Defying easy categorization kitsch, prized or loathed, entertained or rejected, reflects mass-cultural values in a given era while simultaneously exposing the relationship between the masses and the forces controlling production. “Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same,” Greenberg declared, suggesting that, while the forms and contents of kitsch may shift over time, the nature of kitsch in relation to culture at large is invariable.
In an under developed country like Pakistan where pretentious populist art out numbers limited production of highbrow aesthetics how exactly do we define kitsch art? Originally applicable exclusively to paintings the term soon spread to other disciplines and today in the arts kitsch is anything that claims to have an aesthetic purpose but is tawdry and tasteless. In the highly urbanized western culture hard lines have been drawn between the sophisticated and the primitive. In third world nations antiquity and modernity exist in unison. Elements of our primal folk culture, in all their ethnic and regional vibrancy, jostle for space alongside the urban and semi urban trajectory of the mega cities creating uneasy mixes of the two. The semantics of culture here are such that there cannot be sharp demarcations between the refined and the crude. Several hybrid levels coexist. So where do we place the garish film poster that screams at us from cinema hoardings, the jarring rickshaw, bus and truck art that we collide with every day and the loud and profuse billboard advertising that grates our sensibility at every turn? As expressions emanating from within our culture they reflect the sensibility of a mass audience. Other than these daily encounters with street art we have a considerable amount of shoddily packaged bazaar art to contend with. The brand culture mindset comes with its own strands of tackiness and likewise in a buyers’ market crafted décor art too has succumbed to inferior levels of workmanship and cheap ostentation. Popular culture abounds with the handicraft and object d art of the unlettered artist and master artisan, some of which are exquisite specimens of genuine folk art but a great deal of corrupted art, in the strictest sense, is kitsch – yet these types of creations reaffirm rather than challenge the collective norm, and are a source of sheer entertainment in opposition to the elevated perception generated by high art. The appeal of kitsch resides in its formula, its familiarity, and its validation of shared sensibilities.
“If works of art were judged democratically–that is, according to how many people like them–kitsch would easily defeat all its competitors,” observed Thomas Kulka in his volume devoted to the study of kitsch art. Likewise Milan Kundera argued “No matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” The critic Harold Rosenberg deadpanned that “Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations.”
Indeed virtually surrounded by kitsch a desensitized public seems to assimilate it almost unconsciously.
So what exactly is wrong with it?
A difficult to refute charge leveled against kitsch is that it is aesthetically impoverished and morally dubious – meant more to satisfy consumer demand than invoke a genuine aesthetic response.
Setting aside the tawdriness of pure populist craft / art creations which cater to the man in the street, it is the deliberate infiltration of kitsch in the realm of high end fine art that is questionable. Like forgery, kitsch is an inevitable feature of an art world in which money and desire are spread more widely than taste and knowledge. It is kitsch’s appeal to the crass tastes of the newly moneyed that has led to the prolific production of substandard art here. Considerable amounts of genre art in our milieu like watercolour, landscape and still life as well as calligraphy qualify in this context. Such art does not confront prevailing perceptions, and is generally imbued with a saccharine sweetness. The comfort level generated by a kitschy slant reassures the struggling ever anxious middleclass of their status and position.
The role of kitsch in postmodern pop art has further muddied the fine line between high and low art. By poking fun at high art idolatry, Duchamp and the Dadaists pitted themselves against kitsch and initiated a modern tradition which has continued through Pop Art and the irreverent strains of Postmodernism. The appropriation of popular, kitschy imagery and objects in contemporary miniature and multi and mix media arts is fodder to the mill of new generation art. Unlike populist art this appropriation of kitsch is used as a challenging rather than a passive component of the art which plants kitsch right into the heart of this new art. Playing with the raw, the unorthodox and the trite has accorded young Pakistani art just the kind of edge it needed to impact international audiences.
In the global arena kitsch is already en vogue for the ‘thrill’ and ‘novelty’ factor it can impart to art. Dubbed the ‘king of kitsch,’ Jeff Koons is perhaps the world’s most famous living artist – or to quote the Fondation Beyeler in Basel that has dedicated its summer exhibition to his work, “one of the most influential artists of all time.” Alive with playful sexual imagery and the clash between “high” and “low” art, the show offers a chance to explore the oeuvre of an American sculptor who has courted controversy throughout his career, writes Meritxell Mir. Like British artist and friend Damien Hirst, Koons embraces the role of the celebrity artist. His goal is to popularize art by making it accessible to all – despite the fact his works sell for several million dollars apiece.
Jeff Koons recent Basel show is chronologically divided into three series the segment, The New (1980-1987) focused on unused Hoover vacuum cleaners, which are presented as precious objects of desire, lit from below in Plexiglas vitrines. Inspired by the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, this strange decontextualiztion lets the viewer in on Koons’ perception of the devices as “breathing machines” with “biological shapes.” The phallic handle, the holes and pipes, their sucking power force you to alter your prosaic perceptions. Kitsch and sophisticated art blur in his series Banality (1982-1992) – the work that propelled him to the heights of international celebrity. Employing traditional artisan techniques and materials such as fine porcelain that carry aristocratic associations, these oversized pastiches of tacky ornaments associated with the culturally unsophisticated were Koons’ way of questioning the role of art in contemporary society. Pop art was back with some nineties flavour. The series Celebration is an ambitious project consisting mainly of monumental sculptures crafted in chromium stainless steel. The most famous, Balloon Dog, has a highly polished stainless steel surface mirroring its surroundings and once again challenging viewers to interact with the work as they confront their own reflection. Love it or hate it the works are provocative. In an earlier exhibition at Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace two of Koons sculptures were sold for more than 16 million euros each. Such sales affirm the confidence kitsch continues to enjoy in spite of the criticism leveled against it. Kitsch will thrive as long as a supportive public keeps certifying its presence