Art Term Tuesday: (Ill)Legitimate Art-Kitsch

Michael Breuning, Contributing Writer

A gold statue of Micheal Jackson holding a monkey.
The sculpture that got contributing writer, Michael Breuning, thinking about Kitsch art at The Broad LA. Jeff Koons, American, b.1955. Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. Photo courtesy of Michael Breuning.

Recently on a visit to the Broad in Los Angeles, I came across a cartoonish sculpture of Michael Jackson and his beloved chimpanzee, Bubbles. Little did I know how serendipitous the quick photo I would snap would be to this article. Today’s Art Term Tuesday: Kitsch.

For those of you familiar with Yiddish or German, you’ll recognize the word “kitsch” as a tongue-in-cheek way of calling something cheap or gaudy: and that’s exactly what it means. In the art world, Kitsch is both a descriptor and a movement. Popularized in the early 20th century, Kitsch art is often something that looks vapid, exaggerated, mass-produced, hastily assembled, and, ultimately, the product of a work as far removed from its creator as humanly possible. Another key feature is recognizability – the piece must be so extremely accessible to the general public that it is recognized instantly. The more recognizable, the easier it is for the artist to communicate their critique by what they change, omit, or emphasize. Examples include pop-culture, singers, political figures, or brand logos you’d see at a grocery store.

The inception of the movement is essentially a reaction to the unironic creation of expedient art. That is to say, early kitsch artists offered a critique of art so carelessly made it suggested that whoever produced it was not an artist at all. Furthermore, the critique extends to the culture from which this kind of art comes from and, particularly, the consumers. Art critic Clement Greenberg addressed this in his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, in which he defended Kitsch art as “Academic art” because it was a response to consumerism and the resulting “dumbing down” or culture. Jeff Koons (b. 1955), the sculptor of the work I mentioned earlier of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, describes objects of Kitsch art as “defined not so much by their function as by their audience, [and] their market.”[1]

With Kitsch’s indispensible penchant for public appeal, art enthusiasts and scholars seek to disqualify its legitimacy as an art form. Much like Dadaism of the early 1900’s, which served as an anti-art movement that framed chunks of asphalt and used “ready-made” found-objects as “art”, the artistic merit of what constitutes “art” was increasingly marginalized. In Kitsch, the artist’s ambivalence toward a particular piece replace the careful nuances imbued into works in more conventional disciplines.

The legitimacy of Kitsch art was so disputed in the early 20th century that Nazi-controlled Germany outlawed it.[2] The Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, considered Kitsch art to be not just illegitimate but corrosive to the homogenous culture the Nazis sought to create. A writer in the regime characterized the art style as, “Spiritual terrorism practiced by the madmen of civilization.”[3] When Goebbels wasn’t busy raiding the Louvre, he sponsored a campaign against Kitsch art under the guise of preserving the integrity of national symbols, that resulted in the passing and implementation of what was known as the Anti-Kitsch Law. The Regime struggled to define Kitsch to the public but cited examples of “small household atrocities”[4] like “…cheap Christmas souvenirs, toilet paper holders in the shape of garden gnomes [and] cute plastic kittens serving as paperweights”[5], aside from things considered to be politically divisive like “pencils with [Hitler’s] face on them.”[6]

Included in the show that day at the Broad was Andy Warhol’s post-modern masterpiece: Campbell’s Soup 1: Tomato 46 (1968). Coincidentally, or perhaps not a coincidence, the Warhol piece, in its glorious ubiquity, falls under the umbrella of Kitsch. A contemporary of Koons, a good portion of Warhol’s work draws attention to every-day objects, sparsely manipulated to catch the admiration or scorn of its audience.

FWMoA has delved into Kitsch art a couple of times, most recently with our Robert Williams exhibition in 2017 (see photos above), Slang Aesthetics. What do you think makes Robert Williams’ art “kitsch”?

Kitsch is further defined as a poor imitation or rip-off. Often times, Kitch-artists execute the style inadvertently. In the article, How kitsch consumed the world, associate professor of philosophy at the Golf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait[7], Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, draws attention to the fact that dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddfi utilized Kitsch imagery in their regimes to depict themselves as reminiscent of old Soviet statues from the USSR. Botz-Bornstein also suggests that terrorist groups often use exaggerated, Kitsch-influenced imagery of “romantic presentations of sunrises, pre-modern utopias, as well as Gothic presentations of skulls and bones” in their propaganda and press releases.[8]

A statue of Bart Simpson as a horse.
What makes this Bart Simpson toy kitsch? “Bart Simpson” from Obvious Plant’s Museum of Toys in Los Angeles, CA, 2019. Photo courtesy of Michael Breuning.

Later that week I visited a pop-up museum near Koreatown called the Museum of Toys hosted by a satirical website, Obvious Plant, and was delighted to see that despite the bad-rap Kitsch art gets, it’s still alive and well.

1] Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. The Aesthetics of Frozen Dreams: Kitsch and Anti-Kitsch in Jeff Koons and Mariko Mori. Art in Society 9(2010)

[2] Skradol, Natalia. “Fascism and Kitsch: The Nazi Campaign against Kitsch.” German Studies Review 34, no. 3 (2011): 595-612.

[3] Skradol, 598.

[4] Skradol, 597.

[5] Skradol ,597.

[6] Skradol, 597.

[7] Botz-Bornstein, How kitsch consumed the world. The (2017)

[8] Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. How kitsch consumed the world.

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