The Problem of Kitsch

Maranda-Bennett_The-Problem-of-Kitsch_Criticism_FYRS

1950s Kitsch China Lamb. Photograph by Tiffany Terry via Flickr

In his essay “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” philosopher Robert Solomon defends the phenomenon of kitsch by countering various accusations levied against it by critics and scholars. He concludes that critics’ widespread distaste toward kitsch springs from an unwillingness to tolerate any kind of emotion that is seen as too sentimental or “sweet.” Solomon argues that this attack on sentimentalism is, in fact, an attack on emotion itself, and he accuses kitsch’s critics of coldness and cynicism. Though Solomon’s essay is compelling and well-written, I disagree with his main thesis. His interpretation of critics’ concerns is misguided, and kitsch does, in fact, have notable ethical defects that are not justified by overall artistic quality. In this paper, I will explore the ethics of kitsch, first foraying into the origins of kitsch as an artistic (or non-artistic) concept, then addressing some of Solomon’s points, then proposing my own point of view while drawing on additional sources written by some of the greatest thinkers who have tackled the problem of kitsch.

Kitsch, though ever-present today, did not arise until relatively recently. According to Matei Calinescu, the word “kitsch” was first used in the 1860s and 1870s to refer to “cheap artistic stuff” (234). This “cheap artistic stuff” consisted of low-quality knickknacks to be sold to gullible tourists with the sole objective of commercial gain—think cheap paintings and garish miniatures. Thus, from its earliest usage, the word “kitsch” has signified “fake” art. This inherent artificiality has persisted as the soul of kitsch. Calinescu is particularly harsh in condemning kitsch’s deep-rooted insincerity: “The whole concept of kitsch clearly centers around such questions as imitation, forgery, counterfeit, and what we may call the aesthetics of deception and self-deception. Kitsch may be conveniently defined as a specifically aesthetic form of lying’’ (229).

Kitsch certainly does not portray an accurate likeness of the world; it generally reflects only the sweetest and most blameless aspects, smoothing the rough edges of reality to produce an image of perfection. One example of kitsch which Solomon draws upon is a William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting (probably Childhood Idyll, 1900, though Solomon doesn’t specify the exact work) of two little girls who are pretty, well-dressed, and playing nicely together, not sulking or fighting or making a mess. With this example in mind, it is easy to see how kitsch art tends to paint a specious picture of the world. Though equating it with lying—as Calinescu does—is a rather harsh position that not everyone would agree with, it is generally acknowledged that kitsch, if it does not exactly “lie,” at least exaggerates and distorts reality. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, for example, compares kitsch not to lying but to bullshit, explaining, “Kitsch does not consistently transgress the limits that distinguish the authentic from the false, but it alters them; just as the bullshitter’s free interpretation of reality follows not the rules of a perfect crime but rather those of creative manipulation” (310).

A similar and common complaint made against kitsch, which Solomon directly addresses, is that it manipulates the emotions of its viewers. Solomon himself admits as much: “Indeed, kitsch is manipulative. It utilizes what Kathleen Higgins calls ‘icons’ to guarantee an instant and wholly predictable emotional response” (6). However, Solomon also points out that all expressions of opinion are “manipulative” in a way, and that the arousal of tenderness and fondness is no more so than, say, that of other emotions or of appeals to reason. He assumes that kitsch’s reputation for being manipulative stems from a mistrust of affectionate emotions themselves, since people tend to complain of manipulation when this type of emotion comes into play. Solomon points out that to manipulate emotions simply means “to intentionally bring them about” (7), and that no one objects to this when it is achieved in ordinary social interaction. Why, then, should they object when viewing art, which implies that they want their emotions “manipulated” in the first place?

I agree with Solomon on the point that provoking sentimentality is no more manipulative than provoking anger, disgust, jealousy, or any other emotion. Nevertheless, this argument, while sound, does not seem to address the real reason for kitsch’s perceived manipulativeness. Its critics are not accusing kitsch solely because it induces feelings of sentimentality but because of the commercial intent behind the activation of these feelings. When one reflects on the origin of kitsch in tourist-trap trinkets or “cheap artistic stuff,” its intrinsically manipulative nature becomes clear. Though kitsch at first may appear to be a naive and youthful expression of warmth and tenderness, these characteristics are calculated to appeal to the public and, essentially, to sell. Its effusive exaggeration is, if not an actual form of lying, at least based on a calculated emotional response sought in the pursuit of monetary gain.

