November 14, 2012

Kitsch down through the ages

A reader writes:
Why do traditional cultures in general seem to get degraded into kitschiness once they come into contact with modernity?  There isn't any kitschiness among traditional traditional cultures.  You notice the same sort of thing among with "traditionally" oriented white folks too.  You have, in no particular order, tacky madonnas, Evangelical praise songs, Vatican II masses, Thomas Kinkade, the prose style of Lord of the Rings and large swathes of country music. 
I have remarked before about the bifurcation of modern aesthetics into two camps.  High art has tended to eschew any sort of sentiment at all and gone in for either the overly abstract and intellectual, or else the disgusting and degrading.

Perhaps we just can't read the sentimentality in alien traditional cultures?

Or, perhaps the small scale sentimental stuff didn't get carved into giant marble I-am-Ozymandias-king-of-kings statues, so we don't have much of ancient kitsch left anymore? It could be that Ozymandias's mom had court artists do up lots of cute little statues and paintings of Ozymandias as a baby, as a toddler, going to the prom, beheading his first rebel, all that sort of thing that warms a queen mother's heart. But, that kind of art didn't weigh as much as Ozymandias's giant brutal marble statue in Shelley's poem, so, being more portable, it got carried off by looters, or tossed out in the trash, or just worn away by the elements over time.

For example, I only recently became aware of a trove of 2000-year old Roman Egyptian paintings, the Fayum mummy portraits, that families paid professionals to make to (presumably) remember lost loved ones. They only survived due to the dry climate.

And they are just heartbreaking. If you are thumbing through a history of art of the ancient world textbook, these Fayum paintings often come last, after a long series of Egyptian-Babylonian-Greek-Roman art works intended to express aristocratic conceptions of the potential of human beauty, Ozymandias-like works intended to impose obedience, nouveau riche interior decoration, commercial pottery, and a lot of other stuff that is aesthetically impressive but doesn't make all that much of an immediate emotional impression on us. And then, at last, these cheap Fayum portraits are like a dagger to the heart, reminding us that the ancients were human beings like us who suffered emotional agonies when their ten year old children died.

But, keep in mind that these Fayum portraits were semi-mass produced, using standard techniques. They probably aren't terribly realistic pictures of the deceased, being more like reproductions from various pre-existing templates of say, a pre-adolescent boy. I fear that if I were an educated, aristocratic resident of Alexandria and had seen them all my life, I'd roll my eyes and disparage them as kitschy.

107 comments:

Anonymous said...

Because what was once a living culture turns into a product of symbol. This is true of all cultures. At one time, American Indian culture was alive and organic. Today, it's dancing funny for tourists and selling trinkets.

Anonymous said...

But, keep in mind that these Fayum portraits were semi-mass produced, using standard techniques. They probably aren't terribly realistic pictures of the deceased, being more like reproductions from various pre-existing templates of say, a pre-adolescent boy. I suspect that if I were an educated, aristocratic resident of Alexandria and had seen them all my life, I'd rolly my eyes and disparage them as kitschy.

Hallus Marcus, anyone?

Anonymous said...

There was always kitsch. We don't notice it because a lot of it has not survived and because we elevate what remains. Renaissance-era paintings of the saints are, like Thomas Kinkade, pleasant enough to look at but certainly kitschy.

bubbly said...

Problem is mass culture. In the past, the elites had elite culture that was fancy and stuff. The masses had folk culture.

With rise of mass culture, there was the need to democratize and share worthy serious culture. But such culture is no longer part of the elites, and most people don't get it or relate to it. And so, it's been watered down and packaged for mass consumption. Mona Lisa as postcard. Old mythologies and religions as STAR WARS.

Spirituality too. New Age, Oprah, Obama the negro gay messiah. I mean you can't make this stuff up.

Same with intellectualism. Instead of real intellectuals thinking hard about truth, we have fabulists like Gladwell.

Anonymous said...

Ancient kitsch was misquoted homer, cicero, etc. Scoliasts. Byzantium. Islamists get away with claiming to be innocent victims of eevil unprovoked crusades because the first jihad raped the southern byzantines, a tacky pack, and the frankish crusades were a counter to the rape of asia minor, where gypsy taste comes from. The thousand years of war against the turk were fought across eastern europe. Bulgaria. Nuff said.

San Franciscan non-monk said...

Thanks for being awesome, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Shakespeare in his time was kitsch.

gubbly said...

actually romans were major kitschers, mass producing cruddy replicas of greek art.

and indian art was kitsch from beginning.

gwern said...

Let's not forget time has transformed some kitsch into high culture: think of how classic Greco-Roman statues were originally painted in hideous garish colors, but time thankfully destroyed all that and left us with the plain marble.

Mr. Mcgranor said...

There is no white culture.

deconstructingleftism said...

>> I fear that if I were an educated, aristocratic resident of Alexandria and had seen them all my life, I'd roll my eyes and disparage them as kitschy.<<

Or maybe not. It seems to me that Protestant culture has a bias against representation not found elsewhere. No pictures of Jesus, for example, which are found everywhere in Latin America.

Thursday said...

I think that the key word in your post is "mass produced."

