Love of All Wisdom

Kitsch

by on Dec.08, 2013, under Aesthetics, Christianity, Modern Hinduism, Pleasure, Politics

baby KrishnaI cannot think very long about aesthetics without encountering the concept of kitsch. Perhaps doubly so now in the Christmas season (on which more in coming weeks), but in the rest of the year at all. One of the reasons I haven’t thought that much about aesthetics, I realize, is that I suspect most modern thinkers on the subject would consider many of my favourite artistic creations bad art – if they would consider them art at all. And the concept which would typically be used to describe them is kitsch: works with a lower-class popular appeal.

Among my favourite works of music are several power ballads of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which I enjoy non-ironically. In visual art, I love the bright Indian aesthetic in its popular manifestations: poster art of deities, temples covered in “Christmas” lights.

I even have a fondness for a certain painter whose work is enormously popular, yet near-universally reviled in art circles: the late Thomas Kinkade. One would strain credibility to deny that Kinkade’s works are kitsch. For those unfamiliar with them, Kinkade’s works depict human-built landscapes with no humans in them, filled with light in a pastel glow that often derives from a sunrise or a sunset. They are very well marketed and, I am told, not particularly original in style or content. They are, at the least, very pleasant to look at, very nice. But most discussions I’ve observed of Kinkade’s art, in print or in person, have been full of bile and contempt, to the point that I feel quite reluctant to admit my liking it in a public forum.

The interesting question is: why? It is a question to be asked on both sides. What is appealing about kitsch, like Kinkade’s art, and why does it arouse such hatred?

The most powerful critique of kitsch I know comes from the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in the sixth chapter of his philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. For Kundera, what kitsch expresses, effectively, is a refusal to face the problem of bad: “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” (248)

The problem with kitsch, for Kundera, is that what it depicts is false. In a Kinkade painting, nothing that is depicted is bad. It matters here that Kinkade was a devout Christian. Kundera introduces his discussion of kitsch as follows:

Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are theerefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being. (248, emphasis in original)

Kitsch, in turn, is “the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being”: it is a world in which everything bad is systematically excluded. Not merely the evil or even the ignorant, but the ugly and the disgusting, are all whitewashed away. The world depicted by kitsch cannot be the real world.

Kitsch is a fiction, then, but not merely that. That kitsch is fiction (and in that sense perhaps technically a lie) cannot itself be the problem (as was the case with the ethics of Santa). For Kundera, of course, is himself writing fiction – and in a way more self-aware and self-referential than most. But fiction, in telling us a story that did not happen, nevertheless typically tries to tell us something about the real world as well. Kundera’s objection to kitsch, as I understand it, is that not that the fictions it tells are themselves false, but that those fictions make false claims about the real world. And dangerously so, in that those fictions can be (and are) exploited by politicians on all sides.

If the issue is put in those terms, then the question of kitsch seems to come down to a basic philosophical question: truth or happiness? Kitsch buys happiness at the expense of truth. There is no question that kitsch is beautiful if one defines beauty simply as that which gives pleasure. (Which, in turn, leads to the claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.) But if that is so, many will quite reasonably object either to the definition of beauty, or to beauty itself thus defined. I have argued myself that there is more to life than pleasure.

But is that to say that pleasure should have no role in a good human life? That too is surely false. Even Kant, so often mocked as an advocate of austere misery, argued that it is a duty to preserve one’s own happiness; the ascetic Buddhists argue for their asceticism at least in part on the grounds that everyday life is dukkha, which has at least the connotation of unpleasure.

Kitsch makes at least one kind of happiness. For Kundera, it would seem, the cost of that happiness is too high – in truth and in politics. And I disagree with such an approach. The lesson of Indian kitsch is perhaps instructive here – perhaps above all in the aesthetic of smell (a phenomenon studied by my friend James McHugh). No visitor to modern India can escape noticing how strongly it smells – both good and bad. Incense and perfume fill the air, as do the delicious smells of street vendors’ food – and probably even more so, the smells of exhaust fumes and, indeed, of shit. It seems to me that there is much in popular Indian art that denies shit – but why shouldn’t it? The shit is all out there in the world around them. Why put it in the art?

In my view, truth and happiness are both goods in life. And for that reason I think there is a healthy place for kitsch – as long as kitsch stays in that place. By all means escape to a fantasy world where things are more pleasant, but don’t let this blind you to the real world. There’s nothing wrong with having a Kinkade on your wall – if another wall has a Bosch.

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7 Comments for this entry

  • Nika

    An interesting post this week! (I’ve been subscribed for a while now, reading them quietly to myself – I enjoy most of them a lot, but unfortunately I often just don’t have time to sit down to an engaged response).

