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Kitsch is a term of German or Yiddish origin that has been
used to categorize art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of
an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to
any art that is pretentious to the point of being in bad taste, and also
commercially produced items that are considered trite or crass.
Because the word was brought into use as a response to a large amount
of art in the 19th century where the aesthetic of art work was
associated with a sense of exaggerated sentimentality or melodrama,
kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however,
it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar
reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical,
or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial
appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely
repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and
originality displayed in genuine art.
Though its precise etymology is uncertain, it is widely held that
the word originated in the Munich art markets of the 1860s and ’70s,
used to describe cheap, hotly marketable pictures or sketches (the English
term mispronounced by Germans, or elided with the German dialect verb
kitschen that originally meant "to scrape up mud from the street" or "to
smear"). In "Das Buch vom Kitsch", Hans Reimann refers to kitsch as a
professional expression "born in a painter`s studio". A writer like
Edward Koelwel rejects that Kitsch is derived from the English word
"sketch", pointing to how the sketch was still not in vogue. He argues
that Kitsch pictures quite the contrary were highly finished paintings
(See "References and further reading"). Kitsch appealed to the crass
tastes of the newly moneyed Munich bourgeoisie who allegedly thought
they could achieve the status they envied in the traditional class of
cultural elites by aping, however clumsily, the most apparent features
of their cultural habits.
The word eventually came to mean "a slapping together" (of a work of
art). Kitsch became defined as an aesthetically impoverished object of
shoddy production, meant more to identify the consumer with a newly
acquired class status than to invoke a genuine aesthetic response.
Kitsch was considered aesthetically impoverished and morally dubious,
and to have sacrificed aesthetic life to a pantomime of aesthetic life,
usually, but not always, in the interest of signalling one’s class
However, there is a philosophical background to kitsch criticism
which is largely ignored. An exception is Gabrielle Thuller, pointing to
how kitsch criticism is based on Immanuel Kant`s philosophy of
aesthetics. Kant describes the direct appeal to the senses as
”barbaric”. Thuller`s point is supported by Mark A. Cheetham, who points
out that kitsch ”is his [Clement Greenberg`s] barbarism”. A source book
on texts critical of kitsch underlines this by including excerpts from
Kant´s and Schiller`s writings (issued by Reclam publishing company).
(For book references, see beneath.) One thus has to keep in mind two
things: 1) Kant`s enormous influence on the concept of ”fine art” (the
focus of Cheetham`s book), as it came into being in the mid to late 18th
century, and 2) how ”sentimentality” or ”pathos” (defining traits of
kitsch) do not find room within Kant`s ”aesthetical indifference”. Kant
also identified genius with originality. One could say he was implicitly
rejecting kitsch, the presence of sentimentality and the lack of
originality being the main accusations against it. This stands in stark
contrast to f. ex. the Baroque period, when a painter was hailed for his
ability to imitate other masters (one such imitator being Luca
Giordano). Another influential philosopher on fine art was G. W. F.
Hegel, emphasizing the idea of the artist belonging to the spirit of his
time (”Zeitgeist”). As an effect of these aesthetics, working with
emotional and ”unmodern” (or ”archetypical”) motifs was referred to as
kitsch from the second half of the 19th century on. Kitsch is thus
necessarily seen as ”false”.
As Thomas Kulka writes, ”the term kitsch was originally applied
exclusively to paintings”, but it soon spread to other disciplines such
as music. The term has been applied to painters such as Ilja Repin
(Clement Greenberg, ”Avantgarde and Kitsch”), and composers such as
Tschaikovskij, whom Hermann Broch refers to as ”genialischer kitsch”, or
”kitsch of genius”. (Also referred to in: Theodor Adorno, ”Musikalische
Warenanalysen” and Carl Dahlhaus, ”Über musikalischen Kitsch”.
Avant-garde and kitsch
The word was popularized in the 1930s by the theorists Theodor Adorno,
Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, who each sought to define
avant-garde and kitsch as opposites. To the art world of the time, the
immense popularity of kitsch was perceived as a threat to culture. The
arguments of all three theorists relied on an implicit definition of
kitsch as a type of false consciousness, a Marxist term meaning a
mindset present within the structures of capitalism that is misguided as
to its own desires and wants. Marxists imagine there to be a disjunction
between the real state of affairs and the way that they phenomenally
Adorno perceived this in terms of what he called the "culture
industry," where the art is controlled and formulated by the needs of
the market and given to a passive population which accepts it—what is
marketed is art that is non-challenging and formally incoherent, but
which serves its purpose of giving the audience leisure and something to
watch. It helps serve the oppression of the population by capitalism by
distracting them from their alienation. Contrarily, art for Adorno is
supposed to be subjective, challenging, and oriented against the
oppressiveness of the power structure. He claimed that kitsch is parody
of catharsis, and a parody of aesthetic experience.
