When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.
-Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, 1868
I am a kitsch-man! Thirty years on, and it’s time to finally wrestle with the demon. Sorry in advance, but those of you with an interest in kitsch are used to long-winded posts, I’m sure.
As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on “Kitsch in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.” My advisor loved it; my second reader said “I should just go and be angry,” and that it wasn’t enough of an art history thesis. The chairman, following protocol when thesis reviewers disagreed strongly, knowing I was a refugee from the philosophy department, and trying to be helpful, gave it to the only philosopher in that coven of Anglo-American Empiricists who was interested in aesthetics, and he said it wasn’t enough of a philosophy thesis. So much for inter-disciplinary thinking. Well, I’m embarrassed to read it now anyway…
My interest in this topic was spurred by my encounter with the English version of this book by Gillo Dorfles while in high school. It’s an anthology of materials on the topic of kitsch – I was fascinated to find that the stuff had a name! I was particularly taken by the weighty Germanic metaphysical arguments of Herman Broch, especially when he posited kitsch as the anti-system to art. I love rhetorical absolutes! Seeing junk as part of an apocalyptic metaphysical wave, “vomiting over the entire world,” as one writer put it, I recall, appealed to my love of abstruse analytical reasoning and over-the-top ranting. I adopted this point of view with gusto in my thesis, arguing that kitsch was not just a consequence of mass production society, but embodied its inner metaphysical principle. Marx, Benjamin (obviously), Hegel, Adorno, Marcuse, Hauser, etc. etc…all grist for the mill.
At one point, I toyed with the idea of making the entire piece a philosophical meditation on the archetypal souvenir, the snow globe. As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man wrote…apropos of the falling snow… Why do those things fascinate so? The wonder of the miniature – a world in a world – a mini stage – the God-like perspective they confer on us – the urge to collect them? What is it!
The dominant position on kitsch for much of the intelligentsia was for a long time Clement Greenburg’s essay, Kitsch and the Avant Garde. He did soften his position against Academic Art in the end, but only a little. (Academic art, art of the establishment against which the avant garde, e.g. the Impressionists, rebelled was often referred to as l’art pompier, or pompier art. A pompier is a fireman, the late 19th century equivalent of our contemporary American Joe Sixpack, or the Hardhats of the 1970’s I guess.)
Greenburg’s position is about as absolute as they come: He knows art, and so he knows what kitsch is. It’s the opposite of art. Why did he get to decide on what is art? Tom Wolfe asked the same question in The Painted Word written during the 70’s. It’s a silly book, and Wolfe seems to think that whatever Greenburg wouldn’t have liked must be great art – a sort of anti-avant-gardism – so it really doesn’t clarify things. Greenburg’s view leads to conceptualism in many ways, although he was foreshadowed by Marcel Duchamp who uttered the remark in the early 20th century that “retinal art” was on the way out. (Was it he who said that the history of art was that of postage stamps?)
Sure, craft is important, I think, but that doesn’t mean that someone who can draw well is a great artist anymore than a calligrapher is a great author. Which leads me to my point, sort of…Why argue about what is ART and what isn’t? Let’s just agree that art is what artists make, and artists are those whom society regards as makers of art. Nicely circular – we’re not talking mathematics here. The question to ask is, “Is this art interesting in any way?” Thus, when I hear people in museums guffaw in front of stark white canvases and say, “This is art?” I think, “Yes, dear people, it is art, but it is very, very, boring art and I don’t blame you a bit for not wasting another second on it…”
Which leads us back to kitsch, which would never evoke that response. It always seems to be art. I would say, it is art, but not very good art. Why seek to cast it from the select club of Art – is it insecurity about the membership of those things we secretly admire? (This is what some call “guilty pleasures” , I think.) The critics of mass-cult from the 50’s and 60’s, e.g. Dwight McDonald seem to be simultaneously elitist snobs, weak-kneed inhabitants of the citadel of culture under siege by barbarians, and fanatic partisans issuing a frantic call to arms. To agree with them is to feel a member of a noble but doomed fighting band of brothers, bound to go down fighting the armies kitsch.
