Describe the features in each of these paintings that you think correspond to Greenberg’s view that kitsch ‘imitates the effects of art’. In other words how has the artist made the painting look artistic – as if for a sophisticated taste.
Below are the two pictures with annotated features that makes the work artistic and presents them as work of Kitsch. I researched Greenberg and other authors to find out what differentiates Kitsch from avant-garde, how Kitsch relates to mass art and how sentimentality plays key role in the appreciation of Kitsch. My research is further down in this post.
a) Vladimir Tretchikoff ‘The Chinese Girl’, 1950 (oil on canvas) Available from:
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/vladimir-tretchikoffs-chinese-girl-up-for-sale-8467244.html [accessed 17 April 2017].
b) Andrew Hewkin ‘Do you Leave Footprints in the Sand?’, 2002 (oil on canvas). Available from: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/do-you-leave-footprints-in-the-sand-andrew-hewkin.html [accessed 17 April 2017].
In order to come to the point of above annotated images I started a research and upfront reading of Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch‘ as well as a later public debate with C. Greenberg and Th. de Duve. On the Avant-Garde I did a brief research earlier – click here.
One of Greenberg’s main argumentation about Kitsch (Greenberg, 1988, p.11-22):
Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough – simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc, etc.
The key elements characterising the development of Kitsch as cultural product:
- Kitsch is a cultural product alongside the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation of society.
- With the development a disconnect occurred between the ‘universal literacy’ of the masses and the available time for leisure and comfort that was characteristic for ‘formal cultures’. It required a different kind of cultural product = Kitsch a culture of the mass.
- Kitsch became an integral part of the mass production and distribution system. It expanded as a Western culture to other territories of the world and erased the formerly appreciated Folk Art as a rural local culture. Eventually it became a universal culture. In a footnote Greenberg raises the question whether slavery was an enabler for ‘high art’ culture referring to some African tribes (p.19)
- Greenberg argues with Avant-Garde and Kitsch as cultural and contrasting poles in society, a ‘social interval’ where a rich, powerful, cultivated minority that enjoys a formal culture (collectors of avant-garde art) and a poor, ignorant majority that enjoys and can afford to purchase Kitsch products.
- In stable societies the sharp interval gets blurred resulting in ‘the mass admiring the cultural values of ‘its masters’.
The key elements that makes Kitsch Kitsch (Greenberg,1988, p.11-22)
- Kitsch is insincere and builds on faked sensations.
- Kitsch products are selling for profit.
- Kitsch vulnerable as ‘low culture’ to fascist propaganda. Totalitarian regimes ‘see to ingratiate themselves with their subjects’ and the solidarity with the culture of the masses, Kitsch, is an ‘inexpensive way’.
- Kitsch as a rationalised technique refers to science and industrial processes and ‘erased the distinction between good and bad art in practice’.
- Kitsch is the competitor to genuine or authentic art. Greenberg differentiates between genuine art as ‘producing causes for the viewers active and engaging reflection’ whereas Kitsch has already the ‘reflected effect included’ alongside an ‘effortless enjoyment’. For him Kitsch is ‘synthetic art’
- Greenberg consolidates the difference in his often cited words (Greenberg,1988, p. 17)
Avant-garde imitates the processes of art, Kitsch imitates its effects.
Interestingly Greenberg makes some parallels between the Middle Ages and modern art practices. In former times the subject matters was fixed by external factors as a ‘universal conceptual reality’ and the artist was free to focus on the medium alone. In modernism, according to Greenberg, it is the exactly the elimination of a subject matter that allows the artist to explore the limits of the medium.
Based on this single viewpoint on Kitsch I was wondering whether other perspectives on kitsch do exist or if Greenberg was truly shaping the perception of Kitsch till today.
Greenberg was often criticised for his sharp distinction between avant-garde as ‘high art’ versus ‘low art’. Nevertheless the art critic and philosopher Boris Groys highlighted that it was Greenberg’s true achievement of the ‘discovery of kitsch as a specific artistic formation’ (Groys, 2010, p.181). And he argues that
Even today our understanding of mass culture remains deeply indebted to ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ because it is still informed by an opposition between mass culture and ‘high’ avant-garde art and kitsch is not simply a residue of the previous epochs but a thoroughly modern phenomenon – in fact, as modern as the avant-garde itself.