I'm not really sure about that there was much kitsch back in the day. Old hymns aren't kitschy. There isn't any kitschy stuff in old field recordings by people like Alan Lomax. Isolated tribes and cultures don't produce any such stuff, at least until contact with western media. You don't find the kind of bathos in old poetry and stories, even the bad ones, like you find in Tennyson and Dickens (and I like Tennyson and Dickens). There is certainly always sentiment in the work of older cultures, but that's not the same thing as sentimentality. Tackiness and kitsch seems to require some contact with commercial modern culture.

Thursday said...

"Problem is mass culture. In the past, the elites had elite culture that was fancy and stuff. The masses had folk culture.

With rise of mass culture, there was the need to democratize and share worthy serious culture. But such culture is no longer part of the elites, and most people don't get it or relate to it. And so, it's been watered down and packaged for mass consumption. Mona Lisa as postcard. Old mythologies and religions as STAR WARS."

Largely agree. Though I'm not sure it is just high culture. Pop culture draws on folk forms like the blues and country as much as highbrow stuff. Mass culture seems to me an artificial attempt to aspects of both elite and folk culture.

Thursday said...

Let's not forget time has transformed some kitsch into high culture: think of how classic Greco-Roman statues were originally painted in hideous garish colors, but time thankfully destroyed all that and left us with the plain marble.

Greco-Roman statues were painted, but the hideous colour reconstructions seem to be based on bad modern scholarship.
http://turnabout.ath.cx:8000/node/1434

Thursday said...

actually romans were major kitschers, mass producing cruddy replicas of greek art.

Again that word "mass production."

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Protestant culture has a bias against representation not found elsewhere. No pictures of Jesus, for example, which are found everywhere in Latin America.

Islam has even more of a bias against representation.

Anonymous said...

Any discussion of kitsch wouldn't be complete without citing some of the Steveosphere's favorite radical left-wing Jewish intellectuals.

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (Partisan Review, 1939)
http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html

Theodor Adorno on "Kitsch"

Dutch Boy said...

Modestly talente artists can produce a reasonably accurate individual portrait fairly rapidly, which can than be colored in by an assistant of even more modest talents. I don't see why the same could not have been true of the Fayum artists.

georgesdelatour said...

This is one of the most interesting posts I've read. Awesome, Steve.

Bubbly - I take your point about folk culture vs mass culture. But even our perception of folk culture is heavily filtered. I've been reading about English folk music. The vast majority of old English folk songs were bawdy - pornographic, even. But these weren't the songs which interested the educated people championing folk music. Cecil Sharp, the pioneer collector of folk songs, either passed over these songs completely or bowdlerised their lyrics. Later folk advocates like A.L. Lloyd and Ewan McColl were Marxists who preferred protest songs to porn.

Simon in London said...

This stuff was incredibly high quality for 'common' art. I'm reminded again of what an advanced civilisation the Romans were, how like us. They even had many of the same social problems, such as a welfare dependent underclass, sub-replacement fertility, and problems with uncontrolled mass immigration - most of the barbarian 'invasions' started off as 'peaceful immigration'.

I recently finished A Farewell to Alms, which is impressive as far as it goes, but Clark doesn't address this fertility issue - his assumption that before 1800 humans always reproduced to fill the available resources doesn't fit what we know of the Romans, especially the upper class. Perhaps something about advanced civilisation stops people breeding, at least the higher-up people.

Anonymous said...

Any discussion of kitsch wouldn't be complete without citing some of the Steveosphere's favorite radical left-wing Jewish intellectuals.

I wonder what Herr Professor Fred Wertham would have thought about kitch. He was the guy who wanted mass bannings / burnings of comic books on the grounds that superheroes were fascist and elitist. He thought that without comix, working-class kids would be reading Shakespeare and his legions of emo kings.

Anonymous said...

Clement Greenberg is by no means left wing. This is just a weird position to have. He spent the entire sixties and seventies being called a CIA stooge and tool of the rich. I know that that doesn't make him inevitably conservatice but it excludes him from left wingism.

tastemaker said...

I thought that grinning sand sculpture of Obama outside the DNC in Charlotte was a bit, well, kitschy. And some other things.

kaganovitch said...

anonymous wrote "Clement Greenberg is by no means left wing. This is just a weird position to have. He spent the entire sixties and seventies being called a CIA stooge and tool of the rich. I know that that doesn't make him inevitably conservatice but it excludes him from left wingism."

As Steve has mentioned often in the past, the CIA of the early post-war period (really into the seventies) was a bastion of left-leaning society/culture. Aside from that, at the time he wrote Avant-Garde and Kitsch he was an avowed Marxist (trotskyist rather than stalinist), he only broke ith the Nation (at the time a soviet propaganda arm) in the 50's. He remained until his death a left wing anti-communist much as Orwell was.

Max said...

Hey! These ancient Egyptians don't look black! This is heresy! Down the memory hole with you!

Indira said...

"At one time, American Indian culture was alive and organic. Today, it's dancing funny for tourists and selling trinkets."

Maybe, but it was never the wise-beyond-all-others concoction that the left teaches to everyone.

Jared said...

Kitsch is simply mass production to meet the demands of the common man. In ancient times, there weren't giant 20' tall hand carved statues of Anubus outside every villager's home, because they couldn't possibly make or afford it. But picture the scene if they could. Instantly it is tacky and kitsch. Thus, mass production is the essence of it.

Kevin A. Rollins said...