Many critics have this predetermined emotional response in mind when they point out that there is no ambiguity in kitsch; it is designed to get a very specific reaction from the viewer. Tomas Kulka, for example, accuses kitsch of relying on “stock emotions”: “A typical kitsch is reassuring not only because we respond spontaneously but also because we know that we respond ‘rightly,’ that is, we know that we are moved in the right kind of way, which is to say, in the same way as everybody else” (21). Solomon objects that there is nothing wrong with enjoying emotions, and that kitsch is no more emotionally self-indulgent than more sophisticated art. He reasons that many art connoisseurs who pride themselves on their “good taste” wallow in self-admiration, perhaps to a greater extent than admirers of kitsch wallow in sentimentality. This is all very well, but the question, in my mind, is not whether the enjoyment of these emotions is permissible, but the intent behind prompting these emotions. I disagree with Solomon’s opinion that critics are uncomfortable with kitsch simply because of the emotion it triggers. They object rather to the consumerist and homogenizing ideology that underlies the creation and dissemination of kitsch. One could counter with the argument that high art is not immune to commercial influences, either. However, it seems high art tends to be affected more externally by market forces (which often come into play only after the art is created), whereas a desire for profit forms the very foundation of kitsch.

One interesting example of the consumerism of kitsch is explored by Clara Irazábal, who links Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality with the concept of kitsch, calling the combination of the two “hyperkitsch,” In his 1981 treatise “Simulacra and Simulation,” Baudrillard defines the hyperreal as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality”—in other words, a simulated version of reality, or a fantasy world based on the real one. Baudrillard cites Disneyland as an example of a hyperreal environment, considering it an “imaginary world” that consists of “the play of illusions and phantasms.” According to Irazábal, hyperreal cities and kitsch objects share an essential characteristic: they both replicate and commodify original subjects. Kitsch figurines of the Eiffel Tower and Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace both imitate serious places rich with history, boiling them down into easily consumed forms. In Vegas, tourists ride virtual gondolas through a life-sized replication of Venice, see facsimiles of New York City’s greatest attractions all clustered together, and shop at exotic markets in the Aladdin Resort’s Desert Passage. The object of all this, of course, is money. In this way, hyperkitsch is a clear manifestation of consumerism. Irazábal writes, “Kitsch has to do with the modern illusion that beauty may be bought and sold . . . Value is measured directly by the demand for reproductions of objects whose original aesthetic meaning consisted, or should have consisted, in being unique and therefore inimitable” (202). This parallel between kitsch and the materialistic paradise of Las Vegas illustrates the commercialism that lies at the heart of kitsch. It feeds off the existence of historical landmarks, one-of-a-kind places, and influential figures (see, for instance, miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty and Jeff Koons’s famous sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles), exploiting their images in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

As Irazábal (as well as many others) explains, kitsch always refers to something outside of itself. Kulka even calls kitsch “parasitic” and “transparent,” since “Kitsch does not create beauty of its own, its appeal is not really generated by the aesthetic merit of the work itself, but by the appeal of the depicted object” (26). The kitsch object exists mainly outside of the physical, real dimension; the object itself fades into the background as the focus is placed on that which it represents. An interesting and socially significant take on this issue is put forward by Stephanie Brown, who argues that women’s bodies are routinely kitschified and commodified by being conditioned into an appearance of ideal femininity, a state which is actually extraneous to most women. According to Brown, whereas men are expected to simply “appear,” women must “look.” This entails the careful creation of a façade which requires hours spent perfecting makeup, clothes, accessories, and so on. Brown mentions the example of a kitsch bar of soap with a picture of Elvis Presley on it; just as this object makes one think of Elvis rather than soap, women who undertake the masquerade of femininity are striving to reflect a state of being that is not intrinsic to them.