And Groys argued further that Pop-Art and Conceptual Art would not have been possible without Greenberg’s discovery of kitsch as a specific aesthetic and artistic domain:
Kitsch substitutes traditional art – avant-garde simply analyses it. Kitsch is the only true aesthetic manifestation of modernity.
Now I was left with a distinction between avant-garde and kitsch and would like to understand better what are the distinctive and convincing elements of kitsch and what kitsch is popular culture. Greenberg highlighted some aspects, but I believe they are not sufficient. The point of reference will be the A Companion to Aesthetics, Blackwell companions to philosophy by Davies ed al. This book is mentioned in the course reading list and I would consider it as trustworthy and comprehensive.
Two other keywords seem to be important to understand Kitsch: Mass Art and Sentimentality, all three explained in the book.
‘Definition’ of Kitsch (Davies et al., 2009, p.393-396):
- Kitsch involves the formulaic and makes use of stock elements, subject matter generally considered as beautiful
- Kitsch evokes emotion that is enjoyed in an effortless way
- Kitsch presents reality in an unrealistic way
Kulka extended those formulaic ‘criteria’ of Kitsch with another one stating that
- Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations related to the depicted subject.
According to Kulka the viewer ‘looks through the symbol, to what the symbol stands for’. Not the picture as such but rather the associations related to the depicted object characterised the referential function of kitsch. (Kulka, 1988, p.17-27)
Milan Kundera described in his book ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, 1984 Kitsch’s connotation with the tender emotions, sentiments as the ‘two tears’ phenomena. The first tear triggered by the feeling by looking at a work of Kitsch. The second tear reflects the enjoyment of that feeling (in: Davis ed al, 2009, p.395).
The authors referring to Tomas Kulka and his argument that the effect of Kitsch relates to the ‘the spectator’s respond to the gestalt of what is depicted, not the representation as such’. (p.394)
In conclusion Kitsch is characterised and – criticised – by:
- Kitsch is ‘insincere, has bad taste, tackiness, formulaic and facile character, incongruous juxtaposition, vagueness, incompatibility between form and function, overly simplistic presentation, false representation of reality’
- Kitsch is reinforcing cultural beliefs
- Kitsch services propaganda
- Kitsch is aesthetically worthless, though morally harmless
- Kitsch is ‘camp’
- Kitsch discriminates overtly between ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’
Nevertheless the authors are stating that ‘Kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.’
With all those negative connotations with Kitsch, I was wondering whether there are positives besides Groys’ statement ‘Kitsch is the only true aesthetic manifestation of modernity.’
And open questions to the sharp distinction between ‘high’ (avant-garde) and ‘low’ (Kitsch).
- Are all emotional responses to an artwork associated with Kitsch?
- Is Kitsch art or not?
- Can certain modern artworks not also be characterised by above mentioned criteria of ‘formulaic’, ‘effortless’, and ‘unrealistic’?
- Are there any differences at a time where social reality is being considered as constructed and subjective, with stereotypes of gender, class and race, and where consumption of artworks in museums that turned at times into commercial centres like a shopping mall.
I can see that one difference is in the way of production and distribution what led me to look at Mass Art (Davies et al., 2009, p.415-418).
Mass art can be characterised as art that comes with mass industrial society and production. It typically is been made and distributed by automated industrial procedures for a large audience, e.g. printing. It has a sense of affordability with an aim of entertainment, thus for mass consumption. Initially it was also aimed for a working class audience with the connotation of calling them ‘low art’ in contrast to ‘high’ or elite art.
According to the authors there might be four necessary – and perhaps sufficient – conditions to characterise art as ‘mass art’:
- It is an artwork
- It is been viewed resp. consumed in multiple-instances (e.g. TV, pulp fiction)
- It is produced and distributed by mass production technology
- It is intentionality designed for effortless accessibility (at first shot) to an ‘untutored viewer’
The connection with Kitsch comes with the ‘easy and effortless accessibility’. And mass art consists of easily understandable narrative and pictorial structures, use of stereotypes, and formulaic patterns.