"Mr. Mcgranor said...

There is no white culture."

I see someone has drunk the Koolaid. The reality is that damn nearly everything is white culture- you're just constantly immersed in it, so you don't see it as such- but the minority influences and creations are much more rare and thus distinctive.

Steve Sailer said...

The poor kid looks like a 10-year-old Sal Mineo.

Steve Sailer said...

Mass-produced = kitsch?

What about cars? They are the pre-eminent mass-produced object of the age, and they look pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Kaganovitch you are right I didn't realize he wrote "kitsch" so early I.e, during his declares Marxist stage. I just don't think if Adorno is left wing then Greenberg can be left wing too. Also Orwell would basically be a Mickey Kaus guy like now so I'm not sure how left wing Orwell really is. But you are absolutely right i'm the idiot on this one thanks for the correction.
Out of curiosity who is more left to your mind Greenberg or Rosenberg.

Anonymous said...

I think Tolstoy said it all about Art. There's "true art" which consists of someone trying to invoke a true emotion out of viewer, listener, or reader - and there's everything else.

People think Tolstoy was wrong about Shakespeare but he wan't. W.S. was a great poet and knew how to coin a phrase, but his characters and plots are simply entertainment - not art.

priss asagiri said...

"Mass-produced = kitsch?"

One form of Kitsch is mass production or vulgarization of high art or serious message. Like high art turned into tourist trinkets or religion turned into pappy goo.
Or kitsch can be a 'high-minded' but pathetic attempt to create something of meaning and beauty, resulting in third rate imitation or propaganda. Nazi art for instance. Or LOR movies and all those Hollywood imitations of Wagnerian music.
Honest entertainment or trash is not kitsch. Budd Boetticher westerns are honest little films, not kitsch. DUEL IN THE SUN is kitsch(but interesting).

Another form of kitsch is when something trite, petty, banal, or simple-minded is inflated and pompousized. Stalinist rallies and parades. Size and scale tries to disguise lack of real content. Obama cult is kitsch.

So, kitsch deflates something of real value OR inflates something of little or no value.

In rock, a honest song is not kitsch. SHE LOVES YOU.
A genuinely complex and meaningful song is not kitsch. VISIONS OF JOHANNA. It is art.

But pap pretending to be 'art' is kitsch: SHE'S LEAVING HOME and NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN. Or CHERISH.

But there are times when kitsch can be fascinating. JOHHNNY GUITAR, as an artsy and pretentious/overwrought 'psychological' Freudian western-as-woman's-movie-soap-opera should be kitsch(and it is) but Crawford's noble suffering, Hayden's stoic heroism, the sexual obsessions, and Ray's wildly eccentric style make it delirious and overpowering. I LOVE IT! It is that rare great kitsch, a kind of miracle.

http://youtu.be/V4PFC6bIexo




Jared said...

" Steve Sailer said...

Mass-produced = kitsch?

What about cars? They are the pre-eminent mass-produced object of the age, and they look pretty good."

True, but they differ in so many different ways. Maybe its mass production of something so that it is exactly the same.... Maybe there has to have a way to distinguish it from something that the common everyman can have, maybe by cost (like a new Maserati)

Anonymous said...

What about cars? They are the pre-eminent mass-produced object of the age, and they look pretty good.

Car's aren't art. At least, that is not their main purpose.

as said...

I'd never seen that painting in the Met.

Glaivester said...

In the Bible it is mentioned that there were people who sold idols at various shrines, and who were upset when people converted to Christianity because they stopped buying them.

Does anyone doubt that there were Greeks and Romans with kitschy little Athena/Minerva statues they bought at their last tourist trip to Athens?

And let's not forget the Lares and Pentares (household idols of minor house gods).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article.

It's amazing how completely modern the mummy portraits look in terms of technique.

Compare to medieval paintings from much later.

Anonymous said...

Not kitsch. Personal vision, genuine depth/gravitas, and work of genius:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6JN0l7A_mE

Total kitsch. Populist pandering laden with cliches wrapped in grandiose artsy gimmickry:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGmqX8EAvrw

Auntie Analogue said...

Kitsch is like hard corn pornography: it can't be wholly described, but, as Justice Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it."

Which reminds me. I missed my chance to own the Mitt Romney Chia Pet.

John Lilburne said...

The pictures show that roman citizens were no longer white but black or mixed race. When a people die out that civilisation dies out.
Goodbye america and the west

Steve Sailer said...

The best of the mummy portraits were painted on boards using hot wax (encaustic). They're not all quite as appealing to the modern eye as the example I chose, but, still ...

One theory is that they were made a little like a police portrait or creating a character in a video game -- the artist started with a standard all-purpose template and rearranged a few features to get closer to the individual.

Steve Sailer said...

Okay, what I mean is that we don't know if these pictures actually "catch a likeness" where that you could, say, pick this lad out from his classmates of the same age. We don't know if they were painted of the living person or after death.

My impression is that earlier Roman sculptors could catch a likeness of Cicero or whomever, so the concept of capturing the individual look existed, although that may have been expensive.

