Kitsch

by John Miller

What is the quintessential icon of kitsch? Perhaps a plastic Venus de Milo statuette complete with working clock embedded in the stomach. An image such as this affords, among other things, a convenient reference point from which to draw a line between us, those who can be counted upon to know kitsch when they see it, and them, the untutored masses. Unfortunately for “us,” whoever we might be, the reliability of such distinctions is more often than not questionable, if not illusory.

It was Clement Greenberg who, in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” strove to define the avant-garde as a last bastion against kitsch. In treating the vagaries of mass culture as a moral contaminant, however, he seriously underestimated its overall revolutionary potential and the extent to which traditional culture would be irrevocably transformed by the ongoing processes of industrialization. The dissolution of so-called high art was already well underway when the Dadaists incorporated imagery from popular magazines and newspapers into their photomontages. By the time “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” appeared, Surrealism [more], with its hybrid dream objects, had heralded an onslaught of Venus de Milo clocks to come. But beyond the progression of various art movements per se, Greenberg failed to comprehend how mass culture-as-spectacle enabled kitsch to gobble up authentic masterpieces, even the Venus de Milo herself. Charles Baudelaire foresaw this involution in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”: “The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or Raphael—one of those that would have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.‘” Pop artists grappled with this condition in an effort to keep their art from becoming too corny. They showed that artists must address how spectacle inexorably saturates everyday life; failure to acknowledge this truth only perpetuates kitsch. This marked a curious reversal of the accustomed battle lines. Ironically, it is purist aesthetics that then became most vulnerable to kitschification. -- JOHN MILLER

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