Share
You could earn SmartPoints on this page!SmartPoint Coin

June 24, 2013 at 10:31 AMComments: 20 Faves: 0

Buying Kitsch like Sheep to the Rhythm of a War Drum: A Call to Arms

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

Riding the Coattails of Sentimentality

We’ve all felt like giving that goofball with the glazed facial expression wearing a smiley-face t-shirt double birds. We’ve all walked past a gaudy garden gnome in someone’s front yard and felt the strong urge to give it a swift roundhouse kick to the invitingly extended jugular. We’ve all seen that car with the massive Troll Doll collection strategically placed in the rear dash of a moderately priced red sedan and imagined decapitating the obnoxiously grinning formica smartasses with our bare hands. We’ve all wandered into that crazy uncle’s basement, witnessed the cheap print of a group of dogs playing poker through a haze of cigar smoke, and longed to rip it unceremoniously from its cheap frame, before smashing it over said crazy uncle’s bald head repeatedly.

We’ve all determined that this campiness, this fraudulent flatulence parading as art, is worthless and should be atomically eradicated, right? Haven’t we? No? That was just me? Hmmm… well, before this sociopathic bloodlust gets out of hand, perhaps we should investigate the origins of kitsch and how it is currently destroying the artistic fabric of our lives. At the conclusion of which, you can either choose to join me in my potentially useless crusade, or go buy a gaggle of pink flamingos, place them in your front yard, and become the object of neighborhood ridicule and scorn.

Pink Flamingo

While an exact definition of the term is debatable, from an historical perspective, kitsch can be viewed as any art form based on a preexisting style that is created, mass-produced, and then distributed for the sole purpose of profitability. Basically, kitsch is the practice of riding the coattails of sentimentality by creating some sort of aesthetic compost, then exploiting the public’s inherent devotion to nostalgia.

We all long for a return to a time that likely never existed anywhere outside of our own heads. Kitsch allows for this and acts as a veritable time warp, albeit one that is usually found on the clearance rack rather than in the driver’s seat of a silver DeLorean. Not that there’s anything wrong with filling a need in order to turn a buck, but there is something wrong with molding your perceived identity through monetary transactions at Target. If you disagree with this statement, I would suggest you stop reading immediately and go shopping.

Stuff

Living in a modern industrialized nation allows us a great many conveniences that we often take for granted, but it also makes us a lazier, less interesting society. True originality may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean that we should saturate our lives with imitation. There’s too much beauty in the world to constrain ourselves to overproduced, underwhelming forms of art. Kitsch is currently the greatest threat to the artistic community, and its popularity is only surpassed by its inferiority. With kitsch, there is no creativity, no innovation, simply a barely recognizable simulacrum of what once could have plausibly passed for art.

The effect that this is having on the modern artistic community is difficult to quantify with any degree of precision, but the increasing fondness for kitschy items means that authentic expressions of art, and their creators, are struggling to gain public exposure. We live in a culture that prides itself on producing quality goods at affordable prices for blue-collar families, and despite the fact that this practice has had disastrous unintended (and ignored) consequences for the lower- and middle-class, it’s still admirable that we at least feign the illusion of class status equality and the potential for upward mobility.

Unfortunately, this affordability is a direct result of our ability to mass produce worthless pieces of plastic and pass them off as quality goods. Because cheap kitschy junk has become the status quo, most average Americans would rather shop for items to spruce up their living rooms at Home Goods, World Market, or a dollar store than an actual personal transaction with an artisan at an art fair, in a gallery, or online. I guess no one is willing to pay fair market price for a quality first edition print of a painting when they can just buy a similar, yet inferior, piece on QVC for $19.99. The market dictates desire, and we’re passive enough to maintain our languid obsession with the banal.