In agreement with Greenberg the authors differentiating between mass art and genuine art. the latter seeking for ‘making it new’ and requiring a ‘co-construction’ by the viewers’ engagement. Overall, it takes time and efforts to understand and digest genuine art. The issue with that differentiation and acknowledged by the authors is that there are genuine and authentic artwork out there that is built on the same criteria of ‘formulaic’ and ‘effortless enjoyment’
What left me with my idea that either the criteria are not sufficient or those genuine artworks are Kitsch. And brings me to the next exploration of ‘Kitsch evokes emotion that is enjoyed in an effortless way’ Something not inherent to mass art. So possibly what differentiates Kitsch from ‘high’ art.
Sentimentality (Davies et al., 2009, p.534-537):
Sentimental responses are associated with a subgroup of feelings, the so-called ‘tender’ emotional responses eg compassion, fondness, caring. R. Solomon defined those as the ‘minimal definition of sentimentality’. The reception of sentimentality was much influenced by the contrasting theories of the ethical theory that cultivated emotions and the ‘reason’ theory phrase strongly by Immanuel Kant that considered sentiments as anti-aesthetical. In the past sentimentality was considered as a female response delivering on gender stereotypes (eg 18th century sentimental novels written by women, passivity, easy, shallow, irrational).
The authors are referring to R. Solomon who sees a problem in the excessive use of sentimental responses. People exposed to excessive emotional responses are considered as ‘self-regarding and self-deceived’. Example given are the landscape paintings by Thomas Kinkade.
Sentimental works have been criticised for:
- Sentiments are been used as a mean to attract attention of the audience
- Sentiments are causing to ‘false-colour the world’ (A. Saville) and to ‘false-colour’ themselves as sentimentalist (J. Kupfer)
- Sentiments are inhibiting us from taken actions in the real-world. Therefore considered as ‘anti-aesthetical’ and also ‘anti-ethical’. The viewer is not capable to take a distant and analysing another viewpoint.
- Artworks that deliver on sentimentality are thought ‘to pander’
=> Conclusion for the authors are that emotional responses to an artwork should be considered as a positive aspect. A viewpoint that I fully agree with as an artwork is not a rational map but always triggers conscious and unconscious emotional and cognitive responses.
Who defines ‘excessive’ emotional responses and and who the ‘false-colouring’ of the world’? In the context of constructed realities, intentionality and assignment of institutional functions as well as the subjective representation of reality as described by J.R. Searle or by P. Berger, T. Luckmann I am wondering whether the ‘false-colour’ can be truly considered as objectively ‘false’.
The discussion of Kitsch as a popular culture considered as ‘low’ art versus the ‘high’ avant-garde art is going along the discourse of taste and
Kitsch is mostly perceived as something of ‘bad taste’ and obviously nobody wanted or still wants to get associated with Kitsch and the individual collector is keeping his ‘bad taste’ as a secret as Greenberg highlighted (Duve and Greenberg, 1996, p.123)
‘Many people collect Picasso who prefer Norman Rockwell, they are ashamed to say so.’
Norman Rockwell (1894- 1978) an American painter and illustrator is often considered as kitsch and overly sweet and sentimental. His works were popular for its patriotic reflection of American culture.
This paradox explains Groys (Groys, 2010, p.181) as the ‘aesthetic sensibility of every individual member of contemporary society’. Avant-Garde and Kitsch are not separate areas of types of practices but rather ‘two different attitudes towards art’. The aesthetic appreciation of an artwork can be seen from both perspectives, either from a ‘producer’ or from a ‘consumer’ perspective. I do think that Groys’ argumentation seems a bit to simplistic as I can visit a museum and enjoy certain paintings for my own indulgence without looking deeply into the techniques etc. I do think the focus on the emotional response of an artwork could be one perspective without making the notion of the artwork being Kitsch.
