Art is subjective; it can be quantified as being beautiful, inspirational or for the early painters a form of reporting the events of the day. Kitsch is more like syrup on top of ice cream. It is of the heart, the emotions and a strong dose of guilty pleasures. There are times when it is hard to tell what is art and what is kitsch.
Once upon a time my high school class made the pilgrimage to a museum of art. We saw works of the masters. We were silent and respectful, nodding our heads when the Docent pointed out why Van Gogh was a great painter. Then we walked into an exhibit of Marcel Duchamp.
Marcel walked a path of re-invention. The first thing i saw was a spotless white urinal. The second work was a knockoff of the Mona Lisa with the French phonetic letters beneath the portrait that spelled out “She has a hot ass.” We laughed and asked questions of the beet red Docent. “How is this art?”, “Why did he do this?”, “Isn’t this disrespectful?”
From Marcel we were led into Salvador Dali and then into the world of the Surrealists. For me, I had found my people. I continue to go to art museums but I remember that first trip as a life marker. There are some who define art as something high and inaccessible to the masses.
Some would say that Marcel and others like him are nothing more than upper level kitsch. Not me. Art with a sense of playfulness and humor gets me every time. It is the path not taken that can lead to discoveries within yourself.
Now I could show you really great artistic pieces. But that would be too easy. In order to know if something is good maybe we should spend time looking at really questionable but appealing works of Kitsch.
What Is Kitsch?
The traditional meaning was tacky or low quality art. Art that is mass produced or plays on sentiments or emotions rather than the quality of the work. That definition doesn’t really work anymore because there are multi-million dollar works of art in museums that are tacky and/or low quality. There is also art work produced with recycled materials that are truly great works.
For help in understanding Kitsch, let us take a brief visit with the priestess of Kitsch Culture, Ms. Allie Willis, and her Museum of Kitsch. Kitsch is the desert between crap and “that is interesting, let me see more.” It is a pop cultural connection to a past or a rocking present that you want to keep for posterity.
There is something about Kitsch that grabs a hold of person and requires a life commitment of co-habitation. Clair Smythe at World of Kitsch painted her kitchen a kind of green I’d never thought I’d see again. It has since been changed but my lord what possessed her? The items in her collection.
Kitsch stuff makes you do things no one else wants to think about, let alone thinking about painting the wall in your kitchen Slime Green. But the Naked Woodland Nymph? That totally rocks.
Over at Kitschy Kitschy Coo a pattern is starting to emerge. There are those that want to join greatness so they create a cross stitching the Sistine Chapel. Or finding a great buy that you can’t leave at a garage sale, like bowling pin animals. Kitsch might have something to do with latent need to hunt and gather.
Kitsch isn’t just about stuff. It can be the stuff that invokes memories. Over at Kitsch Slapped there is a poster of Andy Gibb. Now I personally didn’t have a thing for Andy, my attention was probably on any man with a good size Afro. But I can understand the attraction and the need for a sexual icon to help inspire person self-exploration. Deanna transitions from the poster to her reading a book, the Summer of 42, that helped her define what is and is not acceptable for her to experience.
The Need to Collect
I think we all have a need to keep something precious. For me it is my books and my record albums. I have to have them. Even though I had with no way to play them for 20 or more years. Recently I found an affordable LP to mp3 turntable. Doesn’t mean that I will ever get rid of my albums, it just means I won’t have to remember what a song sounds like anymore. It is my connection to a different time and place.
Shelagh Staunton at Weaving the Web muses a bit about this need:
Ownership is comfort and empowerment, but at what point does the scale tip in the other direction and the possessor discovers that he or she has become the possessed? Collections give us meaning and identity but only so long as we remain in control. In A.S. Byatt's Possession (aptly titled for this blog entry) the academic Mortimer Cropper is so determined to obtain the material artifacts of a poet's life that he sacrifices his own professional integrity in his quest to do so. It is the act of collecting- the chase- that takes precedence over the value of the objects themselves.
Over at Frieze Art Fair there is a recording on the psychology of collecting with an psychologist, an art collector and director of a museum. You can listen to the podcast or download the mp3 where they talk about people spending time, money and resources on collecting art and other items of desire.
Do I own the books and albums or do they own me? The albums, I control them. The books have dominion. Thankfully there is no room to start any other type of collection. But if I see that Black Velvet Elvis, he's mine.
Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer where this post originally appeared.