The “Art” of Kitsch

November 23, 2018

Over the years, I believe I have made clear my dislike of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Turakami and their ilk. They are the highest earning “artists” alive today, coining tens of millions per piece with work that I happen to think have the same value as those paintings on velvet you can still find in junk stores around the world. Everyone’s taste is different, and I don’t expect others to buy into my opinion.

I think of most of these pieces as bad or failed art, but an excellent article by Roger Scruton has allowed me to understand them better as part of the history of kitsch.

Nobody quite knows where the word “kitsch” came from, though it was current in Germany and Austria at the end of the 19th Century. Nobody knows quite how to define the word either. But we all recognize kitsch when we come across it. The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. At Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch – worn out cliches, which have lost their innocence without achieving wisdom …

The kitsch object encourages you to think, “Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.” That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens’s most sickly death-scenes, said that “a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell”.

Scruton describes the work of Koons and others as “pre-emptive kitsch”:

The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch. Far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. Pre-emptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch, and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials.

koons jackson

Take a porcelain statue of Michael Jackson cuddling his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, add cheesy colours and a layer of varnish. Set the figures up in the posture of a Madonna and child, endow them with soppy expressions as though challenging the spectator to vomit, and the result is such kitsch that it cannot possibly be kitsch. Jeff Koons must mean something else, we think, something deep and serious that we have missed.

There are three copies of Michael Jackson and Bubbles.  One was sold more than a decade ago for $5.6 million.

Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself – namely its money value.

The intersection between “art” and “commerce” is always a tricky one.  Good thoughtful article, well worth the read.

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Image: The Gardens

November 23, 2018