Broch called kitsch "the evil within the value-system of art"—that
is, if true art is "good," kitsch is "evil." While art was creative,
Broch held that kitsch depended solely on plundering creative art by
adopting formulas that seek to imitate it, limiting itself to
conventions and demanding a totalitarianism of those recognizable
conventions. Broch accuses kitsch of not participating in the
development of art, having its focus directed at the past, and Greenberg
speaks of its concern with previous cultures. (Seeing this as something
negative is obviously a result of the influence of Kant`s idea of
originality and Hegel`s Zeitgeist theory on the concept of ”fine art” -
and quite the opposite of the Renaissance mindset. Michelangelo, f. ex.,
started his career by making a fake ”antique” Cupid, as Rona Goffen
recounts in ”Renaissance Rivals”.). To Broch, kitsch was not the same as
bad art; it formed a system of its own. He argued that kitsch involved
trying to achieve “beauty” instead of “truth” and that any attempt to
make something beautiful would lead to kitsch. Consequently, he opposes
the Renaissance (trying to win over death through a ”heathen” and life
celebraing attitude - equivalent to kitsch) to Protestantism, with its
ascetic tendencies (equivalent to art).
Greenberg held similar views to Broch, concerning the beauty/truth
division; believing that the avant-garde arose in order to defend
aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer
society, and seeing kitsch and art as opposites. He outlined this in his
essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." One of his more controversial claims was
that kitsch was equivalent to Academic art: "All kitsch is academic, and
conversely, all that is academic is kitsch." He argued this based on the
fact that Academic art, such as that in the 19th century, was heavily
centered in rules and formulations that were taught and tried to make
art into something learnable and easily expressible. He later came to
withdraw from his position of equating the two, as it became heavily
criticized. While it is true that some Academic art might have been
kitsch, not all of it is, and not all kitsch is academic.
Other theorists over time have also linked kitsch to totalitarianism.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of
Being (1984), defined it as "the absolute denial of shit." He wrote that
kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find
difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of
the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any
In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of
real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with
totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete
and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable
consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including
individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order
for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single
political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of
totalitarian kitsch." (One should, however, keep in mind the observation
of Boris Groys, 2004: ”Art is originally propaganda for itself,
consequently it can effortlessly be used as propaganda for something
else: as political propaganda...” – from Haus der Kunst-News, 18. July
2007. Groys is professor für Kunstwissenschaft, Philosophie und
Medientheorie at the Hochschule für gestaltung, Karlsruhe).
For Kundera, "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession.
The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The
second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by
children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch
Nineteenth century academic art is still often seen as kitsch, though
this view is coming under attack from modern critics. Broch argued that
the genesis of kitsch was in Romanticism, which wasn’t kitsch itself but
which opened the door for kitsch taste, by emphasizing the need for
expressive and evocative art work. Academic art, which continued this
tradition of Romanticism, has a twofold reason for its association with
It is not that it was found to be accessible—in fact, it was under
its reign that the difference between high art and low art was first
defined by intellectuals. Academic art strove towards remaining in a
tradition rooted in the aesthetic and intellectual experience.
Intellectual and aesthetic qualities of the work were certainly
there—good examples of academic art were even admired by the avant-garde
artists who would rebel against it. There was some critique, however,
that in being "too beautiful" and democratic it made art look easy,
non-involving and superficial. According to Tomas Kulka, any academic
painting made after the time of academism, is kitsch by nature.
Many academic artists tried to use subjects from low art and ennoble
them as high art by subjecting them to interest in the inherent
qualities of form and beauty, trying to democratize the art world. In
England, certain academics even advocated that the artist should work
for the marketplace. In some sense the goals of democratization
succeeded, and the society was flooded with Academic art, the public
lining up to see art exhibitions as they do to see movies today.
Literacy in art became widespread, as did the practice of art making,
and there was a blurring between high and low culture. This often led to
poorly made or poorly conceived artworks being accepted as high art.
Often art which was found to be kitsch showed technical talent, such as
in creating accurate representations, but lacked good taste.
