KITSCH! Is it a cultural asset or just bad taste?

Dear Readers,

Some of you have been asking me to post a new article and I have listened. Here is a thought-provoking, tongue-and-cheek take on paradox thinking and cultural conundrums. I really loved putting it together and I hope you will have as much fun reading it as I had writing it. Enjoy! xx

It’s tacky, it’s beautiful ugly Kitsch?

Rococo, Jeff Koons, Germany and Gucci –  they are all connected to Kitsch and perhaps can help us see whether is beautiful or ugly, a cultural asset or just bad taste. Its origin is likely German and it is said to be  a type of fake art, expressing fake yet sentimental emotions. It’s a constant element in life and a term that one should look at critically, if only to better understand it or properly recognize it in our culture.

 

Abb. 1: Verglaster Balkon in München mit Dekorationen

Image 1: Snapshot of someone’s home in Munich, carefully decorated.

No matter what you think of it now, you know Kitsch. You have seen it in Disney Movies of the last decades (sorry Disney fans), it has permeated pop culture and it is part of early childhood in many countries. Yes, when Barbie and her Friends drive their pink cabriolet to the rosé villa, where an army of sparkling horses are waiting to have their manes stroked with tiny pink brushes – that’s when rainbow soap bubbles and unicorn unite deep in our brains and form a lasting impression on the subconscious.

Or perhaps some of you will remember the ultimate perfection of domestic crochet-decoration from your grandma’s place? Yes, I am referring to the Barbie-doll toilet roll holder.

Image result for crochet barbie doll toilet roll holder

Image 1a: The Barbie toilet-roll crochet cover

In Germany, where the term Kitsch is said to originate from, you find them in plenty of people’s gardens – the Garden Gnome – mischievously staring at you (you can never be too sure if he is secretly evil), charming passers-by who exclaim: “Look how cute!” (Or “look how spooky!” if it’s me)

Image result for gartenzwerge im Garten

Image 1b: The garden gnome

 

Then there are those homes you visit where a minimum of two white swans are drifting on a sea of white crochet tablecloths into an eternal life of Kitsch. There might be porcelain figurines, vases, paintings of perfect pantonesque landscapes or gilded mirrors and candelabras. It might be he collection of crystal vases or display cabinets of royal paraphernalia. Which ever incarnation it might be, you have seen it before. Remember now?

Abb. 2: Das perfekte Wohnzimmer mit Porzellanschwänen auf Häkeldecke

Image 2: The epitome of a perfect living room: Porcelain swans on crochet tablecloth

Don’t try to tell me that these encounters can be avoided, for throughout the year we have it in the stores, thanks to marketing. For Easter, Christmas and Mother’s Day, Halloween and other holidays.

Image result for absolute kitsch Image result for Easter Kitsch

Images 2b and 2c: Valentines Day Kitsch

(I won’t mention Valentine’s day, because I was traumatized: Many years ago on Valentines day with my BF in a London restaurant, a man stared at me instead of his woman, proceeded knocked over a cooling bucket with ice and champagne and soaked my lovely boots. His date looked at me furiously and exclaimed: “I will strangle you with your boots!” Needles to say, I never went out on Valentines day again.)

And yet – what exactly IS Kitsch? When did it come to exist? Is Kitsch ugly or beautiful?

Lets step backwards through time and find some explanations:

In the year 2000, the author Hans-Dieter Gelfert wrote an entire book entitled “What is Kitsch?” („Was ist Kitsch?), differentiating between cute, cosy, sentimental, religious, poetical, social Kitsch, nature Kitsch, homeland Kitsch, mundane, erotic and scary Kitsch and even ideological Kitsch – just to name a few.

Prior to that, in 1958, the German newspaper “Die Zeit” quoted Heinrich Gonski:

“I want to use the term “Kitsch” to describe a piece of art where the real, the artistic and the emotional element are standing next to each other, without permeating one another, whereas the emotional element has no boundaries and grows out of proportion.” Wrote Gonski.

I see, so it is a form of art then?

Lets step back a few more decades and look at the American historian and art critic Clement Greenberg who wrote an essay in 1939 and argued that there are only two options left for artists: You either belong to the Avant-Garde and fight against the traditional habits figurative painting – or you produce Kitsch.

And yet earlier, in the 1920s, F. Avenarius described as the term used by art dealers, describing art which meets the tastes of the masses and is cheap and thus easy to sell. Kitsch is also often associated with petty Bourgeoisie, known for bad taste, conventional attitudes and materialistic values.

Kitsch is art?

In terms of art, there are plenty of artists who have contributed to the latter art form and even achieved great fame in both the 20th and 21st Centuries. Jeff Koons comes to mind as the father of artsy Kitsch or kitschy art because of the way he chooses his material, the protagonists as well as size and scope of his creations. His Kitsch is out of proportion and of gargantuan impact when it comes to the oversized fun fair balloon dog and it is more than sentimental and erotic in the photo stills of his former wife (later turned politician), the famous Italian adult-movie star Cicciolina.

Abb. 3: Jeff Koons „Balloon Dog“

Image 3: Jeff Koons „Balloon Dog“

Made In Heaven

Image 3a: Jeff and his wife Cicciolina in her signature white attire.

Kitsch is Rococo?

