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Kitsch is defined as form of art that is considered to be inferior or tasteless when compared to other forms of art in the same category. Kitsch is also a worthless imitation of a piece of art that has a more recognizable value than the poor imitation. It refers to the forms of art that are deficient in their aesthetics.
The concept of kitsch is associated with the mass production of objects that are cheap and unoriginal meaning they lack any creativity and sentimental value. The term kitsch has been considered derogatory because it denotes art forms that have been produced to meet consumer demands without any artistic or creative input. The concept has also been used to describe art forms that represent the pretentious and shallow aspect of art elements instead of considering the genuine artistic expression.
The purpose of the essay will be to discuss the concept of kitsch by looking at Binkley’s and Calinescu’s contrasting theories on the aspect of kitsch. The question that is under assessment is a quote made by Binkley in his 2000 work on kitsch as a repetitive system. Binkley proposed that “Kitsch tucks us in making a home in the repetitive fabric of imitative cultural objects” (Binkley 2000).
This means that kitsch art forms have become a part of our lives so much that they represent a part of the society’s cultural values and beliefs. Calinescu argued that the repetitive nature of kitsch addressed a general problem that existed in the modern society.
The essay will cover the historic aspect of kitsch as well as involve a discussion of Binkley and Calinescu’s varied theories of kitsch. Kitsch is an interesting topic as it represents an art form that has become a common fixture in most of our homes. Kitsch art forms such as garden gnomes, lawn ornaments, and other less artistic statues have become common features in most households around the world.
History of Kitsch
The concept of kitsch originated in the 1860s and 70s from the art markets of Munich in Germany. The term was used to describe cheap and popular pictures and sketches that were sold in the popular markets which were mostly frequented by the newly moneyed society of Munich.
These group of people thought that they could achieve an enviable status in society by acquiring kitsch art forms to elevate their status in society. Kitsch in the Munich society later came to be described as an aesthetically impoverished object that was designed and produced in a shoddy manner. This poor artistic workmanship was meant to provide the consumer with a newly acquired social status (Kulka 2002).
Herman Broch, Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg were theorists who studied the concept of kitsch during the 1930s. Kitsch art forms were seen to be a threat to the art world that existed during that time because they threatened the cultural aspects of the society.
Kitsch art forms were described by most of the theorists to lack any cultural aspects or cultural background in their form. The three theorists based their arguments on kitsch on Marxist views which described kitsch to be a mindset that existed within the structures of capitalism. The presence of these structures misguided the needs, desires and expectations of the society (Kulka 2002).
Marxist views described kitsch as artwork that represented the various disjunctions that existed between real world affairs and how these affairs were meant to be represented in the artwork. Adorno explained this Marxist view by stating that kitsch formed a cultural industry where the various kitsch art forms were controlled and formulated by the demands of the market that mostly consumed this type of artwork.
He argued that original art had to be oriented against the subjective and challenging structure of power that existed within a society, a concept which kitsch did not conform to. Broch defined kitsch to be a form of art that corrupted the value system of art. He saw kitsch art to be an evil form of art given that art was ‘’good’’. Broch’s argument was based on the fact that normal art relied on the self expression and creativity of the artist.
Kitsch art on the other hand relied on adopted ideas that were used in the original art forms, thereby imitating the concepts of these original forms of art. Broch further criticised kitsch by saying that it did not contribute to the development of art since it was mostly focused on producing art forms that lacked any form of creativity and artistic self expression (Kulka 2002).
Broch’s arguments were not meant to portray kitsch as bad art but as art forms that were in a class of their own. Kitsch was mostly meant to portray beauty in art instead of truth in art forms. Greenberg held similar views to those of Bosch where he supported Broch’s assertion that kitsch mostly concentrated on beauty instead of on truth. Greenberg developed an essay known as the Avant-Garde and Kitsch which portrayed his views and those of other real artists on kitsch.
The avante-garde movement arose to discredit this form of art which did not follow the aesthetic standards of achieving taste and truthfulness in art forms. Greenberg made a controversial argument by equating kitsch to academic forms of art which were mostly based on rules and formulations meant to change art into an easy and learnable concept. He later withdrew this argument due to mounting criticisms from academic scholars who argued that not all academic art was kitsch in nature (Greenberg 1961).