Trolls

This anti-corporate stance likely comes off as hipsterish, but it’s important to remember that, as the world shrinks, the elements within it become more closely connected. It’s frustrating that independent artists struggle to earn a living for their singular talents while men whose grandfathers earned their keep for them exploit their employees and convince their customers that cost is the only thing that matters. Meanwhile, kitsch abounds exponentially as the market for minimally priced, marginally unique mimesis continues to grow, and every passing day further distances us from artistic integrity. A gagging order has been placed on originality to ensure the advancement of retail disguised as expression... And the duct tape must be peeled from our spongy little brains before it suffocates our neural pathways once and for all.

McI.D.

Originality is predicated on, and comes as the result of, conflict, and conflict is only possible when there exists opposition (meaning at least two parties/entities/concepts are involved). Therefore, the idea of singular creation seems counterintuitive. This also means that movements (artistic or otherwise) will always be inspired by a referent – something insofar as it is related to something else (don’t worry, no commentary on the nature of language today, folks). What this doesn’t mean is that we should give up and embrace kitsch, but rather that we should attempt to build upon it to subvert and redirect its intended purpose. In doing so, we can further advance the dialectical dialogue concerning our value systems, political ideologies, cultural norms, etc.

Of course, when I speak of originality, I’m not talking about the hocus-pocus, alakazaam, making-something-out-of-nothing brand of originality. I believe this a phenomenon stored snuggly away in the permanence of the past. That sort of creation likely only happened once in our universe’ history (whether or not this was done intelligently, I cowardly absolve myself of judgment). Everything since has been pure evolution; we’ve engaged in an as-of-yet endless reinventing of the wheel, so to speak. We gladly borrow from our predecessors in an effort to continue along this evolutionary track. In and of itself, kitsch represents the derailing of this continuance, whereas a shift in philosophical approach (Abstract Expressionism, Post-Modernism, Surrealism) progresses the speed of the train, while simultaneously denying the existence of a final destination.

Fuzzy Dice

So, if kitsch can be viewed as “bad art,” why can’t we just let it be what it is and ignore it? We can’t because there’s no escape; it permeates every aspect of our lives. It is becoming the standard because we are exalting its affordability and validating its existence by accepting it as a mode of self-identification and confusing it with self-actualization. Advertising, professional sports, music, fashion: These are all the machinations of McDonaldization, the desired result of kitsch, predicated on championing quantity over quality and the permanent enslavement of the creative impulse. The key here is industry, distribution, monetary exchange, and consumption. There is a war for our minds taking place and the battlefields exist on an invisible plane on ordinary Wednesday summer afternoons. Yet, we can’t mount a defense because we are ignorant of the tools within our grasp.

World War Kitsch

That couch you’re sitting on is comfortable isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be even more so if you grabbed one of the afghans resting in the little basket beneath your dusty coffee table and tipped your body over roughly 90 degrees so that your head was positioned comfortably on the down throw pillow currently resting directly adjacent to your elbow and your feet were doing the same at the opposite end of the couch? Your wife won’t be home from work for another hour or so, leaving just enough time to get in a solid siesta before the “honey do list” grotesquely transmogrifies from a simple piece of lined paper on your refrigerator to a horrific set of tasks that need completed before the weekend barbeque. You’re tired, you’re stressed. You worked all day, the dog’s been fed… You DESERVE this!

Couch

No! Stop! Don’t do it! I command you! Life is too damn short, and there will be plenty of time to sleep when it’s over! Rub the crust from your eyes, and think about what you're doing!

Too often, we confuse satiation with satisfaction. We resentfully punch our respective time clocks, forgetting the one concrete fact of our existence (and the only inescapable one): Soon, we’ll all be punching our tickets on an entirely different, and significantly more permanent, clock. We fool ourselves into believing that the begrudging obligatory fulfillment of our daily eight hours of employment somehow gives us a free pass to waste our lives watching a series of Proctor & Gamble commercials on our televisions that are only periodically interrupted by actual programming. We identify with our job titles and lose touch with the possibility of ourselves. We claim to “put in time” with our significant others, but we don’t – not really any way. We go through the motions without achieving any forward momentum. We push our carts through the frozen food aisles of life, acting as consumers rather than creators because the former is convenient and the latter requires thought and effort.

