A matter of taste, again…

February 7, 2011

Victory Arch - Iran/Iraq War .

Disgusting, vulgar, obscenely kitsch – some of the comments that are heard about Saddam Hussein’s Victor Arch, which is now being restored in Baghdad.  One scholar wrote an entire book on the subject of Saddam’s artistic output. [Edward Said felt that the author, Kanan Makiya, an erstwhile booster of the GWB invasion, had tainted motives for his critical tirade.]

One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room. Tolstoy had the same opinion of Napoleon as we have of Saddam, but Boney is a “great man,” and his monuments are gawked at with admiration and reverence by millions of civilized westerners

Napoleon celebrates Austerlitz


Everywhere at home??

October 31, 2009

The entrance to hell?

One of these days, I’m going to visit the strange Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, Italy. If I go, will I be greeted and led to the Hell’s Mouth by a sultry nymph with delightful long legs like this one?  Will my wife, and all my family obligations and history melt away, my middle age fly off to leave me youthful and desirable, my heightened emotions and vigor to be quenched in a unique, bizarre, erotic embrace within some weird grotto?

Not likely…This renaissance (Mannerist) oddity is nicely photographed and discussed in this fine book which I own.  I’ve known about the park for a very long time, but it seems that it was forgotten by Europe for centuries, until being rediscovered and somewhat restored by the efforts of Salvidor Dali and Mario Praz.  Popularity followed, and now it’s a “family destination” for tourists.

The image is from a catalog for Schneider’s of Austria, a clothing manufacturer, that was all shot in the garden.  What is going on here?  Their slogan is “Everywhere at home.”  This reminds me of the classic formulations of kitsch consciousness, i.e., that everywhere kitsch-man goes, everywhere he looks, he seems himself.  Thus, he is never open to new, genuine, experience.  Do I believe this?  Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

Fashion advertisement, and in this case, a pretty high-end, classy example of it, trades on all sorts of moods, half-understood cultural allusions, snobbisms, innovations, cultural quotes, etc. to endow the product, the look, with a feeling, a cachet.  Moody, hip, sophisticated, mannered, mysterious, cultured, refined and esoteric, sooo European…These are a few of the things this catalog has to say about Schneider’s clothes.  And you know what?  I buy it, all of it!  I want that raincoat I saw in Century 21!!  I’m a pretty unremarkable dresser, and I don’t think my appearance turns any heads, but I look at other people’s looks a lot.  Sometimes I become fixated on a woman’s coat, a man’s shoes, a purse, a pair of glasses…okay, it’s probably 80/20 when it comes to the time I spend on women/men – it’s not just fashion that catches my eye.

I’ve never been able to figure out or come to terms with exactly what is going on here.  It feels dreadfully superficial, even childish or stupid in a way.  On the other hand, it feels totally human and natural.  Does there have to be a moral evaluation involved?

I told my wife once about an incident when I was twenty years old, and I saw a Panama hat in a window of a shop in Europe during my summer travels there.  The “vision” of that hat stayed with me for days.  On the long train ride, I imagined myself wearing it in all sorts of situations – how it would make me feel all sorts of ways just by being on my head.  (Hats – the mediator of the man-sky interface.) She rolled her eyes.  That’s one reason I married her.  She keeps me somewhat tethered to reality.

Bring on La Maniera. Hail to La dolce vita!

bomarzo_turtle


Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

January 2, 2009

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

garden-gnome-pipe-9r pompier gerome-femmes-au-bain1179060145

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…

gillodorfles

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, kitsch_cheesecakebut 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.kitsch_jesus_king 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.

kitsch_figurines snowglobe 03souvenir

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!

alma_tadema_a_favourite_custom

As for this sort of academic art,  this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely   kitsch_bougcupidpunctures 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.


Accounting for taste

December 21, 2008

c_patton_crumb1

No accountin’ for taste, they say.  And music, it crosses all the boundaries.  Speaks a “universal language.”

I ain’t black, I ain’t poor, I ain’t religious, and I sure as hell can’t sing or play guitar, but I sure love this record! 

The cover is by Robert Crumb.


Matter of Taste

March 12, 2008

wieskirche_rococo_interior.jpg Vierzehnheiligen B. Neuman Amalienburg French Rococo in Munich

Rococo, la rocaille- is it an acquired taste? Most people who find out that I love this stuff, and all the decorative arts from this period, recoil in disgust. Have we lost our taste for ornament, one of the most elemental aesthetic delights? Are we all children of the machine age, the Bauhaus, Richard Meier?

2007_11_meier1.jpg

People seem to feel that rococo is somehow unclean, revolting, immoral in its exuberance. Such puritanism!

These examples are all Bavarian, one region that saw the light and imported the style from France with a gusto. The Wies Church is sober and clean on the exterior, sitting isolated in a rural landscape, but inside – an explosion! The space in Vierzehnheiligen practically writhes and pulsates with life, with faith, sensuality…ecstasy! The pavillion in the Nymphenburg palace known as the Amalienburg is an exquisite candybox jewel of a French interior.

I like Meier, Wiener Workstatte, Stickley, Sullivan – all that modern, craft, honesty-sincerity-functionality stuff, but can’t we have a little fun? Of course, the feminization of interior space is wonderful too…

I can’t resist posting this bit of over-the-top (tongue in cheek?) ranting by one of the great anti-ornamentists of the modern period, Adolf Loos (Ornament and Crime):

The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oars, in short, everthing within his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty percent of the prisoners are tattooed. The tattooed men who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies in freedom, then he has died just a few years before committing a murder. Man’s urge to ornament his face and everthing within his reach is the prime origin of the fine arts. It is the babblings of painting. All art is erotic.

Since the ornament is no longer organically connected with our culture, it is therfore no longer the expression of our culture…I have come to realize the following, which I have bestowed upon the world: evolution of cuture is equivalent to removing the ornament form the product…” The ornament created today had no connection with us, has no human connections at all, no connection with the world order. It is incapapble of development…The modern ornamenter, however, is a straggler or a pathological phenomenon. He himself rejects his own products after a scant three years. People of culture find them intolerable right away…

The ornamenter knows this well, and the Austrian ornamenters are attempting to take advantage of this situaltion. They say: “A consumer who finds his furnishings intolerable after ten years, and is thus forced to refurnish every ten years, is preferable to us than one who buys a new article when the old one is worn out. Industry demands this. Millions of people find employment as a result of this rapid change.”

~~~~~~~~ P.S. ~~~~~~~~~~~

Here is the Tony Millionare comic I mention in a comment below:

P.P.S.  A new note on matters of taste, here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers