How Does Taste In Terms Of Kitsch Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

The term kitsch appeared as relatively very modernistic word which is not very old. It was used for referring cheap art works by the artists and art dealers in Munich, Germany in 1860's and it was widely used in the 20th century. The German terminology of 'kitschen' was a derivative from the same origin which means 'make a thing cheap' and 'verkitschen' means the switch selling which entice with the cheap items. (Binkley, 2000)

For this sense, in the word of kitsch it can be regarded that it contains definition of 'immoral' or 'fake'. Kitsch, then, was expanded its meaning and used widely in the every aspects of life when the industrial manufacturing went into high gear and the consumption was increased in the 20th century. As a result, the wide boundary of kitsch is covering all of the 'cheap and vulgar' items of accessories, decorations of custom products, souvenirs and also even in the art, sculptures, crafts, designs, interior designs, TV programmes and in the commercials in the modern consumer society.

Generally, the nature of kitsch is known as merely the 'bad taste' but actually it has to be highlighted that there is a serious attitude within it that they believe it gives "rich, poshness, or sophisticated mood". Such attitude was created when a new manufacturing/commercial culture was born after the 19th's industrial revolution.

In the late 19th Century, Kitsch appeared and it was soon brought into the popular culture that transformed environment in a way of establishing artificial popular culture consequently. Nowadays, kitsch phenomenon can be found widely along with diverse connection is seen since the 20th century. Kitsch has raised pluralism in art and is also utilized in social structure in relation to popular culture, which even provides a new artistic possibility that transcends the existing aesthetic idea. In this sense, it shows a kind of Kitsch phenomenon. In this paper, it will begin with introducing the historical background of the appearance of kitsch briefly and the meaning of 'taste' defined by various theorists. Then, it will move further into analyzing the establishment of the value of kitsch and its implication throughout the history of modern society. Finally, in conclusion, it will suggest how the aesthetic in the contemporary art has been transformed in terms of the correlation between kitsch and popular culture and art, which is followed by interpretations regarding kitsch in accordance with the cultural stratification.

Greenberg (1961), an art critic, described 'Kitsch' as a new cultural phenomenon of rearguard concepts compared to the avant-garde which appeared from the industrial society of the West. He stated that the large apparitional well-spared image of kitsch appears in the 'popular and commercial art and in the literature with primary colour pictures, cover pages of magazines, illustrations, advertisement, deluxe magazines or cheap lascivious novel, cartoon, popular songs, tap dance, Hollywood films, and etc.'. Initially, kitsch was recognized as the one worse than bad taste due to its failure in the test of creativity and its imitation pretending to be authentic. Thus, it was just an interest in taste rather than a taste for aesthetic experience. Greenberg (1961, p.101) described that kitsch was thought to have substituted the image of oneself as a great feeler for the experience of aesthetic feeling itself. Kitsch was no more than a fake emotion of 'popular tastes' which devalues the real cultures and using materials for creating cheap replicas for cultural/art critics. However, in the modern industrial society the aesthetic analysis of the cultural phenomena of kitsch was intermittently or secretly mentioned in spite of its pervasiveness.

Abraham Moles (1998) said that, the birth of the kitsch items and the attitude as cultural phenomena is much related to the progress of material prosperity of the capitalist civil society of the West. When a society prospers, means to satisfy the desire will be increased then the desire itself and as the result the tendency of over-decoration and adding too much will be excessive. In such general phenomena, the attitude of bourgeoisie which is attempting to relate their logic and norms with art works has appeared.

In Gans's Popular Culture and High Culture (1974), his term 'taste cultures' replaced the distinction between 'popular' and 'high' to avoid the authority conveyed by this hierarchical structure, as he claimed that taste is taste. Later in 1989, Ross (1989, p. 8) argued that the status of popular culture, in regards to what is popular and what is not, is political definition which is unstable set by intellectuals, the elites.

Until the end of 19th century, the opportunity of developing aesthetic sense was provided only to the particular special class. In other words, the accessibility and possession of the high art was only allowed to the certain rich and novel classes as only they were well educated and fostered thus intellectually matured for it. This was started from the 'salon education' which was designed to develop artistic sense to the children from the upper class. (Holiday and Potts, 2012)

Majority of the people were all busy fighting from the poverty thus they could not afford to care about such matter of aesthetic education and even not interested in those. Therefore the only art which was enjoyed by such lower class was only the folk art, and these are generally from the craft traditions. However, in the industrial progress which was increased after the industrial revolution the lower class people got used to the city of consuming products from many industrial manufactures , and their incomes were increased therefore there was social movement of class which brought them up to the middle class. Such social movement of the class caused the existing middle class people to express their wealth and position by the usage of high art and started to buy kitsch items for copying the art works. Therefore, as D. McDonald stated, kitsch can be regarded that it was from the 'upper class towards lower'.

