What is the fascination of kitsch? As two masterpieces of kitsch painting — Vladimir Tretchikoff’s blue-faced Chinese Girl and Salvador Dali’s equally bizarre portrait of Mona Bismarck — prepare to go under the hammer, let’s pay homage to the aesthetic that thrives on mockery and critical contempt.
Even to try and define kitsch is to enter a hall of mirrors that reflects your own prejudice. The word is German and has been used since the 20s, but one person’s kitsch is another’s lovely table lamp — so how can we talk about it without revealing layers of snobbery? The Oxford art dictionary hedges its bets, defining kitsch as “art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way ...”
This probably fits most people’s contemporary view of kitsch. But actually such definitions are loaded with preconceptions. “Excessive garishness” and “sentimentality” are dismissals that reveal more about the speaker than the object: so you fear the garish and shun the sentimental? What does that say about you?
In his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch, published in 1939, the American art critic Clement Greenberg marvelled: “One and the same civilisation produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by TS Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover.” For Greenberg there were only two polarities of culture: serious high modernist art, such as Eliot’s poetry or a cubist painting, versus the vacuous art preferred by the majority, including pop music and the paintings of Norman Rockwell.
Nowadays almost everything Greenberg considered kitsch has been reclaimed; the idea that pop music is junk today is quite rightly inconceivable. So where does that leave kitsch? It brands a kind of art that seems to care nothing for taste — and this has become a crucial prop to modern culture at a time when “serious” art may have little to it beyond a declaration of superior judgment. Thus, an empty room with a folk song playing in it is not likely to be dismissed as kitsch — it may be fairly banal, but it is not vulgar, ostentatious, garish. Kitsch serves as an opposite against which the non-kitsch defines itself.
We love kitsch as well as loathe it (hence the interest in the sale of Tretchikoff’s and Dali’s paintings) but snobbery hovers around the term. This is misguided because, by modern definitions, some of the greatest works of art in the world are kitsch. Garish and sentimental? That applies to the sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini. Surely, the most kitsch painting in the world is the Mona Lisa — it even has its own Tin Pan Alley song — and yet it is also a supreme masterpiece.
The painter Cy Twombly once told an interviewer he listened to music when he worked. The interviewer thought he meant modernist music, but no — he listened to Tchaikovsky. I love that lack of “good taste”. Tchaikovsky is both kitsch and profound.
Art is beyond taste. Leave your prejudices behind when you want to be uplifted.