It’s time to restock our arsenal, to arm our creative impulse rather than dull it. Instead of relying on our paychecks to buy the products we’ve been told we want, we should be loafing out some bread to buy tools to create what we’ve always suspected we need. Ask yourself how you want to go about carving out your essence and what items you need to accomplish this. Picasso needed a paintbrush, Orwell needed an inkwell, MacGyver needed a few safety pins and a piece of Juicy Fruit. Once they had these basic tools, they simply had to look at the world around them to begin making a place for themselves in it. Who’s to say that we can’t do the same? Peel yourself off the couch, peel that cat clock off your wall, feed your brain with artistic pursuits, and help stamp out kitsch for good!

Photo Credit:

Dan McKay

Diane Turner

eflon

Eje Gustafsson

sciencensorcery

More from Kyle McCarthy from SLN Others Are Reading

20 Comments

  • I guess I got lost a little in the grandiose vocabulary. Are we supposed to buy unique art, or are we supposed to create unique art? Or is it both? I ask, mainly because I am a terrible painter: walls or landscapes. Next, as much as I would love to help out the starving artist that shows up at the booths of my local fair, I am "starving" (not literally) myself. I don't have the funds to purchase cute things at Wal-Mart, let alone something that someone created so majestically in their personal studio. I am all for creative exploration, but I myself am not creative. I wanted so badly to write music, but each and every time I set down to do so, I only emulated my favorite artists. I could not create an original piece of music to save my life. So, with my complete lack of funds, along with my lack of originality, makes my life of creativity extremely difficult.

  • I respect what you're saying and agree that as a society we are far too inclined to just fall in line and coast, but I have to say, I like a little camp and kitsch. True, it doesn't accomplish much and troll dolls and gnomes are not the same thing as art, but I think that's okay, and good even!

    Not too far from a beautiful Alex Grey print, there's a little stuffed gnome I sewed sitting next to my computer right now. It's adorable, a little creepy, and it makes me smile. It's not a piece of art mastery celebrating the beauty, magic, and complexity of nature and science, but it makes people laugh. I think it's a good thing not to take yourself too seriously all the time. While we do need to do a better job of supporting real original works and the artists behind them, I don't believe we need to feel guilty for appreciating less lofty creations.

  • revolutionnnn

  • Kyle, it sounds like you're blurring the line between kitsch and nostalgia, and I have a problem with that. Nearly your entire first paragraph crucifies people who've held onto their bad art from bygone times and shunned the new in order to cement the aspects of culture and art that define and comfort them. I can't fault nostalgia that just happened to be kitschy like I want to fault that which is kitschy for the sake of kitsch. For example, it is inherently wrong to treat two acts of quirky art the same when one may be a brand new garden gnome - purposefully mass-produced for cheap kitschy shock factor - and the other being an original artistic work, bravely surviving the period beyond which it was popular and novel and unique. Even the most kitschy of terrible things once started as someone's passion, someone's art. To ignore that and lose art is as great a tragedy as not fostering newly created art.

  • Man, you're getting eaten on this one, Kyle! haha!

    Hope you don't feel attacked, but your stance does strike me as odd - especially considering your last blog on pop culture insecurity ( http://www.smartlivingnetwork.com/viewpoint/b/culturology-trading-pleasure-for-guilt-the-senselessness-of-pop-culture-insecurity/ ). To me, in your definition of kitsch "any art form based on a preexisting style that is created, mass-produced, and then distributed for the sole purpose of profitability." falls directly in line with the pop music industry,

    Agree? Disagree?

  • Man, you're getting eaten on this one, Kyle! haha!

