. Jun. 1, 2015
As a new installment to the Halsey Institute’s blog, and for your reading pleasure, I will be highlighting different books found in the Halsey’s Biblioteca stacks weekly. Like many libraries, our Biblioteca has history books, dictionaries, and reference texts…except our dictionary selections include “The Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing and Wigmaking.” You never know what you may uncover, and I welcome you to come explore and enjoy!
For this inaugural blog post, I will highlight a work of philosophical essays and material culture, entitled “Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste” by Gillo Dorfles.
How could you not pick up this book, just check out the cover?! Why is this nude woman playing a violin with a wispy, ethereal scarf by the sea? We must know more!
Written in 1968, this collaborative collection of essays disseminates a wide array of visual kitsch; from tacky architecture, bric-á-brac, to trashy movies. Essentially, this is a book of aesthetics. How can we qualify “bad” art versus “good” art? Taste and class versus low-brow culture? The author, Gillio Dorfles, acknowledges that standards of taste changes over periods of time, so what is once kitsch may not always be considered so, but as he says in the introduction, “If anyone is not satisfied with our choice and finds some of the images artistic which we will present as pseudo-artistic, un-artistic, too bad!” I appreciate an author who can stand behind his own informed opinions of other’s questionable skills.
It turns out, the word kitsch, could have derived from a few different sources. It may come from the English word “sketch”, or more likely, from Germanic origin from the word verkitschen, which means “to make cheap”. Dorfles points out, that this concept of kitsch is relatively modern, as the purpose of art has changed over time. In previous centuries, artwork was not as accessible as it is today. Typically, the church or wealthy patrons commissioned artists, and their work was subsequently used for religious or political purposes. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that contemporary artists could exhibit freely alongside a middle class that established commercial galleries. Kitsch has flowered out of our modern world, argues Dorfles, and cites two essays from Hermann Broch and Clement Greenberg, written between the 1930s and 1950s. Broch expels on the idea of the kitschmensch, or “man of bad taste” is a product of a culture who misunderstands modern art. This is not to be confused with the everyday, average man, who may or may not care or form opinions on art or “high culture”, but rather, a class of people who actively produce, consume, and revel in their collections of false-art. Greenberg, in his more sociologically and politically driven essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch” states that the avant garde must always resist the dumbing down of art that occurs from a consumerist driven society. Greenberg writes:
Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.
While the essays from the mid century critics cited, in their eyes, a growing problem with the industrialization of society and the rise of kitsch along with it, this book piques your mind into exploring the netherworlds of kitschy objects. Previously, I thought of kitsch as Precious Moments porcelain dolls, or garden gnomes in your neighbor’s front yard. However, the author and essays in this book make the argument that over-exposure, over-manufacturing of any object of artistic reproductions, from the your favorite shower curtain with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Starry Night printed on, to plastic trees in doctor’s offices that instead of elegantly elevating the space, just make it seem tacky. “Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste” is available to any who would like to reflect on the rampant tastelessness and exploitative nature of today’s modern society. Sigh.
By Maggie Jordan, Program Coordinator & Halsey Librarian