A Brief History of Kitsch


Pink Flamingos, John Waters (1972)

When we look at a painting, what is going on? For many, and this is anecdotal, I feel there is a desire to be moved, or to seek meaning in the painting. For the art philosopher, Richard Wollheim, it was important to spend hours before a single painting, as if through this experience of communing with the painting one might be further enlightened.

One can tease out new formal relations or see something you didn’t before. However, before one even gets to that stage, there is a formidable barrier, taste. Present someone with an abhorrence for carrots, with a carrot cake, and they will decline with a shudder. The same applies to art. Tell someone that there is a showing of abstract art, and quite a lot will already be muttering the usual criticisms. For them it is like a food dislike, amounting almost to an allergy. Yet, if you were to tell them you saw some cheap abstract paintings that would go well with their new sofa, then it is an entirely different matter.

Abstract art is fine if it does not make a statement, it has to be domesticated in the form of interior decoration. They can happily have a Jackson Pollock rip-off done in ten minutes by a local artist and hang it next to the sofa, but almost aggressively decline an invitation to see the original work. People with no art background are still resistant to Cubism which is one hundred years old!

The rip-off by the way was done expressly with the market in mind. The artist knew that the customer did not want art for its own sake, but something functional.

Upon further scrutiny we realize that the predominant taste is still conservative, one which requires near photographic correspondence in the mimetic act. The standard of this art is of the academy. Throughout the Western Europe there are gardens stuffed with reproductions of classical sculpture. Kitsch, in other words. But in the art world, the discourse and practice is very different.

Indeed, one could argue that the taste of the artists and critics is for something deviant or bad in the minds of the populace. To call it degenerate would be too pejorative, yet there is a real gulf. I suppose taste vacillates between two these predominant forms, which for simplicity sake we can differentiate by the initial letter, the upper case “T” and the lower case “t”.

Taste in the former instance is public, collective and objective, while in the latter it is private, individual and subjective. Both of these forms of taste are situated of course in a social and economical framework. These two forms also loosely correspond to the Humean and Kantian concepts of taste, though there are obvious overlaps in the discussion of pleasure. We can also add or peg further dimensions to the forms, notably totemism and the taboo. This is a rather crude and ultimately reductive approach to aesthetics, however sometimes it is useful to begin with such parameters to guide the interpretation or appreciation.

There is a scene at the end of the John Waters cult film, ”Pink Flamingos” (1972), where the transvestite actress Divine bends down to pick up a dog faeces and eats it. That scene would probably be memorable for several reasons, but in this essay it is a point of departure, because it is illustrative of the transgressiveness of taste which was once bound by concepts such as beauty and the sublime.

Of course, the fact that Waters wanted so much to shock, establishes a standard of sorts through negation; wanting to test the realms of decency, implies that Taste is governed by the conventional and the establishment, while taste (lower-case) is in a dialectical struggle with those prescriptions and values.

Here we see the private and individual world of sexual preference and identity expressed in the transvestite that has subverted the dominant cultural and social codes of Taste and had its way with them. The eating of the faeces is obviously in the Mary Douglas parlance an example of impurity and taboo (Douglas, 1966).

Another example of this transgressiveness is to be found in the television sketches of Kenny Everett, whose character, another transvestite, “Cupid Stunt” (a telling anagram), belonged to, her/his catchphrase being, ”It’s all done in the best possible taste!”

Now, both were purveyors of what the guardians of Taste would declare to be bad taste or tastelessness. To a degree, this Épater la bourgeoisie is connected with the decadent and symbolist revolution of the nineteenth century, later to be repackaged as Surrealism and Dadaism. On each occasion there is an implied patriarchal establishment run by Dr. Thomas Bowdlers and Anthony Comstocks. It was for Lytton Strachey and the Edwardians represented by Victorianism (Strachey,1918).

Interestingly, the provocation of these art forms, the sheer tastelessness, requires the existence of a standard of moral decency and order which to rail against. In the postmodern period in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Aids, the established Taste has been in many respects inverted. During the Victorian period one did not talk of private or personal matters publically, today we live in a time when many millions daily air their most private and personal thoughts publically.

The same is true of the body. From the seventeenth century onwards there had been a puritan subjugation of the sensual body, now art is determined after a period of abstraction by carnality. Are we then living in a period where the taste in the lower case is dominant?

This would seem to be the case in art history. However, the public taste is much more conservative. While there is an acceptance of modern art in academic circles, there is still a general resistance to art that is deviant from a implied standard taste; for example, one that is governed by media and the establishment.

Indeed if we can stray from the documents that Erwin Panofsky interpreted and instead rely on anecdotal evidence, then it is still the case that after one hundred and two years Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) challenges the lay person. The reality would seem to be that the old status quo prevails. There is a demand for veracity in the mimesis. Art has to correspond to preconceived standards of beauty and realism. Exaggeration can be tolerated in caricature but not in straightforward representation such as a portrait. However, abstract art can be allowed into the home, if it is viewed and domesticated as interior decoration. Art in this case is dreadfully functional.

Oh I would like that painting, because it will go well with the sofa.

If art is received as art for its own sake, then the art must satisfy the criteria of taste which is conservative “T”. Prejudices that have annoyed the art critics for years persist in the face of more exposure to modern and transgressive forms of art. Shit is still shit to the public. One of the major problems behind this division has to do with perception. The public seeks correspondence with idealized and canonical pre-modernist art. Western culture still identifies with the strong normative pressures of classical heritage. Yet, Western culture remains ignorant of the historical background of Taste. Look at the following two sculptures:

In the above instance, the Venus sculpture is an example of kitsch– from the ancient Greek viewpoint–since it focuses on the decorative and is feminine versus the ideal which was of a naked youth (ephebe) cast in bronze.

The sexual preference for naked youth and males in general played a significant role in the development of Eighteenth century aesthetics, as the German Johann Joachim Winkelmann used art criticism to signal and express his sexual orientation and identity. His criticism aligns itself with the Greek ideals, encapsulated in the Socratic dialogues. Interestingly, he was adamantly against the excesses of the Baroque, preferring the precepts of the brothers Richardson who preached the classical gospel of perfection, simplicity and purity (1755;1763;1764).

For a purist, and this attitude is found today in critics, the decorative and baroque sensibility which counterpointed the neoclassical, constituted a bad. This prejudice was ancient. Venus di Milo was kitsch already before she popped up in the nineteenth century. Due to the need for an iconic sculpture – the kitsch sculpture was invested with beauty. This was not an ordinary beauty, it was one that was ideological. She represented the power and magnificence of French imperialism. Her place in the Louvre has helped to consolidate her position as the world’s most beautiful work of art. She is a second emblem of France, next to their beloved Marianne.

Stephen PainI was born in London in 1956. I studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. I worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. I have had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. I am a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.

  • It is quite curious that something as established and culturally tested as Picasso can still elicit such harsh emotions from so many people. I think a great deal of people merely fail to realize that all art is, at its base, an abstraction (à la “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”). Also, the “t”/”T” analysis sounds rather familiar. Was this a nod to another writer or philosopher?

  • Tony Thomas

    Nice article. The extraordinary is always defined by the ordinary, as good taste is defined by bad. Immediate, intuitive aesthetic judgment becomes modified by the received judgments of history and current fashion, so no absolutes are possible, only a statistical swamp of ever changing opinion.

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