    Hope you don't feel attacked, but your stance does strike me as odd - especially considering your last blog on pop culture insecurity ( http://www.smartlivingnetwork.com/viewpoint/b/culturology-trading-pleasure-for-guilt-the-senselessness-of-pop-culture-insecurity/ ). To me, in your definition of kitsch "any art form based on a preexisting style that is created, mass-produced, and then distributed for the sole purpose of profitability." falls directly in line with the pop music industry,

    Agree? Disagree?

  • That's fine, everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but kitsch and nostalgia ARE inherently linked. This relationship is actually the defining essence of kitsch, so I feel no need to shrink from the correlation. In this instance, the original gnome was not kitsch; it was simply a gnome. However, we've allowed for it to become much more, and I have a problem with that. Nostalgia should be avoided at all costs because, at its core, there exists a false sense of security from a time and place that we have subconsciously built up to far more than what the actual experience was. Distance allows for this to occur and "blurs the line" of reality and perception.

    It's one thing to ironically admire kitsch, it's another thing entirely to buy into its false promise, which entails a nebulous, yet firm, relationship between cheap, mass produced nonsense that plays with our perception. It keeps us stuck in the past rather than accelerating forward momentum.

    As for my previous blog, I do believe that people should like what they like, but they should also do so with the responsibility and good sense to recognize authentically what it is that they admire about it. What makes kitsch kitsch is that it makes us feel connected, but that connection only occurs as a result of mimesis and imitation, hallmarks of a culturally bankrupt post-industrialized society.

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/431644?uid=3739704&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102433346907

  • I was having a great morning till I attempted to read this angry and honestly nit picky blog.

    Does it really bother you that much? I have a Griffins Gnome in my front yard. Do you want to punt it like Hanson did footballs?

    I think you're letting stupid BS junk rile you up way too much. Maybe all that annoyance you experience is why you have that 2:30pm feeling all day. Whatever turns your pages I guess. that my $0.05 to make up for inflation.

  • Glad I could contribute to your morning! And thanks for such a typical response from someone whose entire identity is wrapped up in perpetuating these sort of lies. Naturally, you didn't bother to actually discuss any of the points I addressed, instead choosing to embark on a weak character attack on my early afternoon fatigue.

    I don't think I'm letting anything rile me up too much, I think I'm a writer trying to make a point about inauthentic notions of art and that you are a troll throwing up visceral reactions to things you don't agree with rather than thinking them through in any logical fashion.

    Again, thanks for your concern about the fatigue, but I would suggest you attempt fleshing out an argument of your own before commenting on one.

    Also, Jason Hanson was a kicker, not a punter.

  • Geez. I knew I should have just ignored this after the first paragraph. Calm down, you must have read my post like a declaration of war. I was just giving you a little jab at joke you make about yourself and you come back with a solid hay maker to nose of my (apparently lacking) intelligence. I'll admit the obvious. You're writing capabilities are far above my comprehension levels. From the little I could understand I gathered a person pissed off at yard trinkets, and trolls cause they're mass produced and aren't amazingly intellectual progressive items. Kind of like KISS music. I guess I was way off. I'll keep away from your blogs entirely.

    I literally face palmed over my stupidity about Hanson. Still I see you got the point which means the mistake got the job done.

  • "What makes kitsch kitsch is that it makes us feel connected"

    So then, if mimicry or a feeling of (social?) connection are required for something to be kitsch, and the motivation I have for say, purchasing a garden gnome, is neither of these things, is simply that it amuses me, than that garden gnome is not kitsch? Does motive for ownership change the object's kitsch status? Is your issue more with the object itself or is it the attempt to fit in by owning the object?

  • "Nostalgia should be avoided at all costs because, at its core, there exists a false sense of security from a time and place that we have subconsciously built up to far more than what the actual experience was."

    Reminds me of Midnight in Paris. :) I'm totally guilty of this, but is it really so wrong to admire and draw inspiration from the past? I don't see the problem with that so long as we keep things in perspective. Balance.