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Greenberg was not the only theorist who viewed academic art as a form of kitsch. Broch argued that kitsch had its foundations from romanticism which was mostly based on academic art. Romanticism was mostly focused on creating art forms that evoked certain emotions on the part of the viewer as well as express a certain idea or expression.
Academic art used the basis of romanticism in developing creations which in a way led to it being viewed as a form of kitsch. The main goal or purpose of academic art was to focus on the aesthetic and intellectual experience of creativity and self-expression which was mostly used in creating original pieces of art. Some avant-garde artists even came to accept some forms of academic art as original artwork before they came to rebel against it (Greenberg, 1961).
Avante-garde’s rebellion of academic art came from the fact that most of the forms were too beautiful and looked too easy to be considered genuine pieces of art which made them to be more of kitsch. Kulka (2002) supported these views by stating that any academic painting that was made after the academic art period was kitsch in nature.
Many academic artists tried to incorporate low art subjects into their work and later stating that their work was high art. This was seen as a process of democratizing the art world which eventually took place resulting in huge amounts of academic art flooding the market.
Academic art work became publicised around the world and many people saw these forms to be the original pieces of truth and beauty in the art world. The literacy in art work became widespread as more and more academic artists produced many artistic works that made it difficult to differentiate between low and high end art.
This blurred differentiation saw the creation of poor art works that were deemed to be high end art works. Such art forms lacked any artistic talent or any forms of creativity, truthfulness and self expression which were the main characteristics used to define genuine pieces of art. Kitsch art lacked any talent whatsoever as it mostly represented inaccurate facts about reality as explained by Milan Kindera.
The objects used in academic art were usually relayed to the public in the form of picture prints or postcards that allowed for the copying of these images by various artists, a practice that led to kitsches to become well known clichés. The avante-garde movement of artists responded to these developments by rebelling against any forms of art that were identified to be duplicated or copied.
They viewed these forms of art that were at the time receiving a lot of recognition and praise from the public as lacking aesthetic value and originality (Binkley 2000). Other theorists who contributed to the kitsch debate included Milan Kindera who viewed kitsch to be a representation of art that excluded everything that human beings did not want to deal with such as sadness, fear, anger or guilt.
Kundera wrote a book in 1984 referred to as the ‘’the unbearable lightness of being’’ which stated that kitsch offered human beings with a safer version of the world, excluding any forms of evil or immorality that existed during that time. This type of art work was therefore seen to be in contradiction to the real world, presenting an unrealistic view of the world.
Because of this view, Kundera likened kitsch to totalitarianism where in a healthy society, the diverse interests of the society’s members competed with those of others. This competition in the end led to an acceptable consensus between the competing parties. Such views were seen to infringe on the foundation of kitsch which was focused more on individualistic and ironic art forms. Kundera later came up with the conclusion that political movements created situations of totalitarianism kitsch (Binkley 2000).
The period of postmodernism in the 80s saw the development of a camp culture which appreciated art forms in an ironic way. This culture appreciated kitsch art that was viewed in avante-garde circles to be corny or distasteful. An example of camp art would be the drawing of a deer drinking water in a lake. For it to be considered as camp art it would have to contain a caption at the end that says ‘No Swimming’. This statement would add an element of humour or corniness to an otherwise beautiful picture (Kulka 2002).
Binkley’s Concept of Kitsch
Binkley saw the industrial revolution as the major influencer of kitsch art in the industrialised and modern world. He noted that the spread of commercial culture in the middle class society presented a differentiation between the moral and political dimensions of the society.
This was initiated by the mass production of goods during the industrial period which was mostly marked with art items that lacked any aesthetic value. Even the low income customers were able to afford some form of artwork because of the mass produced goods. Binkley labelled such mass produced goods to be kitsch in nature because they were mostly cheap imitations of original design.
These products were also designed to act as luxury products which even the lower members of the society could afford to buy. Binkley (2000) identified the kitsch goods to be items such as glass beaded jewellery that was meant to resemble diamond jewelleries, fake-gilded furniture, oil paintings that were duplicated or imitated, postcards that had painting imitations, miniature copies of ancient statues and highly ornate candelabras.