But in some ways it's more impressive that the ancients had developed a technique capable of great lifelikeness, but with also some quick, casual aspect to it that has been emerging in Western Art since maybe the 18th Century and took off with Impressionism. I mean if Pixar made an animated movie about a boy in Egypt 2000 years ago and the hero looked like this boy, it would do fine at the box office -- this picture is a lovely combination of what modern people want in a picture, realism combined with some evidence that the artist is taking skill-based shortcuts.

kaganovitch said...

Regarding Greenberg or Rosenberg being more left wing, it's really hard to say - they had remarkably similar backgrounds and evolved very similarly politically as well.

Steve Sailer said...

But what about Steinberg?

Anonymous said...

"But pap pretending to be 'art' is kitsch: SHE'S LEAVING HOME and NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN. Or CHERISH."

Nights in White Statin and Cherish do indeed make such pretenses. But She's Leaving Home is to the extreme self-conscious, deliberate and very well-executed KITSCH.

Anonymous said...

"Or kitsch can be a 'high-minded' but pathetic attempt to create something of meaning and beauty, resulting in third rate imitation or propaganda. Nazi art for instance. "

Triumph des Willens is anything but "pathetic". Pathetic (in your otherwise decent analysis) is gratituitous sniping at German people of 30s-40s. A better example of kitschiges propaganda is Schindler's List. Both pathetic and kitschig is Inglorious Basterds.

Anonymous said...

--Triumph des Willens is anything but "pathetic".--

It is a remarkable, even great, filmmaking of a kitschy and evil movement.
Just like an intelligent movie can be made about dumb people, a powerful film can be made of a rotten movement.

At any rate, I was referring to stuff like Nazi painting and sculpture. (Speer. otoh, was an excellent architect but for the ridiculous super dome designed for Germania.)

Riefenstahl did make kitsch with stuff like TIEFLAND later.
TRIUMPH and OLYMPIAD are her two great films but they are not entirely without kitschiness. One might even say they are kitsch so well done that they transcend the limitations of kitsch.
The opening of OLYMPIA with all those classical poses by athletes are a bit ripe.

But this is really awful art:

http://libertarianalliance.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/prop_12.jpg

Riefenstahl calls Nazi art 'kitsch' in the video below at 3:30:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edyM7HNBdxM&feature=relmfu

------------

Architecture of Doom is a good movie on Nazi art:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fnu_5zXsB7A





Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya0PnqlT-NI

Kurtagic's musical taste is kitsch.

Anonymous said...

"It is a remarkable, even great, filmmaking of a kitschy and evil movement. "

Superior Teutonic sense of Ort und Ordnung shone through in their iconography. You conflate moral and artistic judgement (which I would say yours is good when not clouded as it is by this). Your painting example must be a caricature. If the Russians had been the "Nazis" and the Germans the Bolsheviks, you would be wholesale condemning the art that came from 30s-40s Russia.

Anonymous said...

Kitsch = sentimentality. The artist either isn't trying to express any other emotion, or he's doing a bad job of it. The goal is to remind us of a happier, simpler time or place. That's the entire purpose of a Thomas Kinkade painting. FWIW, of all the conservative homes I've been in, I've only noticed a Kinkade painting in one.

Conservatism, of course, is all about drawing us back to tradition, the past, simplicity, which is why we conservatives love kitsch. Poor people love kitsch, too. Rich people mostly don't need it, since they have nice things, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Kitsch = sentimentality. The artist either isn't trying to express any other emotion, or he's doing a bad job of it. The goal is to remind us of a happier, simpler time or place. That's the entire purpose of a Thomas Kinkade painting. FWIW, of all the conservative homes I've been in, I've only noticed a Kinkade painting in one.

Conservatism, of course, is all about drawing us back to tradition, the past, simplicity, which is why we conservatives love kitsch. Poor people love kitsch, too. Rich people mostly don't need it, since they have nice things, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Nazi art was definitely tacky, as was communist art from the USSR.

Dr Van Nostrand said...

The pictures show that roman citizens were no longer white but black or mixed race. When a people die out that civilisation dies out."

These were not Greeks or Romans proper genius but those domiciled in Egypt sincethe time of Alexander atleast.

And also Egypts decline accelerated as it got whiter via the Assyrian,Persian ,Greek and Roman invasions.

Anonymous said...

Heh. You fellows hit occasional insights, but you're missing the one essential ingredient in the rise of kitsch, the one named by all intellectuals, left- or right-wing: the existence of a middle class.

Folk art isn't kitsch: it tends, as a matter of fact, towards the abstract, decorative, patterned form of art. Think of Hungarian wall and door decorations, Persian tribal rugs (those not produced for Western markets), the elaborate decorations that Indian (dot) peasants put on everything. If not "tasteful" in the educated middle-class sense, not kitschy, either: meaning not sentimental, prurient, or prudish either.

Alias Clio

Anonymous said...

More on the middle classes and kitsch: almost every people has been "bourgeoisified" now, which means alas that almost all cultures produce kitsch rather than art, especially in the visual realm.

No one knows why, but the culture critics used to have many guesses: middle-class people are anxious to display their virtue, to the ruin of art (not the virtue, but the anxiety, is ruinous); they are timid about their taste; they want visual art to exaggerate its emotional expressiveness, something it is ill-equipped to do.

Alias Clio

kaganovitch said...

"But what about Steinberg?"