  • "...but that connection only occurs as a result of mimesis and imitation"

    As someone who struggles with something so fundamental as readable penmanship, I've never been that concerned with the perceived visual aesthetic of art, but rather the feelings evoked and the commentary expressed.

    In the case of the garden gnome, the object itself is merely a piece of cheap plaster. It becomes kitsch when we all stand around and agree that it should make us feel a certain way. So, yes... I would say that the motive for ownership is paramount in this discussion. The problem then becomes our lack of self-awareness. Most people probably think they're being ironic or cute when they subscribe to kitsch, but, most of the time, they're likely only fooling themselves - there does, in fact, exist a piece of the consumer that identifies with an item because it fits into a larger cultural strata and makes them feel a sense of cheap nostalgia. (For instance: The retro sports jersey obsession of 2003-2008.)

    This is also what makes us like internet memes so much.

    I'm not saying that the world is going to end because people have Coca-Cola themed basements, I'm suggesting we be aware of how kitsch affects us below the surface and act accordingly.


  • I think that this is quote sums up kitsch perfectly:

    "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass!
    The second tear says: how nice to be moved, along with all mankind, by children running on the grass.
    It's the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

    In this example there isn't even a piece of art to speak of, which is interesting because the important thing isn't "THE THING," it's the falsely reassuring "shared" experience of "THE THING." It's not an evil reaction to feel comforted by nostalgia, just a boring one - and boredom is the antithesis of creation.

  • I feel like you picked quite the controversial topic, most people disagree with this but I think it's supposed to raise an argument. I feel your vocabulary does raise some questions, however, due to how you use Mcdonalds (I laughed a little). But I do enjoy sitting on my couch, and curling up with a blanket. Is that so wrong? I do love a cat nap, and I love to shop frugally. Am I wrong in this notion? MacGyver was a television hero, not an accurate description of the Everyman. I cannot solely survive on a stick of Juicy Fruit. I need subsistence. I need meat. I need veggies. I need snacks.

    Am I kitsch? I did not realize I was, but I admit to being something. At least, if I can admit anything. I do feel you should look over your terms, and perhaps think of what is "hipster" and what isn't. I can agree with some points, some others may not.

    Great article, though. :)

  • I caught the A Perfect Circle reference, too. Really different, not sure if it fits this situation, but maybe it's just because it is out of hand so much with kitsch in your argument that it may not be aware to other people.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonaldization

    I get the sense that Maynard is not so much a fan of kitsch, and the song referenced repeats the line "Go back to sleep" nearly 40 times. I'm trying to make a point about apathy.

    Unfortunately, I am far too familiar with hipsters and feel that I have a pretty strong grasp on their poser tendencies.

  • Also, thanks for the compliment, Colleen. I like writing about topics that could ruffle a few feathers. I guess I don't see much point in writing without some sort of argument - to which, we all know there are always two sides, which is what makes it both challenging and fun!

  • Kitsch and nostalgia are two things that I think get a little blurred here. Troll dolls aren't quite the same as a Norman Rockwell print, in the same way a Norman Rockwell isn't the same as Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes. The difference between that epic troll collection (which I had mind you, among other menageries and collections that are now gone) is the cultural significance. I think the overall point you're making is the ephemeral nature of it all, which is a perfectly understandable thing. Every decade is full of junk (kitsch) but among those mounds of toys that we didn't need in the first place are some anomalies that deserve their due.

  • Again, according to universally accepted definitions of kitsch, the fundamental feature is its dependence upon nostalgia. So, no, I do not believe I am blurring any lines, I think that people are purposefully refusing to note the intrinsic relationship that exists due to an attachment to their beloved stuff. This is fine, but it should be recognized as inauthentic. As for gnomes, Rockwell, and Warhol, they are separated only by the degree to which irony is a factor. Love him or hate him, Warhol was using the notion of kitsch to make a commentary on it, which was really a comment on society at large.

Comment on the Smart Living Network


Site Feedback