Secondly, the subjects and images presented in academic art, though
original in their first expression, were disseminated to the public in
the form of prints and postcards—which was often actively encouraged by
the artists—and these images were endlessly copied in kitschified form
until they became well known clichés.
The avant-garde reacted to these developments by separating itself
from the aspects of art such as pictorial representation and harmony
that were appreciated by the public, in order to make a stand for the
importance of the aesthetic. Many modern critics try not to pigeonhole
academic art into the kitsch side of the art/kitsch dichotomy,
recognizing its historical role in the genesis of both the avant-garde
With the emergence of Postmodernism in the 1980s, the borders between
kitsch and high art became blurred again. One development was the
approval of what is called "camp taste." Camp refers to an ironic
appreciation of that which might otherwise be considered corny, such as
singer/dancer Carmen Miranda with her tutti-frutti hats, or otherwise
kitsch, such as popular culture events which are particularly dated or
inappropriately serious, such as the low-budget science fiction movies
of the 1950s and 60s. A hypothetical example from the world of painting
would be a kitsch image of a deer by the lake. In order to make this
Camp, one could paint a sign beside it, saying "No Swimming". The
majestical or romantic impression of a stately animal would be punctured
through humour; the notion of an animal receiving a punishment for the
breach of the rule is patently ludicrous. The original, serious
sentimentality of the motif is neutralized, and thus it becomes Camp.
Kitsch is never ironic. "Camp" is derived from the French slang term
camper, which means "to pose in an exaggerated fashion." Susan Sontag
argued in her 1964 Notes on "Camp" that camp was an attraction to the
human qualities which expressed themselves in "failed attempts at
seriousness," the qualities of having a particular and unique style and
of reflecting the sensibilities of the era. It involved an aesthetic of
artifice rather than of nature. Indeed, hard-line supporters of camp
culture have long insisted that "camp is a lie that dares to tell the
Pop Art attempted to incorporate images from popular culture
and kitsch; artists were able to maintain legitimacy by saying they were
"quoting" imagery to make conceptual points, usually with the
appropriation being ironic. In Italy, a movement arose called the Nuovi
Nuovi ("new new"), which took a different route: instead of quoting
kitsch in an ironic stance, it founded itself in a primitivism which
embraced the ugliness and garishness, emulating it as a sort of
Happening, Performance Art and deconstruction posed as interesting challenges,
because, like kitsch, they downplayed the formal structure of the
artwork in favor of elements which enter it by relating to other spheres
Despite this, many in the art world continue to have an adherence to
some sense of the dichotomy between art and kitsch, excluding all
sentimental and realistic art from being considered seriously. This has
come under attack by critics who argue for a reappreciation of Academic
art and traditional figurative painting, without the concern for it
appearing innovative or new. As in the surreal and figurative paintings
of Lawrence Hollien.
A different approach is taken by the Norwegian
Odd Nerdrum, who in 1998 for the first time argued for kitsch as
a positive term, and a superstructure for figurative, non-ironic and
narrative painting. In 2000, together with several other authors, he
composed a book entitled “On Kitsch,” where they advocate the concept of
"Kitsch" as a more correct name than "Art" on this type of painting. As
a result of this, an increasing number of figurative painters are
referring to themselves as "Kitsch painters", f. ex. through the web
site worldwidekitsch.com. This site is also responsible for the
exhibition "The Kitsch Biennale".
In any case, whatever difficulty there is in defining its boundaries
with art, the word "kitsch" is still in common usage to label anything
felt in bad taste.
The concept of the "kitsch-man"
The term "kitsch-man" (or Kitschmensch, coined by Broch) refers to an
individual who compulsively metamorphoses all of his aesthetic
experiences into kitsch, regardless of whether the work of art concerned
is good or bad. Whenever the kitsch-man contemplates art, it always
involves the adoption of a particular viewpoint, a perspective swamped
with the vicarious and the sentimental. When the kitsch-man encounters a
genuine artwork and its kitsch replica (e.g. a twelve-inch copy of
Michaelangelo’s pieta in plaster) the response elicited will be no
different. Pathos is projected onto genuine works of art, transforming
art from the past into objects of sentimentality. Even nature is not
immune to kitsch under the apprehension of the kitsch-man, in particular
those components of nature that have endured kitsch portrayals to the
extent that they have become hackneyed. A sunset, for example, could too
closely resemble its representation in cheap paintings or "romantic"
films; here the kitsch-man makes natural occurrences seem "false."
In his ”Phenomenology of kitsch”, Ludwig Giesz deals almost
exclusively with this topic, seeking the anthropological background for
kitsch. In this process he refers to Saint Augustin, who is shocked by
his own enthusiasm while attending the performance of a Greek tragedy.