Steinberg was probably the most fascinating of the lot. In the interest of full disclosure I interviewed Steinberg once about his father I.N. Steinberg(one of the more interesting minor figures of the first half of the 20th century, he was Lenin's first Justice comissar among other things) A very bright man and a terrific conversationalist but I had the impression a bit of a fraud too. He really did know his stuff though , astonishing breadth of knowledge. He was a man of the left too of course but never went through a communist phase AFAIK - he probably had few illusions re Marxism-Leninism as his father was purged already in 1918-19 when the Bolsheviks turned on the left narodniki. (iirc officially he resigned over Brest litovsk treaty or some such)

Anonymous said...

Kitsch isn't "bad taste" in the sense of being brightly colored or full of violent images. The decoration of Mexican cathedrals is not kitsch; it's simply oriented to peasant taste, which is for decoration and vivid colors. Kitsch is a picture of Jesus smiling at a group of children while a tear rolls down his cheek. Kitsch is plastic dolls with crocheted skirts covering the toilet paper rolls. Kitsch hides from reality (the Cross, toilet paper), exaggerates familial emotions, and peeks pruriently at sex. Norman Rockwell, in spite of his skill, is called kitschy because his work is carefully "tasteful" - no bright colors, no violence, no obvious sexuality - and because it erased the ugliness of real life even while alluding to it, like the little black girl escorted into her school.

Alias Clio

Mr. Anon said...

"The Lord of the Rings" isn't kitsch. People may think of it as such because of Tolkien's many talentless immitators, and because of Peter Jackson's bowlderization of it.

Anonymous said...

Final point: Clement Greenberg was excoriated by the left of his day, if I'm remembering rightly, because he supported the war in Vietnam and excoriated people, especially Rosenberg, who opposed it. I can't remember, but I believe his reasoning was that the Communism of China and the USSR was not what Marx had intended Communism to be, that it was another form of imperialism.

I'm not certain of this because I learned it through a professor of art criticism in conversation many years ago, and never pursued it. He was a very careful researcher and scholar, though, so I expect he was right.

Alias Clio

Anonymous said...

What's really striking about the paintings is that for all the invasions and ethnic mixing that's gone on in the past 2000 years in this part of the world, the portraits look remarkably similar to the inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean today. You wouldn't have a tough time finding people who looked like the ones on the coffins on the streets of Athens, Naples, Istanbul or Beirut.

Quincy of Genom Corp. said...

Kitsch may have lost its appeal because there's less emphasis on middle class/middle brow respectability--though, to be sure, there's Oprah, GREEN MILE, and FORREST GUMP. We live in an age of youth culture and hipster sensibility.

But cultural bogus-ness and pretensions live on. But since the new bogus-ness seeks to be hip, cool, and edgy than respectable or serious, maybe we need a new term to describe the new bogosity.
Maybe that should be 'hipsch'.

Hipsch isn't really innovative, revolutionary, edgy, subversive, intellectual, and/or 'radical', but it offers the flavor and impression of such, and that is precisely the appeal. Tarantino's movies--except his remarkable first--would be hipsch. They are mostly recycling of other movies and ideas, but Tarantino packages and markets 'edginess' for the mass market. He elevates trash to 'artisness' and degrades elements culled from art films into popishness. If the interplay of high and low was an intellectual exercise for Godard, it is a faddish self-promotion for Tarantino.

Rosenbaum has the right idea here:

http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6928

Many music videos belongs to hipsch. They pretend to be racy, controversial, rebellious, and 'ahead of its time', but most of them are part of a cynical marketing ploy appealing to the lowest common denominator and the conceit of being 'avant-gardish', though maybe avant-GARISH is closer to the mark.

The best truth-detectors of hipsch is Beavis and Butthead, all the more remarkable since they, as idiot savants, don't know why they know what they know.
In a way, Beavis and Butthead get it because they don't 'get it'. They are so lacking in brains that they react to things on a gut level, and so they see most of the stuff on MTV as crap. They may not understand real art, but they don't fall for pompous/pretentious pseudo-art either. They don't fall for the hype or conceit.
Sometimes, not to get something is to get it. It's like semi-literate people instinctively knew communism was bullshit while gullible intellectuals who could understand the theory swallowed it. Those who didn't get the theory of communism got the true nature of communism. Their gut feeling told them it went against human nature and reality.

It's like in Kurosawa's DREAMS. When an officer is confronted by dead soldiers who want to go home, he appeals to them with words, ideas, and sentiments, and the soldiers return to the underworld. But how do you convince a dog that it is dead? It lives by gut instinct. By not getting it, the dog gets it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5I_KNQq6MQ

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget the Lares and Pentares (household idols of minor house gods).

How different are these from mass-produced crucifixes and Plastic Jesi for car mirrors?

Anonymous said...

Triumph des Willens is anything but "pathetic". It is a remarkable, even great, filmmaking of a kitschy and evil movement.
Just like an intelligent movie can be made about dumb people, a powerful film can be made of a rotten movement.


You hit the nail right on the head. On one level, Riefenstahl was lampooning the pompous kitchy excesses of Nazi art, and Nazism in general, but given the circumstances, in a very discreet manner. You didn't want to offend the Fuhrer especially when you were defending him!

Thursday said...

Does anyone doubt that there were Greeks and Romans with kitschy little Athena/Minerva statues they bought at their last tourist trip to Athens?