Of course, this sort of highfalutin criticism pertains only to work that is shown in fancy galleries and museums. Nobody seems to entertain much doubt about works like this masterpiece on velvet. We all love to sneer at them. Of course, if your seven year old child said he or she wanted it in their room would you tell them, “No, no, dear, nice people don’t have such things on their walls!” “But Daddy, I LIKE it..! ” (Ah yes, “doesn’t know much about art, but knows what she likes”…Why is that taken as the acme of philistinism? Isn’t the first step in appreciating art to know what you like?) Another course would be to sigh and say yes, and hope that eventually the child’s tastes will develop and change. And if they don’t, is there a moral stigma associated with it? For avant-gardists, there is always.
This moralism in aesthetics of the anti-kitsch avant garde comes through in many ways. Often it is deeply connected to sociological ideologies, such as the Marxist “false consciousness.” How does one have false consciousness? Isn’t one simply conscious…we hope? One can be in error, but false consciousness implies a sort of drugged state of deception in which simple-minded people or superficially educated ones are lulled into averting their eyes from the nasty realities of economic exploitation by cultural manipulation. There IS exploitation to be sure, but I’m not sure that people have a false consciousness about it as opposed to simply feeling that they can’t change it and therefore have no interest in the question…The highbrow avant-garde point of view is actually a variant on the eternal conspiracy theory mode of explanation, otherwise, of course, wouldn’t everyone just agree with us critics who see through it all?
And really, it’s hard for me to look at these classic pieces of kitsch and get all worked up about capitalist hegemony, culture of the dominant discourse, and the society of the spectacle.
I mean, it’s pretty harmless, and stupid at bottom, isn’t it? And do we really care how people decorate their living rooms? Must the personal always be political? Maybe David Hume was right, taste is just a matter of experience and education. We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist; we don’t have to surrender and say that everyone’s opinion is equal, but it is all relative in the end. People who just don’t care about aesthetic sophistication just don’t care – let them like what they like and let’s not get snooty about it. The world won’t end!
As for this sort of academic art, this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely punctures the pretensions of the oh-so-pure critics of academic kitsch. The discourse of kitsch critics is filled with assertions that kitsch does not present “real ideas,” or “genuine sentiments,” and that it is false, sentimental, too easy, too eager to please, too dependent on consumerism or the market, etc. These vague criticisms simply reveal the prejudices of the writers and just about all of them could be leveled against revered works of art in all or part. We paint with a pretty broad brush when we take this approach.
With the wall between art and mass-culture reduced to rubble long before the Berlin Wall, some people took umbrage against the puritan intellectualism, the cult of art, preached by the Greenburg-ites and his crew at The Partisan Review. Susan Sontag is among them, and her Notes on Camp was one of the early salvos in the internecine culture war of the intellectuals. She has been followed by the avalanche of material culture studies. Let me go on the record: I dislike Sontag, and I think her Notes is a piece of self-indulgent drivel. There, I said it. I am a snob as well as a kitschman!
Having trouble figuring out what I really think? This kitsch business opens up so many cans of worms! Let state it simply:
- I believe we create rational hierarchies of values based on our ideas of value, but these hierarchies are relative. If you reject my values, you reject my judgments.
- There is no way around this. The problem of taste and value is, at bottom, one variant on the question, “What is knowledge.” I do not believe that absolute definitions exist, but neither do I think astrology is as good as astronomy!
- The only way forward is to discuss, exchange ideas, argue, and test our ideas against one another’s. To say, “Well, that’s just my taste,” is to end the discussion. To assert that there is no way to build a bridge of common values between two differing critical systems. Most of the time, this is just bunk. On the other hand, in extreme cases, it may be just so.
- Cross-genre judgments are hazardous. Arguing that Goya is brilliant while Batman is junk is just stupid. The aesthetic arenas within which these two exist are different. First try and agree on whether or not Goya is a good painter, and Batman is a good comic. Then evaluate the aims of comics vs. Romantic painting. You may find out that it is pointless to try and compare the two.
- Intellectuals and normal people should be open minded enough to enjoy “good” work from all sorts of genres. Some call this “no-brow.” To me it’s just the mark of an educated and liberal-minded person.
My rant is done…for now.