The most common kitsch goods in the modern societies are greeting cards that contain original art work imagery. Greeting cards have been extended into the personal, societal and organizational lives since they mostly function as a means of providing excitement. Their portrayal of the various human feelings and emotions has made them to be notable kitsch art forms.
Binkley further noted that the continued rise of kitsch art had been blamed on the erosion of high end art as well as the depletion of moral standards within the society. High and low art culture became very similar where high culture consumers were more critical and creative in their reception of goods while low art culture customers were concerned with purchasing creatively designed art forms.
The high and low culture was later replaced in the 1970s when Herbert Gans developed the taste culture that was used to describe the creative freedoms that were being distributed between the high and low art cultures.
Gans developed the taste culture to dispel the high and low distinction that existed in the art world during the 1970s. The implicit aesthetic, moral and political criteria that were used to differentiate between high and low art during this time made it difficult to determine which forms of art work could be identified as kitsch (Binkley 2000).
Binkley (2000) did not agree with Broch’s, Greenberg’s and Adorno’s views that described kitsch as an imitation of higher styles of art. These theorists also described kitsch to be less inferior as it lacked the creativity and innovation that was usually found in the high end art styles. Binkley’s views were against these arguments as he saw kitsch to be a unique and distinct form of art that mostly celebrated conventionality and the repetitive nature of kitsch forms.
He focused his arguments on the nature of kitsch art forms which were mostly based on repetition rather than innovation. He also focused on the preference for repetitive formulas and conventions instead of originality and experimentation. Binkley argued for kitsch by stating that it preserved the unique aesthetic standards that were used in creating kitsch art forms while at the same time promoting the repetition of a familiar piece of work (Binkley 2000).
The three repetitive features of kitsch as identified by Binkley (2000) included the imitation of other cultural products, the aesthetic value of kitsch and the sentimental value that has been placed on kitsch by the society. The first feature described kitsch to be an emulation of other creative art forms while the second feature described kitsch to a decorative aspect of our everyday lives.
Everyone around the world has a kitsch art form that is used to achieve some aesthetic value in their lives. Kitsch provides pleasure and repetition to its consumers as these elements are important in providing comfort and security in their lives. The third feature which focused on the sentimental value of kitsch viewed these art forms as a means of expressing different feelings such as joy, sadness, anger and sorrow (Binkley 2000).
In his support of kitsch, Binkley saw kitsch to be an embedded condition of daily life where freedom and creativity were used in kitsch work to provide a reassurance of societal traditions and beliefs. Modern societies were characterised to have some form of embeddedness that allowed for the incorporation of uncertainties and habits into the social fabric that held the society together.
His view of embeddedness differed from that of Anthony Giddens who saw disembedded institutions to be the root of all evil in the society. According to Giddens, these institutions uprooted individuals from their protective environments making it difficult for them to interact with other social members in the society (Binkley 2000).
The disembedded modern societies confronted individuals who made unprecedented choices in consumer goods as well as ethical outlooks on life. These societies undermined conventionality with the promise of creative freedom where individuals were encouraged to pursue their own creativity without having to compromise to conventionality.
This creative freedom was however accompanied by many risks and dangers that existed in the disembedded society. Giddens came up with the term ontological security which described the disembedded nature of societal practices and routines. Giddens described disembeddedness to be the removal of social relations and routines from the local context (Binkley 2000).
Binkley’s argument of embeddedness was that it glorified kitsch art in because it focused on routines that were repetitive and conventional in nature. Embeddedness also rooted itself in the aspects that took place in daily life by focusing itself on replenishing stocks for ontological security and provide a sense of stability in an increasingly uncertain world.
Binkley further argued that kitsch agreed with the aesthetic sensibilities of human beings in societal institutions since it appealed more to their sentimental values. He also argued that kitsch advanced repetitiveness, security and comfort instead of innovativeness, creativity and uncertainty.
Kitsch provided consumers with the reassurance that the art forms produced would be similar to those that were produced before thereby providing a sense of familiarity and comfort. He viewed innovation and creativity to be hazards that created uncertain and unsafe environments (Binkley 2000).
