When Kitsch is the Means to an Artistic End We Get - Kitsch Art

November 22, 2015

It’s a bit tricky to write about kitsch art. There are several reasons why it is so complicated: first, the word Kitsch does not even have a clear definition (actually, there are a number of definitions); second, labeling some art as a kitsch art may sound offensive and aggressive, suggesting that kitsch is actually “bad and ugly” art (which is not the case, it does not have to be neither offensive nor aggressive); third, kitsch might be understood quite ambiguously – it may refer to different things. Therefore, it is very important to offer the most common definition of Kitsch that is used. In this article, we will also try to give some examples of kitsch art.

Kitsch art
Vladimir Tretchikoff (courtesy of guardian.co.uk)

What is Kitsch Art ?

Kitsch can be defined as a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. However, it can also be defined as art, decorative objects or design considered by many people to be ugly, lacking in style, or false but enjoyed by other people, often because they are funny. According to the Oxford art dictionary, kitsch is "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". Many art critics argue that kitsch art is characterized by exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama. We could list a number of definitions. But, what is common for all these definitions is the fact that to brand visual art as "kitsch" is generally pejorative. Probably the best definition of kitsch gave Walter Benjamin. According to this famous cultural critic and philosopher, "kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer; it offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation".

Kitsch art
Jeff Koons - Orange Dog

Kitch as a Pejorative Term in Visual Arts

If we follow the definition offered by Benjamin, to say that a piece of art is kitsch would mean that it is bad. Art and kitsch cannot go together. If something is kitsch, it cannot be considered as a piece of art. What is the purpose of art if a viewer or observer cannot make a critical stance, to contemplate, to perceive something more from pure aesthetics? Art cannot be reduced to a pure enjoyment of aesthetical. So, kitsch art, according to many experts, cannot be considered as art at all. Or, it can, but it would be “bad” art. Many contemporary artists are accused of implementing kitsch elements in their oeuvres – Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama and many others. Although these amazing artists are accused of their “kitsch artworks”, they are among most popular contemporary artists.

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Kitsch art
Cottage-shaped tea pot and milk jug

It is Kitsch, It is Beautiful

On the other hand, there are different views on Kitsch art. As Oxford Art Dictionary suggests, kitsch art is art, as simply as that. If we embrace the fact that art is subjective (while someone like Marina Abramovic, others dislike her work), we could make a parallel to the kitsch art as well – what is for one person kitsch, for others it can be a perfect piece of art. Indeed, we can often hear a sentence that goes: “I like it, it’s so kitsch”. Therefore, many artists purposely use kitsch in their work, because they like it, and they believe their audience also considers it as a “good art”. Finally, and to be completely honest, some of the greatest works in the history of art are kitsch.

Kitsch art
Andy Warhol - Campbell Soup Cans. 1962, detail

Kitsch Art Movement

Following our arguments about the ambiguity of the term Kitsch, we have to mention a movement that is called The Kitsch Movement. The movement began in 1998 when Odd Nerdrum declared himself a Kitsch Painter. The movement defines Kitsch as synonymous with the art of the ancient Rome or the Greek techne. Kitsch painters embrace it as a positive term: not in opposition to art, but as its own independent superstructure, with a strong philosophical background. Some of the most notable painters of the Kitsch Art Movement are Nerdrum’s students, and this movement has attracted a lot of attention and had several exhibitions. It seems that kitsch art is art after all.

Featured Image: Odd Nerdrum - Drifting. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.