Owing to the fact that kitsch is so closely aligned with femininity in the social consciousness (you don’t see cute kitten figurines and Precious Moments collectibles in a man cave), Solomon expresses concern at one point that objections to kitsch reflect male chauvinism: “the ‘high’ class of many societies associate themselves with emotional control and reject sentimentality . . . and male society has long used such a view to demean the ‘emotionality’ of women” (9). However, considering that kitsch reflects not women themselves but rather stereotypical ideas regarding women as well as the external pressures placed on them, wouldn’t objections to kitsch be more like objections to the patriarchal system that creates these pressures? As Brown puts it, “women’s bodies and faces are adorned in ways that suggest the ‘evil,’ degraded kitsch object that strives to signify beauty and artistry but demonstrates only what Susan Stewart calls its ‘saturation of materiality’” (50). It is not the women, themselves, that are kitsch, but their adornments, which are products and reflections of the rigid, outdated expectations imposed upon them by society. Women strive to fit fixed ideals, but their efforts highlight the artificiality of the constructs by which they measure themselves. Nail polish, lipstick, and perfume are markers of a desire to attain a state of being that is simply not natural.

Kitsch is not a rosy reflection of who women really are, but it is an almost parodical impression of the way many men construe women to be. Rather than erasing stereotypes, it perpetuates them — not only by reflecting artificial notions of femininity and the female consciousness, but also by directly superimposing patriarchal constructs onto women as a whole. If one wants an explicit demonstration of this, one only needs to look at the quintessentially kitsch advertisements of the 1940s and ’50s. Many of these depict pretty, helpless, compliant housewives, usually with an overtly chauvinist slogan—for instance, one advertisement for the Alcoa HyTop bottle cap features a housewife holding a ketchup bottle and reads, “You mean a woman can open it?” This is just one illustration of how kitsch becomes a symbol for the perceived ridiculousness, weakness, or sentimentality of women. However, kitsch is not criticized for its perpetuation of these harmful stereotypes, but rather embraced and celebrated. While women hang paintings of cozy cottages, flowers, and baby deer, sexist men can exchange sidelong glances and knowing smirks. There are probably, as Solomon contends, some chauvinists who dislike kitsch because it represents their faulty conception of women, and they simply don’t like women, but it seems to me that this is an erroneous and rather boorish reason for disliking it. A better and more probable reason to oppose it is that it affirms and preserves the faulty conception that women as a whole are feeble-minded, overly emotional, and absurd.

Kitsch clearly has ethical problems. Still, one could argue that there is much fine art that can also be construed as unethical, and that, since this art is morally deficient yet still widely appreciated, the ethical flaws of kitsch shouldn’t matter, either. Take, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, which leads the audience to sympathize with a violent, destructive main character; the film’s release led to a number of real-life copycat crimes. Critic Vincent Canby called the film “a brilliant and dangerous work, but it is dangerous in a way that brilliant things sometimes are.” Another example is Marquis de Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom and Pier Pasolini’s film based on it, Salò, which both depict graphic violence and extreme cruelty. Some ethicists would argue that the moral flaws of these works actually diminish their overall artistic quality, and that they do not, therefore, count as “great” art. Nevertheless, A Clockwork Orange, The 120 Days of Sodom, Salò, and a slew of other morally suspect works are held in high regard by many critics and by much of the public. What separates these works from kitsch, I would argue, is that kitsch is not created with the intent of being morally problematic, whereas the controversial subject matter of works such as A Clockwork Orange is deliberate and, moreover, integral. Kitsch does not have the depth and artistic quality necessary to broach sensitive ethical concerns, let alone to justify ethical shortcomings or to turn immorality into beauty. While the carefully crafted storylines and masterful execution of Kubrick and Sade are closely intertwined with the moral messages of their works, turning ethical offenses into artistically important features, kitsch is weak all around. Its ethical defects, unsupported by underlying artistic integrity, are simply cracks in an already dilapidated structure.

It is generally acknowledged by critics and even most laymen that kitsch is not “fine art.” Of course, the notion of good or bad art is a slippery and controversial one, and in the end it is impossible to settle on a single explanation of what makes art good, or even whether there is any such thing as objectively good art. However, assuming that there is varying value in art and that one artwork can be better than another, kitsch would surely be at the bottom of the pyramid. It is telling that kitsch is usually not even referred to as art, but as “kitsch objects” or simply “kitsch.” In fact, the idea of badness is contained in the definition of kitsch. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines kitsch as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality” or “a tacky or lowbrow quality or condition.” The English Oxford dictionary defines it as “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.”