Then surely we should find such stuff. But we tend not to. The stuff we do find is often crude but rarely sentimental.

Anonymous said...

Mass production isn't inherent to kitsch. Rather, it's fake, inauthentic mass-produced imitations of traditional cultural artifacts, designed to push sentimental buttons for the purpose of cynically profiting from the mass public's bad taste, that are kitschy for all of these reasons.

Yes, Greenberg shifted politically, but he became at most an anti-communist liberal or what could be called a neocon -- nothing that the alt-right would recognize as "conservative" with respect to Western culture. His basic antagonism to inherited institutions fully reflects what Kevin MacDonald would call "Cultural Marxism."

Greenberg's attachment to high culture plus left-wing political views was described by T. J. Clark (who shared both these basic values but manifested them differently) as "Eliotic Trotskyism" (Leja on Clark on Greenberg)

The ugly polychrome ceramics of Lucio Fontana are a prime example of neo-avant-garde kitsch:
Fontana's Kitsch
Between Utopia and Kitsch

In today's art world, of course, the king of kitsch is Jeff Koons, as a Google Image search will reveal.

Steve Sailer said...

Okay, but is this mummy portrait I posted "kitsch" or not?

Thursday said...

Okay, but is this mummy portrait I posted "kitsch" or not?

Mostly not. It's mostly about authentic emotion. Equivalent to Dickens, Tennyson, or Tchaikovsky.

Thursday said...

Mass production isn't inherent to kitsch.

I think you mean kitsch isn't inherent to mass production. Which is quite right. There is lots of mass produced stuff that isn't kitsch.

However, mass production seems to be necessary for kitsch to appear.

captain toudou said...

"Okay, but is this mummy portrait I posted "kitsch" or not?"

I'd say it depends on the context. In and of itself, it isn't. But if that kind of painting was sold by funeral homes as the 'respectable' thing for the people(aristocratism for the masses), it would be.

There is kitsch by content and there is kitsch by context.
Classical music isn't kitsch, but it can be if played in a shopping mall... or if played by Andre Rieu.

Mona Lisa isn't kitsch but a replica in a fake Louvre at Disneyland would be.


Thursday said...

I'd add Disney, Spielberg, Capra, Dvorak and Boucher to Dickens, Tennyson, and Tchaikovsky as artists that operate on the borderline between kitsch and art.

daley wong said...

'the king of kitsch is Jeff Koons'

koons aint kitsch but something worse. there is no pretense of art or respectability or anything.

same with murakami.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-10-24/prince-sues-over-pop-art-at-versailles/2308920

it's pop art on steroids.

otoh, its promotion by the haute class has something kitschy about it.

koons or murakami in a toy store would be honest goofery.
but as items of the art world, they've been inflated in significance.

Thursday said...

I'd say it depends on the context

I'd say hooey to that. Kitsch is about fake emotion aroused by the work itself. Context is irrelevant.

Disney and Rieu tend to alter the work itself in a kitschy direction.

Thursday said...

John Ruskin identifies Raphael as when kitschiness enters Western Art, though Ruskin doesn't use those words. Which is why the Pre-Raphaelites tried to go back to the Medieval period.

Anonymous said...

'I'd say hooey to that'

don't be a sonofakitsch.

Anonymous said...

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-10-24/the-retrospective-sets-murakamis-work-against-the/2308922

Perfect image for a culture that conflates 'gay marriage' with real marriage.

Anonymous said...

"Kitsch is about fake emotion aroused by the work itself."

I wonder... what if fools feel real/genuine/sincere emotions from their consumption from kitsch?

Maybe kitsch is part of human nature.

Thursday said...

if played in a shopping mall

If you have a great recording of a classical piece played in a mall it's still a great recording of a classic piece. On the other hand, if it has been given the muzak treatment, then yes, it is kitsch. But it is the altering of the piece that makes it kitsch, not being played in a mall.

Anonymous said...

Norman Rockwell, in spite of his skill, is called kitschy because his work is carefully "tasteful" - no bright colors, no violence, no obvious sexuality - and because it erased the ugliness of real life even while alluding to it, like the little black girl escorted into her school.

Rockwell had a horrible upbringing, having survived cold-hearted parents, depression, and bullying over being tall and thin. His paintings were carefully marketed sentimentality plus deep cynicism detectable if you looked hard enough. Both Rockwell and Rieffenstahl put their mocking cynicism into their art under their public facade as true believers. Rockwell practiced psychological time travel, and practical revenge against his oppressors, "changing" his past into a sellable product they could buy.

Anonymous said...

What about Shostakovich, Khadjiev, and Khrenikov?

Steve Sailer said...

captain toudou said...

"Okay, but is this mummy portrait I posted "kitsch" or not?"

"I'd say it depends on the context. In and of itself, it isn't. But if that kind of painting was sold by funeral homes as the 'respectable' thing for the people (aristocratism for the masses), it would be."

We have today 900 of these pictures surviving, versus only a tiny handful of other panel painting from the classical world, so the odds are that, yes, it was the respectable thing to do and many tens of thousands of people had it done.

But, ultimately, so what?

Some real parents lost their real little boy. Do you think they didn't take some measure of emotional comfort from this custom of creating a beautiful picture of him? Aren't you proud to belong to a species that can develop the techniques and the custom of creating such a beautiful object to commemorate a lost loved one? Isn't the fact that these techniques developed to the point that a fairly large number of wealthy people, not just some pharaoh, could afford them, a good thing?

brian j. mason said...

