As sticky kitsch invades the sacred halls of Art and many become entangled, there is reason enough to reflect on the interfaces of “art” and “kitsch”. A further reason: kitsch per se has nothing to do with superficiality; nevertheless, it never shines as glaringly as it does when times are somber.
“The drearier everyday life, the more colourful the books we read”, Ernst Bloch once mused. To escape from the pressure of a dismal reality a person feeling dejected would yearn for the ideal life. Such a life would be found in books, in movies and in painting. Kitsch lurks everywhere.
“Everyone knows what kitsch is, but no one can say what it is”, Wolfgang Braungart stated. Already Theodor W. Adorno complained that kitsch evaded imp-like any definition. He compared kitsch to the saccharine and sticky. But the sticky exerts a tactile fascination, it absorbs, it wants to possess. Jean-Paul Sartre ascribes to the sticky a deep existential experience, which he associates with honey. “The sticky appears like a fluid seen in a nightmare, whose properties came somewhat to life and turned against me. The sticky is the revenge of the thing-in-itself”, he says. With kitsch it is probably similar. The revenge of the thing-in-itself, of the sticky is directed like the revenge of kitsch against all those who want to disassociate themselves from it. The more acerbic they disavowed kitsch, the stickier became its consistency.
The kitsch/art discussion as it was conducted still in the middle of last century was primarily motivated by puristic intentions in the field of art. But art has never been completely puristic, as Hermann Broch indicated when he referred to “a drop of kitsch in all art”. There have always been overlaps between the only seemingly unbridgeable domains of kitsch and art. The change of paradigm in art, starting with Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, who suddenly turned the trivial into art, was rife with conflict. Art works now required explanations and commentary. Then came Pop Art which virtually meant the opposite of the “obligation of the arts to aim for the highest level” as Adorno had asked in his “Aesthetic Theory”. And although originally disavowed, the works of Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein or Claes Oldenburg are today considered milestones in art history.
Coloured pictorial world. The tendency to a brilliantly coloured pictorial world starting in the 1980s and early 90s was considered by the art world as an unambiguous reaction to the rigid asceticism of an elevated, elaborate art and the previous intention to keep art puristic. Sticky kitsch entered the hallowed halls of art. Suddenly kitsch strategies were becoming socially acceptable in art, in design and everyday life. Gregory Fuller called the new style “kitsch art”. But critics feared that everything would now be accepted as art and they missed in many of the works a necessarily “transforming and confronting engagement” with kitsch which could be explicitly re-enacted (1). If kitsch strategies are now consciously used in art they aim at very specific reactions from the viewer. Kitsch in art is politics. Kitsch in art wants to ironically distance itself from kitsch in everyday life, it wants to alienate the familiar content of an art work, it wants to shock, provoke, cross boundaries, exhibit malicious cynicism, represent social and political positions, mock lovers of kitsch, arouse yearnings, break taboos, construct utopias, cite old masters, protest against traditional academic tendencies, or simply expose the banality of drab everyday life. Artists had aimed at and achieved that already before, but did it more often with kitsch elements since the 1980s and 90s. In addition to known artists like Jeff Koons or Pierre et Gilles, others like Rob Scholte, Votali Komar/Alexander Melamid, Eric Bulatov, William Wegman, Haim Steinbach, Milan Kunc, John Currin and many others established themselves with the help of these new strategies.
Jeff Koons uses kitsch because he wants to provoke and not only that. His paintings and objects which seem to employ the language and aesthetics of consumer goods have a strong effect on the viewer; they promise an ideal world, a garden of Eden. Wolfgang Ulrich sees in Koons’ paintings something of a folklore of consumerism which is likely to be successful as an “illusionism of infinity”. Koons’ objects surpass the usual criteria of differentiation between art and kitsch. “Puppy”, the giant-sized puppy dog he presented in the summer of 1992 in front of the Arolsen Castle measured 12 m in height while the small castle is only two storeys high. His mirror “Christ and the Lamb” (1988) is seductively gilded, but something that in all its beauty could also be an example of kitsch. It actually is a detail from Leonardo’s “Virgin with Child and St. Anne” and at the same time a sculpture and the picture of the space in which the mirror is and where the viewer who approaches the picture finds himself caught in the reflection in the golden frame. “Art meets Kitsch” the Tagesschau (German news programme) reported when in the summer of 2008 Jeff Koons’ work was exhibited at the Chateau de Versailles. Koons, the artist who is inspired by Baroque and Rococo, claimed to have seen his fondest wishes come true (while provoking not a few of the visitors).
Milan Kunc uses “kitsch against kitsch” to unmask the lie of dreary everyday life. His paintings are distinguished by their hard-nosed social criticism. Even if toadstools, seemingly harmless garden gnomes are seen frolicking, if stags come out of the forest with rockets on their backs, if occasionally a naively drawn peaceable land of milk and honey could be conjured up one does detect criticism of existing conditions after a while, like deciphering a picture puzzle. On one hand Kunc mocks the language of kitsch, at the same time he makes fun of the idyllic conditions, of the “idea of the perfect society”, a notion he, a Czech having emigrated to the west from the east, is quite familiar with.
The exhibition “Wunschwelten. Neue Romantik in der Kunst der Gegenwart” (Ideal Worlds. Romanticism in Contemporary Art) in the Kunsthalle Schirn Frankfurt explored the spirit of society and its yearning for idyllic conditions and the ideal life. Some of the artists, e.g. Uwe Henneken, used kitsch elements. The painting “Burning Shadows of Silence” (2003), in particular, evokes with its saccharine colour scheme associations with Pop Art, with sweets and lollipops. There flashes of sticky kitsch elements prove to be a successful tactic in immediately catching the eye of the viewer.
Here a variety of loans from art his-tory can be found, as Anke Kempkes points out: “from Biedermeier fussiness, the nature mysticism of the late middle ages, (…) symbolic fantasy images, the glistening colours of American landscape painting”. Uwe Henneken lets his butterfly woman rise from a whirlpool, stirring up yearning for another life, a life in which we have wings, where the clocks have stopped and we have all the time in the world.
It is no surprise that the tendencies towards kitsch in art, that these colourful ideal worlds, although frequently proclaimed dead, are still very much alive if one considers Ernst Bloch’s diagnosis of the times. These colourful pictures infer a truly dreary everyday life. In fact the news from around the world do not bode well. The falling stock market prices, an unexpected recession and ominous prognoses for the coming years also make one own life more difficult. Kitsch now moves closer and becomes more necessary. In art as well; here kitsch has a political dimension. Burghart Schmidt thinks that there is kitsch in everyone, because “kitsch seems to be the shortest path to reconciling oneself with the conditions of life”. And that it is not easy to succinctly and to the point describe what kitsch is, is a fact known already by Bertolt Brecht. When asked what kitsch was for him he answered in the elaborate code of an established artist: “Ladies and Gentlemen, to give you a half-ways adequate answer to what I consider kitsch, you would have to allow me, even if I limit myself to the field of literature, several issues of your newspapers blank from the front to the back page, and that is really something that I can not demand”.
As we have said, everyone knows what kitsch is but no one can define it.
(1) Burghart Schmidt: Kitsch und Klatsch.
VON BARTHA, Quarterly Report Nr. 1, 2009