Binkley developed a theory of kitsch that incorporated interpretive sensitivity as well as well as the mass culture theory of kitsch. Binkley’s theory was based on his perception that creativity and innovation had been incalculated by many theorists to be the most acceptable elements of producing original artistic works.
This led to the celebration of the consumer who embraced creativity obscuring the kitsch consumer. The mass culture theory eliminated the important dimensions that were needed in the cultural consumption of art forms. In reverse, the mass culture theory proposed by Binkley celebrated the repetitions and deflection of creativity and innovation.
Calinescu’s View on Kitsch Art
Meiti Calinescu viewed kitsch art to be false in its aesthetic value. He described kitsch to present some form of meaningful art that was however false in its nature. He noted that most of the art was false and imitated rather than forged.
He described forgery as the illegal exploitation of the original piece of art for commercial or personal purposes while kitsch’s falsehood nature was mostly focused on legally exploiting the original piece of art. According to Calinescu, the deceptive nature of kitsch art had some elements that were similar to forgery which deceived consumers that the same kinds of qualities that were present in the unique or inaccessible pieces of original art work existed in the kitsch.
Kitsch art basically pretended to provide the consumer with fake goods that claimed to be high in aesthetic value. Calinescu further argued that kitsch provided instant beauty instead of well nurtured artistic beauty that was usually captured in the original forms of art work (Calinescu 1987).
Calinescu also argued that kitsch demonstrated a certain amount of fallacy or falsehood that betrayed the imitation and repetition foundation on which it was based on. He noted that artists who developed kitsch art held a naïve belief that the piece of art work they were creating would be used to inject some exceptionality and uniqueness in the developing art world. Calinescu viewed the kitsch to be emulative and repetitive even during their most ambitious stage. Kitsch was also consumed on a daily basis expressing the sentimentality aspect of the kitsch features.
Calinescu further pointed out that kitsch art failed the test of being autonomous and unique. It was also not free from any social interest and personal demands as it was created to satisfy consumer’s expectations. Kitsch disengaged itself from the challenges and problems of everyday life by producing goods that mostly focused on the positive side of life. This statement formed the basis of Calinescu’s theory which was referred to as the anti-elitist availability theory (Calinescu 1987)
Binkley’s Criticism of Calinescu’s Theory
Binkley criticised Calinescu’s theory by stating that it lacked the grasp of the full implications that came with the anti-elitist availability of kitsch art work. Binkley criticised Calinescu by arguing that a copy of the original work was not a short cut that was used to create an identical piece of the original art work as was argued by Calinescu. Binkley saw kitsch forms to be more sincere rather than insincere and imitation to be repetition. He saw forgery to be a gesture of goodwill rather than illegal exploitation.
Binkley supported his views on kitsch by stating that it surpassed any bad taste in art work that was described by most of the theorists including Greenberg, Adorno and Broch. Kitsch according to Binkley rehabilitated its imitative and duplicative nature to be more humane and conventional. The use of Binkley’s mass produced theory changed the forged nature of kitsch forms into gestures of sincerity and self-conscious efforts that were directed towards appealing positively to the consumer (Binkley 2000).
Binkley also argued that kitsch transformed imitation into modesty, conventionality into faithfulness, the dependence on original formulas or ideas into straight forwardness and the conformance of prescribed rules of art work beauty to truthful resolutions of authenticity and self expression. Binkley’s argument in short meant that kitsch identified the various forms of embeddedness by linking it to repetitive conventions.
The above essay has shown the varied views and theories that exist on the concept if kitsch in the pre modern and post modernistic world. Binkley mostly viewed kitsch art to be a major aspect of everyday life as it added aesthetic and sentimental value to the society and its members.
Calinescu on the other hand viewed kitsch to be forged workmanship that exploited original forms of art work and presenting itself to be original and conventional. Binkley supported the question for this essay” Kitsch tucks us in making a home in the repetitive fabric of imitative cultural objects” when he concluded his argument by saying that kitsch responded to the needs and ontological security of the modern society.
Binkley, S. (2000) Kitsch as a repetitive system: a problem for the theory of taste hierarchy. Journal of Material Culture, Vol. 5, No 2, pp 131-152
Calinescu, M. (1987) Five Faces of Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Greenberg, C. (1961) ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Kulka, T. (2002) Kitsch and art. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press