Koons is also responsible for an eternal tribute to Michael Jackson and his monkey which he interpreted in a modern take on a classic German Meissen figurine. Meissen became famous for the porcelain figures in the 18th and 19th Centuries which in itself is a documentation of the height of Kitsch: Rococo. Is this perhaps the origin of it all?

Rococo is an exuberantly decorative 18th-century European style of art and architecture which was very theatrical, highly ornamental, mixing religion, opulence and gave way to an entire European industry of porcelain figurines and objects.

Abb. 4: Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”

Image 4: Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”

Abb. 5: Rokoko Meissen Porzellanuhr aus dem 18. Jahrhundert

Image 5: Rococo Meissen porcelain clock from the 18th Century

Kitsch is Gucci?

However, Kitsch is not just a phenomenon of old times gone by nor is it confined to the world of art. We find it in modern fashion and as a marketing strategy. Since 2016 Kitsch is a trend, ever since Alessandro Michele, the new creative director of Gucci took on the brand and established its new identity – together with the marketing department no doubt.

He kicked off by presenting a catwalk collection which is a mix of lurex, sentimental flowers, nostalgic patterns from the 1970s, retro colour combinations and lots of bows, voile, chiffon and glittery reflective materials. It did surprise many fashion critics and followers with its absence of taste, substituted by the allure of nausea. The following seasons he brought more of the same to the fashion world and met the business target of Gucci management rather well: To reposition and revive the brand, targeting a new and wealthy audience of the Millennial. Everyone in marketing is trying to win over the Millennials but only a few brands succeed. Of course, this is another topic for another article, but if you really want to laugh a bit in the meantime, have a preview of how The Family Guy turns Peter into a Millennial here.

Abb. 6: Gucci SS2016 Kollektion von Alessandro Michele

Image 6: Gucci SS2016 collection by Alessandro Michele

Abb. 7: Gucci SS2016 Kollektion von Alessandro Michele

Image 7: Gucci SS2016 collection by Alessandro Michele

What’s particularily interesting, is that Alessandro Michele loves Rococo in his private life. Vogue has documented a gilden branch/ shelf on his wall which houses an omnium gatherum of antiques, such as the famous pugs of Meissen or painted Vienna birds as well as taxidermy and dried flower bouquets which are often found in alpine country houses. If you look at his Instagram photos, you might notice the little pink piglets, porcelain, religion and art.

And thus we ask: Is this the reflection of Michele’s rich world of emotions ? Or is it a simulation of feelings which are not really there – which is the interpretation of Theodor Adorno?

Abb. 8: Interieur zu Hause bei Gucci Kreativdirektor Alessandro Michele

Image 8: At home with creative director Alessandro Michele

Kitsch is what now?

But lets look back at to the original question once more: KITSCH! Is it a cultural asset or just bad taste? Impossible to fully establish the origin and etymology of the word (other than it’s origin in the German-speaking countries) just as much as noone can say for sure how English-speaking countries came to use the measurement term of “oodles”.

Kitsch is hard to accept, because it definitely stirs many emotions. They might be fake or real, acceptance or laughter, but they are always present when confronted with it. Whether it is a cultural asset or plainly tasteless is a question of ethics, aesthetics and taste, which is left to the individual confronting it.

For those readers who want to deliberate about this some more, I will close this post with some further food for thought: A beautiful recording of Sir Roger Scruton speaking on “Art today, Fake & Kitsch”. ( He is an English philosopher and write with an interest in aesthetics and political philosophy, among others) It starts at around 11minutes and is really a beautiful piece to listen to. Funnily, he has the same emotions about Disney and Holiday Kitsch, Jeff Koons and even Clement Greenberg which I wrote about further up. Incredible that we think among the same lines!

Image sources:

Image. 1: Author

Image 2:  http://www.slingshat.com/20-design-and-decoration-modern-minimalist-living-room-2016/glass-flower-vase_-cream-leather-comfort-sofa-set_marble-glossy-table_-sectional-fur-rug_-natural-crystal-wall-lamp_round-steel-chrome-picture-frame_melamine-tea-pot_-porcelain-double-swan-decoration/

Image 3: http://www.widewalls.ch/famous-sculptures-international-sculpture-day/reclining-figure/

Image 4: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elsa11/15704900904

Image 5:  https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/decorative-objects/clocks/18th-century-rococo-meissen-porcelain-clock-johann-frederick-ebelein/id-f_1565133/

Image 6: http://www.fashionisers.com/fashion-news/gucci-spring-2016-rtw/

Image 7: http://www.fashionisers.com/fashion-news/gucci-spring-2016-rtw/

Image 8: Ihttp://www.vogue.com/13275023/gucci-alessandro-michele-creative-director-profile/

Image 9: https://candybarbie.wordpress.com/tag/links/page/2/

Bibliography:

„Wir stellten zur Diskussion: Was ist eigentlich Kitsch?“ (06.02.1958) Die Zeit online, http://www.zeit.de/1958/06/was-ist-eigentlich-kitsch/seite-3

“A Point of View: The strangely enduring power of kitsch.” (12.12.2014) BBC online, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30439633

Gelfert, Hans-Dieter (2000) „Was ist Kitsch?“

Adorno, Theodor (2001) “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture.”

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