As the Oxford definition indicates, kitsch can be appreciated because it is bad. This issue is explored by John Dyck and Matt Johnson, who coin the term “good-bad art” to refer to artworks that “seem to be good just because of their bad-making features” (280). Dyck and Johnson argue that we appreciate bad art because it is bizarre: “Artistic failure produces a particular kind of bizarreness . . . There is a clash between an artwork’s intended effect and its actual effect” (283). This is a plausible reason why people may enjoy kitsch for its own sake, and is a common attitude among those who collect kitsch objects. However, when kitsch is enjoyed this way, it is not enjoyed as art, but as humor. Dyck and Johnson argue that good-bad art is always produced unintentionally, and they explicitly separate it from the categories of camp and kitsch. I find this distinction unnecessary, and would argue that both camp and kitsch are subcategories of good-bad art. In my opinion, the main difference between camp and kitsch is that camp is intentionally bad, whereas kitsch is unintentionally bad, or it is bad because its creator’s only aim was to appeal to popular taste. According to Brown, “Camp is a sly celebration of bad taste and vulgarity from a position of privilege . . . kitsch is desirous of attaining true beauty, but inevitably unable to do so” (50). Whereas camp flaunts its cheesiness and melodrama as a sort of inside joke with its audience, kitsch contains no acknowledgement of its own badness; in fact, it seems that its creator is unaware of or apathetic toward the rest of the art world and artistic standards in general. It contains no wink and nudge for the viewer; any ironic enjoyment the viewer may experience is one-sided. Kitsch, in a word, is not self-aware. Once kitsch becomes self-aware, or if it is made with the intention of being seen as kitschy, then it is camp.

Though Solomon’s defense of kitsch is logical and well-intentioned, it fails to fully acknowledge kitsch’s ethical problems and artistic inadequacy. The underlying purpose of kitsch is purely financial; it is created with monetary gain in mind, and it therefore represents the dominion of consumerism. It also perpetuates anti-feminist thought by appearing as a stereotypical symbol of female ridiculousness. Kitsch lacks both self-awareness and artistic quality, hence these ethical flaws are not justified. In the end, it is impossible to determine whether or not the production of kitsch is seriously unethical, and it is equally impossible to erase it from the world. However, it seems safe to say that kitsch, though it may be an interesting or even necessary contribution to culture, is not a fundamentally positive one.

 

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. StanfordUniversity Press, 1988, pp. 166-184.

Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. “Kitsch and Bullshit.” Philosophy & Literature, vol. 39, no. 2, Oct. 2015, pp. 305-321. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hus&AN=115185214&site.

Brown, Stephanie. “On Kitsch, Nostalgia, and Nineties Femininity.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 22, no. 3, 2000, pp. 39–54., www.jstor.org/stable/23414521.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Postmodernism. Duke University Press, 1987.

Canby, Vincent. “‘A Clockwork Orange: Disorienting But Human Comedy.”9 Jan. 1972. Rev. of A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick. The New York Times Online. Web.

Dyck, John and Matt Johnson. “Appreciating Bad Art.” Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 51, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 279-292.

Irazábal, Clara. “Kitsch is Dead, Long Live Kitsch: The Production of ‘Hyperkitsch’ in Las Vegas.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 199–223., www.jstor.org/stable/43030803.

“Kitsch” Def. 1 and 2. Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2017.

“Kitsch” Def. 1. OED Online. Oxford University Press, n.d. 13 Sept. 2017.

Kulka, Tomas. “Kitsch.” British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 28, no. 1, Winter88, p. 18. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/

Solomon, Robert C. “On Kitsch and Sentimentality.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, no. 1, 1991, p. 1.

Alcoa Aluminum, 1953. “Beyond Belief: Shocking vintage adverts from the ‘Golden Age.'” The Telegraph. 24 Dec 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/goodlife/living/beyond-belief-shocking-vintage-adverts-from-the-golden-age/alcoa-aluminium/