Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Some thoughts towards a definition

Recently I started collecting 'kitsch' images on one of my Pinterest boards. Here is one 'obvious' example from that collection:

The problem is that by assigning the above image to my 'kitsch' category I have already assumed that it meets certain criteria - such as lack of taste (whatever that means) and a certain mawkish sentimentality

But is that enough to call this image 'kitsch' - a term generally used in a derogative way?

Let's look at another example:

Images of a quasi-religious character (such as the one above) are frequently prone to such critical categorisations, not least because there is something that is both mawkish and absurd about the above 'icon', reeking of false piety and 'confused' theology

Here (above) we are on firmer ground - not least because the decorative, suspiciously 'commercial' nature of these images of the 'Virgin Mary' diminishes the figure's iconic status - even if the viewer is a non-believer like me

This  'holy' teapot is also perhaps a step too far - or am I being too judgemental?
YOU decide!

In my view (for what it's worth) it clearly falls into the 'kitsch' category for its humble, pragmatic role as a teapot is at odds with the heightened, entirely 'symbolic' religious function that it has acquired by 'merging' with the Virgin Mary

In the above image, the sexy nun - with her devout pose yet dressed in pink plastic like some fetishist's phantasy - is simply 'camp', a term often associated with kitsch

Those of a devout disposition (I am NOT one of them!) may find the above 'deification' of  David Bowie as disproportionate homage

 It is a good example, perhaps, of the way one object (in this case a celebrated pop singer) can acquire the attributes of another (namely, the sanctity and pose of a saint or even Jesus himself)

The juxtaposition of these contrasting, if not contrary, attributes creates an aesthetic 'tension' that is difficult to resolve

Of course, the artist's intention might be ironic, in which case it surely works but I suspect that this is not derisory but an example of contemporary hagiography and, therefore, decidedly 'kitsch'

'Homage' can of course take many forms and in the above portrait of a rather good-looking 'sailor' 'Saint Sebastian' has been turned into a mildly homo-erotic and decidedly camp 'pinup'

Indeed, 'camp' is now an accepted part of an advertiser's vocabulary - as in the image above designed to promote the fragrances of Jean Paul Gaultier

But what, exactly, is BAD taste?

The above painting - for example - has some artistic merit but it is too contrived for my taste and the colours are sickly and the content cluttered

In short, I am not sure if it is meant to be an homage to Darwin and his evolutionary theories or to 'God the Creator' - therein lies its ambiguity

In my view, it is decidedly kitsch!

The decorative character of art like this often also masks a certain vacuity of content or 
substantive meaning

 Not all art must necessarily have a purpose but I have no idea where the above image is taking us - other than into that category of art that ends up on a box of chocolates or in the often aesthetically vacuous world of advertising!

While the above painting may have a certain surreality about it its ghastly colours and 'tacky', quasi-religious content pushes it into that type of art often found in some urban restaurants serving curry and chips!

At least the above painting does not have a 'moving' waterfall!

Equally vacuous are three-dimensional objects like the one above
 Indeed, art that is predicated on 'dolls' (increasingly popular now) is often prone to the worst forms of sentimentality and well on the way to becoming true kitsch

The 'construction' shown above, for example, combines the doll's 'soft porn' pose with pink frippery and 'Baroque' framing, creating an image that is pure kitsch

Without (I hope!) sounding prudish, these dolls are often  mildly erotic AND simultaneously  disturbing, confidently exuding a sexuality far beyond anything Hans Bellmer may have envisioned when he created his mannequins

Is this an 'art-doll' or a soft-porn, three-dimensional figurine?
YOU decide!

Either way, this doll is decidedly ambiguous, both in its sexual 'function' (art or porn?) and in its 'place' within normal conventions of art or sculpture

Perhaps this is not such a bad thing after all for new art often pushes traditional boundaries but in this case I simply find it lacking in taste, let alone artistic integrity

Here (above) the tension between the figure's childlike youth and her provocative, sexually 'aware' pose also pushes this image towards kitsch - not least because it retains sufficient associations with traditional dolls to render it morally ambiguous 

Similarly, the pose above is entirely gratuitous and one not normally associated with a young girl reading a book. This position - drawing attention to her raised buttocks and parted legs - is entirely contrived, as is the ludicrous cloth 'plinth' on which she lies

It is - some might argue - bad art and of questionable taste 

What do YOU think?

