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