"If you have a great recording of a classical piece played in a mall it's still a great recording of a classic piece."

of course, but culture isn't just about the thing but how the thing is consumed.

a poem by t.s. eliot may be a work of art, but if it's displayed on a panel in a public bus next to auto insurance ad, its function has been kitschized.

consider how the nazis played beethoven in an armament factory to boost morale when the war was going badly. even if the music had been played expertly and correctly, its contextual function still would have been kitschy since a rich and complex work was reduced to the trite message of 'beethoven is our aryan hero', especially when beethoven had no such notions while working on his music.

artists create something of genius and eccentricity. kitschers can only hope to generalize and replicate the broad themes of the the work, usually by misinterpreting it. winglord is filled with beethovenisms and wagnerisms but is pap. but even the real thing can be used as pap, at least in its functions.

sometimes, genuine artists become so egotistical that they turn their own work into kitsch. springsteen used to a genuine working class poet-rocker. today, his muse having left him and him being very rich, his shtick is pure self-kitschization.

http://www.tnr.com/article/magazine/politics/105712/washington-diarist-saint-in-the-city-springsteen#

http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/09/world_war_ii_mu.html




toudou said...

'But, ultimately, so what?'

I agree. i may not think highly of it, but if it makes people happy, let them have it. I hated forrest gump but many loved it. they had every right to love it. live and let live. i cringe at celine dion's titanic song but i know girls who get all teary-eyed. they got every right to love that stuff.

as for the dead boy and funeral pics, i think there is a tasteful way to do it. i mean who doesn't have mementos and the like?

and i'm not the one to knock the taj mahal, either an architectural wonder or the most self-indulgent but great work of kitsch of all time.

i'm all for services and products for the masses. i still prefer honest and proportional expression to inflated or overwrought ones.
a portrait of a dead child can be fitting and nice. but portrait of dead kid as heavenly angel surrounded by puttees would be a bit rich.

biggest kitsch of recent times? the whole mlk myth and statue. no proportionality there.
most kitschy phrase? 'profound humility' by obama.

Anonymous said...

'Aren't you proud to belong to a species that can develop the techniques and the custom of creating such a beautiful object to commemorate a lost loved one?'

what if the kid was ugly and looked neumann of mad magazine?

Anonymous said...

"The vast majority of old English folk songs were bawdy - pornographic, even"

Reference for that? It's true that there were many such bawdy - rarely pornographic - songs - for example "As I was going to strawberry fair" was a bowdlerised version of the original double entendre "I have a lock that doth lack a key".

But the vast majority? Seems unlikely.



Thursday said...

contextual function

Bah. What something is used for doesn't change what it is.

poetry said...

"Majority" is not the operative concept but academe has been pretty industrious at coming up with dirty old poems. Robert Burns's "Comin Thro The Rye" is a filthy one

Anonymous said...

'Bah. What something is used for doesn't change what it is.'

yer mama

koda said...

"And also Egypts decline accelerated as it got whiter via the Assyrian,Persian ,Greek and Roman invasions."

I don't know about Egypt "declining" during these eras, as it had a renaissance of learning after the Muslim conquest, as did most Muslim conquered lands, for a few centuries.

In a number of Egyptology tomes I've read, however, it is noted that the Egyptians of remote antiquity, to the extent that can be determined, were more Caucasoid than those of later antiquity, when sub-Saharan peoples had become more prevalent.

Shakespear in Love and Kitsch said...

"Shakespeare was kitsch"

If that was kitsch, the high art of the day should have been beyond the ken of mere mortals, methinks. Shakespeare used a greater vocabulary--many ivented words that seem to have always existed--and used it with such brilliance and perfection that we still thrill to it today. Except for the Bible, no one is more often quoted, and no one has bequeathed us more beautifully phrased expressions for any human situation. That is not kitsch. That is about as profound an exemplar of human expression as can be. Just because he was popular, doesn't mean he wasn't real
That said, a few of his lesser known plays, (if indeed, Shakespear actually wrote them at all) could pass the kitsch test. They were exagerated in violence and hyperbole even for the time. There is a scene in Shakespear in Love, where a street urchin begs the Bard to put more gore in his next effort, and gives some suggestions that made the great poet cringe. Kitsch is like porn. Hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Ray Sawhill said...

Great posting, fun comments.

Decades ago, deciding what was kitsch and what was supposedly genuine was a major concern in the arts. It always struck me as overdone. For one thing: If you enjoy a creation, who cares if the artist "really felt it" or not? How can we even know? For another: Even if there is such a thing as kitsch, where's the harm? And isn't there (potentially at least) as much harm in avoiding sentimentality at all costs as there is shoveling it on?

I eventually decided that Europeans had a reason to feel horror at kitsch. They seem to feel that kitsch led to Naziism. Whatever -- maybe they're right, who knows? But in American culture it's often hard to tell the kitsch from the Real Thing. Think of Disney movies. If I were cultureczar (and thank god I'm not) they'd all be classified as kitsch. But they're accepted by many as Classic American Cinema. Lots of pop music is as fakey as can be. For example: I'm partial to Elvis Presley, but lordy it can't be denied that a lot of his perfs were as sappy as could be. It's part of what I like about 'em, actually. Well, some of them anyway.