I was curious whether any artwork can be sold as Kitsch and looked up in at the action platforms:
– Invaluable: http://www.invaluable.com for Avant-garde => 488 returned and Kitsch => 6 returned.
– Sotheby: http://www.sothebys.com for Avant-garde => 1443 returned and Kitsch => 14 returned.
This perhaps just confirms that the popular culture of Kitsch is not selling at auctions. Interestingly Sotheby returns for ‘kitsch’ the works by Jeff Koons.
The question of ‘bad-taste’ related to kitsch depends on historical and aesthetic interpretations of the respective culture as Sturken and Cartwright explained with the example of the post war ‘Astro-Lamp’ . Once considered as ‘bad tasty’ cultural artefact and Kitsch turned into something valuable just because of the historical appreciation of ‘bad taste’ as a collectible. The authors are referring to the philosopher P. Bourdieu who confirms Greenberg’s observation that taste is highly class-distinctive and reflective of the social order. The capability to appreciate the distinguishing aesthetics of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art would require a certain education.
There is a self-referential element in the discourse as the appreciation of the aesthetically value of art already makes the distinction of a class distinction. In Bourdieu words (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p.60):
- Kitsch is often associated with mass art and sentimentality. Characterised by use of formulaic structures and stock elements, an easy and effortless accessibility and enjoyment and a notion of ‘false-color’ reality. The association with sentiments i.e. tender feelings as compassion, fondness, caring that one does enjoy while viewing or reading makes Kitsch sentimental, and sentimental works are considered Kitsch.
- Kitsch in the format of souvenirs, stock cards or pulp fiction are relating quite often with mass produced ‘art’
- The modernistic differentiation between ‘High Art’ and ‘Low Art’ was challenged by Pop-Art, the Independent Group IG and others.
- The often used criteria and the notion of false reality can be challenged from the viewpoint of a constructed social reality.
- Greenberg’s essay ‘Kitsch and Avant-Garde’,1939 with his argument of Kitsch as ‘low art’, mass produced and mass consumed had great influence till today on his followers and critics (see exploration in Davies ed al). His comments on having ‘bad taste’ i.e. anti-aesthetical emphasises the elitarian perspective of modernistic art, and eventually opened the door for Post-Modernism. Bourdieu argued that ‘good taste’ is a classifier for social order.
- The affirmation of Kitsch seems repressed and ignored. Only in context of apprehension as historical cultural artefact Kitsch becomes something presentable.
- Contemporary artworks, e.g Jeff Koons, do appropriate and juxtapose the typical criteria for Kitsch, and they are considered as genuine artworks (paradox).
- An emotional response to an artwork need to be differentiated from an excessive emotional response to a picture that acts rather as a symbol for associations related to the depicted object.
- The notion of formulaic structures as characteristic for Kitsch could be also applied to modernistic art where the formal aspects, the exploration of the medium and its limitations are enforced as a concept.
- Davies, S., Higgins, K. M., Hopkins, R., Stecker, R. and Cooper, D. E. (2009) A Companion to Aesthetics,Blackwell companions to philosophy, 2nd ed. Malden, MA; London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Duve, T. d. and Greenberg, C. (1996) Clement Greenberg between the Lines: including a previously unpublished debate with Clement Greenberg. The University of Chicago Press [Scribd]. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/read/29970337/Clement-Greenberg-Between-the-Lines-Including-a-Debate-with-Clement-Greenberg [accessed 05 April 2017].
- Greenberg, C. (1988) Perceptions and Judgements,1939-1944 The Collected Essays and Criticism,(4 vols). Vol. 1. Edited by O’Brian, J. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.
- Groys, B. (2010) ‘Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’, 1961′, in: The Burlington Magazine. [Online]. 152(1284), pp. 179-182, Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40601394 [accessed 21 April 2017].
- Kulka, T. (1988) ‘Kitsch’, in: British Journal of Aesthetics. [Online]. 28(1), pp. 18-27, Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/236492666/Kitsch-by-t-Kulka [accessed 20 April 2017].
- Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.