The more the characters suffer, the more joy the audience (and
previously himself) feels. If the plot is not gripping, everyone goes
home disappointed. This would imply that the dichotomy between kitsch
man (the rest of the audience) and ”art man” (Saint Augustin) is an
One of the first painters that served as a demonstrative example of
kitsch is the Hungarian
Despised by the art world, he was
nevertheless loved by the people. He became famous for his numerous
variations of the Gipsy Girl, where he painted exotic looking Gypsies in
Pin-Up style, and for sentimental portraits of children with their pet
A modern example of a painter considered by most art critics and
academics to be producing kitsch, but who has a loyal following that
generally does not claim artistic sophistication, is the commercially
Thomas Kinkade, who brands himself the "Painter of
Light" and claims to be the United States’ "most collected living
artist." Kinkade paints scenes of stone cottages, lighthouses, cobble
stone streets, rustic villages, and other vistas, with emphasis on the
glittery ornamentation in the play of light and natural foliage. His
work is meant to be sentimental, patriotic, quaint, spiritual, and
inspirational. In the United Kingdom the artist Maggi Hambling is
considered by many to be an unconscious exponent of
kitsch, with the coffin-like Oscar Wilde memorial and the controversial
Scallop sculpture (however, Hambling’s portraits of the dying Henrietta
Moraes escape such critical accusation).
Perhaps the closest British
equivalent of Kinkade is the kitsch painter
Jack Vettriano. A common
characteristic of kitsch criticism is that it, somewhat inorganically,
classifies all kitsch as simply bad, not distinguishing between
different levels of quality. Some would also argue that most of the
examples sited in this section are not really kitsch, but Camp, or at
least embraced with a Camp mentality (”it`s cool because it`s so bad”).
In Vettriano`s case, his commenting treatment of popular culture images
derive his paintings of the emotional sincerity which signifies kitsch.
Several Dogs Playing Poker paintings produced in the early 20th
C. M. Coolidge are famous examples of kitsch.
A painter classified as making kitsch is Margaret Keane, who worked
in the ’50s and ’60s, painting mostly portraits of waif children; but
whether her subject was child, adult, or animal, all of her pictures had
very large, staring eyes that always directly faced the viewer.
Another painter who is commonly used as an example of kitsch is the
Boris Vallego, born in Peru. His painting involves
muscular heroes, voluptuous ladies, and monsters, all depicted in a
Fantastic Art setting. Vallejo’s works and similar ones are often painted on
the sides of vans and featured in calendars. Critics of his paintings
find them garish and gaudy in similar ways to Siegfried and Roy shows in
The works of
Frank Frazetta have sometimes been identified as kitsch,
but that classification has been disputed and is a matter of sometimes
David Ligare and
Bev Doolittle are good examples of the extent of kitsch.
is an American artist whose work incorporates kitsch imagery using
painting, sculpture, and other forms, often in large scale.
Velvet paintings, which are widely sold in rural U.S. usually have
kitsch themes. They often depict images of Dale Earnhardt, John Wayne,
Jesus, Native Americans, Cowboys, or Elvis Presley (known as a Velvet
Elvis). One example of a kitsch velvet painting features an 18-wheel
truck driving through the night with a ghostly image of Jesus in the sky
watching protectively from above.
Some kitsch items, typically small statuettes, deviate from the
original concept, such as a Santa Claus in biker garb riding a chopper.
Commonly, they can also be found bearing unrelated symbols, such as the
motorcycle Santa wearing Green Bay Packers colors and logo.
The musicians whose work may be considered kitsch are Stockholm
Syndrome, Creed, Kid Rock, , Modern Error, and Telekinesis for
Cats. The Eurovision Song Contest is considered by some
to be an example of kitsch. One could also consider
such music to be examples of the closely related concept of camp.
Las Vegas is considered by many the pinnacle of architectural kitsch
in the world, and may be used as good example of how luxury and kitsch
can be together. 1959 Cadillacs also seem to illustrate this.
The plastic pink flamingo lawn icon, popularized in the 1950s, has
been reviled as kitschy bad taste or revered as retro cool.
These are only strong, defining examples of what art purists refer to
as kitsch—many would say that it saturates all popular culture, and some
would equate popular culture and kitsch as being one and the same; as
Clement Greenberg remarked, kitsch is "all that is spurious in the life
of our times" (from "Avantgarde and Kitsch", in Greenberg 1989).