Euro ways of thinking about culture generally don't suit a lot of what's great and cool in American culture, I think. That's something a lot of intellectuals, profs, journalists and critics don't get. In their eyes, America will always be a culture that's trying and failing to be a dignified Euro one. With his appreciations of hot rods and golf courses, Steve definitely does get that the U.S. is its own wild and nutty thing.

Ray Sawhill said...

BTW, in recent years the official art world has re-evaluated Norman Rockwell and found him very cool. From Wikipedia:

"In 1999, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews: 'Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.'

Rockwell's work was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2001. Rockwell's Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4 million at a 2006 Sotheby’s auction. A twelve-city U.S. tour of Rockwell's works took place in 2008."

Schjeldahl is often pretty great, btw.

That said, let me gloat over this as yet another example of a favorite theme of mine: You/we have no idea what the future is going to make of the culture of our time. And judgments often change. Just when you were happy thinking of Rockwell as kitsch, he turns out to have been a giant.

I'm no total relativist, but it's just a fact that very few culture-beliefs and culture-judgments are written in unmoving stone.

Steve Sailer said...

Normal Rockwell was a witty illustrator. Probably half of his most famous paintings are intentionally funny. I don't really get how wit = kitsch.

Thursday said...

Some of Rockwell is excellent. But there is some other of it is so grotesquely cute it makes you want to puke.

Anonymous said...

witsch

Thursday said...

Ray, I don't think it matters if the artist really felt something or not. I think its just the dishonesty of the whole thing. You see all sorts of sentimental PC groaners all over the place in popular culture (the portrayal of gay guys would be a good example, portraying black drug dealers as literary types in something otherwise excellent like The Wire would be another), and I doubt you'd say that that is completely innocent.

Thursday said...

Dickens was both funny and sentimental. So was Capra.

Ray Sawhill said...

Can't stand Rockwell myself. Visited the museum in Stockbridge once and had to leave halfway thru the visit, I was so turned-off by the art. But he was undeniably a huge talent and a major force. And my opinion doesn't matter anyway.

Thursday: "Ray, I don't think it matters if the artist really felt something or not. I think its just the dishonesty of the whole thing. You see all sorts of sentimental PC groaners all over the place in popular culture (the portrayal of gay guys would be a good example, portraying black drug dealers as literary types in something otherwise excellent like The Wire would be another), and I doubt you'd say that that is completely innocent."

Sure, but maybe these scenes, tropes and characters mean a lot to other people. Maybe they weep, or feel inspired, or laugh, or something. That deserves acknowledgment, no? And a larger question: Who's to say that the people attending and loving a concert by some heavy metal band that strikes me as crap aren't having as great an experience as the people sitting in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera?

Maybe the future will decide (for a few decades, at least) that "Will & Grace" was the finest creation of our era. The art world came around on Norman Rockwell, after all. So who really knows?

Thursday said...

Good art is never purely about sensation and feeling. A big part of what makes a work of art last is its insight, and for something to have insight it has to have a good amount of truth in it. Not that there can't be fantasy and heightening and such in art, but even those things have to have some basis in truth. Kitsch is essentially untruthful, dishonest, a lie, so it doesn't last.

Kylie said...

" JOHHNNY GUITAR, as an artsy and pretentious/overwrought 'psychological' Freudian western-as-woman's-movie-soap-opera should be kitsch(and it is)"

The ultimate in cinematic kitsch has got to be Ben Hecht's "Specter of the Rose", loosely based on the life of Nijinsky, with its hilariously pretentious dialogue and cliches about "the dance".

Honorable mentions go to "Strange Illusion", a bizarre take-off on "Hamlet" and "Strange Interlude" in which Ralph Morgan humiliates himself and Clark Gable manages to convey the impression that he is in an entirely different film from his costars.

Anonymous said...

'Kitsch is essentially untruthful, dishonest, a lie, so it doesn't last.'

Gone wid Wind never goes away.

Anonymous said...

yanni is kitsch

so is vangelis but once awhile he comes up with really good stuff:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4DKaLKdLxY

beautiful

Anonyia said...

People on this thread calling Raphael and Lord of the Rings kitsch? Sheesh. Maybe I've just got bad taste then.

Kitsch, in a modern context at least, implies something like cat statues, disney memorabalia, and dolphin paintings.

And I don't think the funeral paintings would be derided as kitsch in their time. The intent is similar to that of the Victorians taking photos of dead loved ones. There simply weren't that many opportunities for relatively ordinary people to have their likeness captured otherwise. Pretty moving/sad, actually.

Thursday said...

The decoration of Mexican cathedrals is not kitsch; it's simply oriented to peasant taste, which is for decoration and vivid colors

Indeed, Clio, lower class taste doesn't have to lead to kitsch, but in modern commercial societies it almost invariably does. Folk vs. pop.

Anonymous said...

I'm really amazed that people sit around talking about this concept of "kitsch" like it's some kind of objective phenomenon. I looked up the concept on Wikipedia, and still feel that way.

Anonymous said...

one man's kitsch is another man's wish.

I gots Hand, son said...

So basically this whole thread is a semantics debate over the meaning of 'kitsch'.