Moreover, in recent years there has been a tendency among some sculptors to move towards more detailed versions of the female figure, including anatomically explicit representation of a 
woman's labia 

This may or may not be an artistic 'advance' but it does introduce an element of explicit 'porn' into such figurines

Porn and 'art' have a long tradition and most major artists have explored this relationship but statues like the example above are more explicit than usual and increasingly raise issues of artistic taste

While contemporary art often tries to demolish traditional values, shaving a woman's armpit is not perhaps one we might think of as 'progressive'

Similarly, popular culture (including adult comics) is littered with images that are both sexually explicit and consistently 'taste-less' yet who are we to say what is good taste and what is bad?

We like to think we can distinguish one from the other but if this brief look at kitsch has shown  us anything it is that such distinctions are often difficult to quantify, let alone justify

Many of us might well claim that we can recognise bad taste when we see it (as in the above painting of a mutilated young woman?) but taste itself is a cultural construct, changing over time and therefore difficult to pin down

Is the above image, for example, in good or bad taste?

Much will depend, no doubt, on your religious convictions or on deciding if the artist is being deliberately provocative - in which case you might argue that it is not a matter of 'taste' but of artistic license and therefore acceptable

Some images are simply 'silly' and yet contain elements that are both suggestive and mildly pornographic

Does this push them into the 'kitsch' category?

Others (as in the 'cow' above) are both absurd AND provocative, forcing us into exploring our notions of what constitutes female sexuality - something  here between an object of sexual desire and a 'milch cow' or bizarre mother figure

If you consider this BAD taste then it must surely go into the 'kitsch' category, not least because it is tacky and mildly offensive

Again, these are subjective terms. Other may simply find this image amusing!

Some contemporary artists (I am thinking here of Jeff Koons, for example) have deliberately exploited these juxtapositions of the 'classical' and the 'banal' 

Jeff Koons

They have  created works of great originality, thereby pushing the traditional boundaries of what constitutes artistic taste and sensibility to new and often provocative levels

Sometimes the result is both amusing AND provocative, deliberately sabotaging traditional orthodoxies - something Dada did over 100 years ago

Here the sculptor has reversed the process, carving from the obese figure a slim, tastefully elegant young woman

Good or bad taste?

One characteristic of kitsch is a tendency towards 'excess' - something Baroque churches have in spades

In the above, three-dimensional construction, excess is taken to absurd levels, resulting in a decidedly tacky, horribly cluttered artefact

While the sofa (shown above) is both witty and reasonably functional, it surely falls within the kitsch remit - not least because of its garish colours, 'camp' contours and the texture and structure of a sticky, pink wedding cake!

But what of the elaborate painting below? 
Is this kitsch?

Michael Reedy

This is much more difficult to decide!
Let's take a closer look:

The skull and partially exposed body of the woman is brilliantly drawn, clearly placing her within that artistic tradition in which the human body is shown to be far from immortal

This is surely Eve (notice the large snake moving against her thigh) about to taste the apple and as such is a powerful, somewhat disturbing image

And yet....

The woman's exposed thorax has, inexplicably, retained its nipples and, despite the ominous presence of the serpent, she is surrounded by pretty 'bunny rabbits' and cute birds - images or decorative elements that, in my view, diminish the power of the central figure

Here 'Eve' grins wickedly at the viewer, flaunting her sexuality even at the moment she is about to acquire mortality - the ultimate 'fall from grace'

What Michael Reedy is trying to do, I suspect, is challenge traditional images of Eve in the Garden of Eden and explore notions of human decay, death and mortality. This is a tall order, not helped by the somewhat melodramatic composition, bizarre 'smile' and provocative tilt of the woman's hips

In short, this IS kitsch - albeit of a high order!

What do YOU think?


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