    I have also thought about kitsch and aesthetics for a long time now, on and off, and I found that my feelings about kitsch are really uneven. There is kitsch I am able to enjoy and which seems to me “rather good kitsch” (if that’s a category at all), there is kitsch I am neutral about, and then there is kitsch that is, in my mind, absolutely vile and beyond absolution. I tend to agree with Kundera that kitsch is a denial and even a flattening of life – not only a denial of shit, but, it seems, a denial of extreme emotions more generally, such as extremes of pleasure, despair, or awe. This isn’t to say that I think people must confront themselves with emotional extremes on a daily basis (on the contrary; I don’t even think I have it in me to have Bosch on any wall in my house), but rather this is a comment on “what is art?” in the first place, and why some things we call “art” and other “kitsch”. Art moves, sometimes in uncomfortable ways; kitsch comforts, entertains, or fills up space. They have, essentially, both different forms and different functions, though of course, as will all categories, they are porous and can overlap.

    Then there is also the issue of mass-manufactured items, imitations, knock-offs, works of inferior technical skill, and so forth. The question of how a piece of art or music came about also plays into the kitsch/art divide, but to me these are murkier waters, because here one must talk about popular appeal, “elite” vs “non-elite” categories of assessment, subjectivity, and so on. Finally, on an individual level, items can have entirely idiosyncratic meanings. What is a kitsch to me (plastic statue of the Virgin Mary, badly made after a dull mould, for example), can be an experientially meaningful devotional item to someone. I thought about this because of the Krishna poster you’ve included in your post – and I am not sure that devotional posters (which are often used as icons on altars, etc) are either art or kitsch in quite the same way as Hallo Kitty is, or those endless figurines of angels and raindeer one encounters at Home Sense around Christmas-time.

    And finally, to complicate the discussion, where does “Pop Art” fall on this continuum between art and kitsch? I’m not too sure myself, to be honest. Is Andy Warhol kitsch or art? Is Jeff Koons kitsch or art? How about Takashi Murakami? (Personally, I am rather partial to the latter, neutral about Warhol, and dislike Koons, for reasons that are scarcely more complex than personal preference). I agree with you that kitsch certainly has its place, and this isn’t a “bad thing”. However, I am curious if one can delve deeper into the reasons what makes some kitsch “good” or “bad” (as much as art can be “good” or “bad”) and why one might react with greater openness to some kitsch and scorn other kitsch.

    All in all, lots of interesting things to think about before the holidays… thank you for this post. :)

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Nika. I agree with your reflections in general. I’m reluctant to make a divide between kitsch and art and to say that kitsch is not art… but to say any more would require me to define art, and I don’t think I’m prepared to do that yet. :)

  • Steven Schmidt

    My reactions to the Kinkade painting: 1. ok, but not particularly pleasant 2. It’s all too bright–but I do like some paintings that are all quite light or dark, e.g. by Malevich & Ligon 3. But in those cases there’s something interesting about the painting and the only thing interesting about the modulations of light & dark in the Kinkade painting is that it gave me the phrase “kitsch wrapped in darkness”. Other kitsch also has problems of flattening and too-muchness. Like cutesy images where many lines are just too round. The unoriginalness is a problem because there’s too much of these similarly exaggerated works. So I can tolerate the Indian deity posters & even have one, because I rarely see them. Kitsch is vulgar in that it’s more like exploiting a weakness people have in common than satisfying a need.

    • Steven Schmidt

      edit to last sentence: Kitsch can inspire anger because it seems vulgar: more like exploiting a weakness people have in common …

      • Amod Lele

        What is the difference between a weakness and a need? (Or, for that matter, between exploiting and satisfying?)

        To me “vulgar”, like “offensive”, is not necessarily a derogatory term; its use as such can seem to me like simple aristocratic snobbery. The same issue came up a while ago in discussions of convenience, which – just like kitsch – is a very middle-class pursuit. “Bourgeois”, as the miserable chain-smoking European intellectuals of the mid-20th century might have put it. I would rather be vulgar or bourgeois than be like them. In these days of ever-increasing wealth inequality, we could do worse than being middle-class.

        • Rachel O.

          I’m not sure that Kinkade falls into “kitsch”, which I interpret to have an element of cheap/widely available-ness to it (and that it is being denigrated for its popular appeal). The Kinkade “paintings” (canvas printouts that had been “texturized” with some paint in places) are sold by their manufacturer for thousands of dollars. I think that the business actually is trying to appeal to a snobbery (financial, not intellectual) that argues against the inclusion in the category. But just as I wouldn’t refer to a McMansion as “kitsch”, I wouldn’t use the term for Kinkade.

          At least the paintings. A teapot made to look like a Kinkade cottage? Sure! A Kinkade calendar? Seems reasonable. But the images standing by themselves don’t seem to quite fit the definition.

          • Amod Lele

            Thanks and welcome, Rachel. Sorry for the big delay, but I did want to respond to your interesting and thoughtful comments.

            I guess I don’t necessarily associate kitsch with cheap per se, more with something that gets accused of tastelessness because of its widespread availability and popular appeal. In the case of Kinkade, I suppose I don’t really even consider the actual expensive “texturized” paintings and so on when I’m thinking about his work because I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen one – I probably most often see them as web images like the one above.

            Interesting question whether McMansions count as kitsch, though. I think it would depend on the style of houses themselves. Probably not the ones in Lexington that aim to look like super-sized versions of traditional New England houses. But if the house featured a constantly flowing fountain lit up with cherubs around it, then yeah. I guess generally a nouveau riche aesthetic can be kitsch no matter how expensive it is.

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