Most studies on kitsch seem to disparage the products of a rising 'middle-brow' consumerism (MacDonald, 1957; Dorfles, 1969) as their studies mainly focused on the imitativeness of kitsch as 'misplaced emulation of high art styles and its delusions of aesthetic grandeur'. (Binkely 2000, p. 140) However, some other critics, such as Broch (1970) and Calinescu (1987), discussed that the analysis of kitsch missed its unique mode of aesthetic valuation. According to Calinescu (1987, p. 252), the aesthetic falsehood of kitsch should not be perceived as that of a forgery, because a forgery is meant to be pretending as an authentic one in order to satisfy the taste of the elite class for rarity of 'high class' art, whereas kitsch exists for the anti-elite class on the other side to supply its consumers with the same kinds and qualities of aesthetic as those lied in the rare high class art with originality. He further explained that kitsch provides 'instant beauty' and embodies that there is no considerable difference between itself and the value of original beauty. Binkley (2000, p.148) quoted Reagan's statement in a foreword to a book of Rockwell's paintings, Norman Rockwell's Patriotic Times, in terms of explaining the political uses for kitsch 'anti-elitist accessibility'.

Reagan writes:

' The pictures focus not on the rich or mighty, but on everyday Americans and the pleasures of home, outdoors, and family that all of us can enjoy . . .Our Nation has changed profoundly since the days of the America that Norman Rockwell so skillfully portrayed. Yet the values that he cherished and celebrated - love of God and country, hard work, neighborhood, and family - still give us strength, and will shape our dreams for the decades to come. I hope you will enjoy as much as Nancy and I have the poems and other patriotic selections assembled here . . . As we build America's future, we will do well to take inspiration from our Nation's past, and no one captured that past more lovingly than Norman Rockwell, artist and patriot. '

The previous factory labour class and middle class people were those who did not developed the new industrial society's aesthetic sense without having any aesthetic understandings on high art. Nevertheless, these people wanted to decorate their house and show-off themselves with items such as high art works when their economic ability has been increased.

As it was mentioned above, the origin of the kitsch cultural phenomena of new industrial and commercial culture was from the social movement of the class and the mid-lower class people's sense of esthetic alienation was massively affected. The new culture coincided with the appearance of such alienation created kitsch culture was the increasing number of objet such as the art works from mass production. (Binkley, 2000) Items of art works were able to be provided in lower prices so the lower class people could afford to buy them. Therefore, kitsch was able to be possessed at any time, knowledge on art or artists were not required any more, and not even their fame or techniques. For example, department stores which appeared in the end of the 19th century was 'the exhibition sites for items like cheap art works' which were provided by well-known manufactures or designers but not from the artists. Department stores provoked people to open their eyes for the desire and at the same time provided items to satisfy their desires thus it created the pleasant lifestyle by using those items.

However, these items are designed for functionality and utility rather than responding to the aesthetic requirements from the citizens in factory sites. Therefore people had to create new aesthetic sense for artifacts and it was mainly achieved in rural life before the urbanization. In other words, the ancestors of the factory labour class lived in rural areas in natural environments and the rural country scenery was the base of their aesthetic sense. Such influence of nature clearly appeared in design and the usage of the topic of floral ornament before the birth of functionalism design from the geometric abstractness in 20th century. This caused unrest and deprivation of the aesthetic base of existing pre-industrial culture and one of the main causes was the loss of craft tradition. Previous period's most people created their tools for their own needs. Creation of furniture, weaving, press printing, building house, metal works and etc.' s general aesthetic sense was created in long-term experience with the sense of form, balance, harmony, and style within their long tradition from their life. Therefore, the difference between the well-designed, joyful items and wrong-designed and ugly items is from the sense of filtering the crude skills and bad designs. If one item from a master was not good enough then there were no demands for the products thus the job were ought to be stopped. For this reason, there are not many surviving ugly objet from this tradition of craft art. (Ward, 1991)

However, such features were not inevitable in the new industrial-commercial cultures. In other words, most of the factory labour forces with repeating jobs did not require aesthetic sense, decision or particular skills, and there were no need for studies on direct craft-artistic decision or skills during their process of production. While the hand-made master could not create thousands of ugly crudely designed products, mass-production in factories could create countless duplicates. And those were sold from the assistance of commercial and marketing activities.


'Kitsch' is the antonym of art works. The art aims on transcendence in every period. Kitsch uses the things which are accustomed so it does not cause big confusion or reactions. It does not causes any clash of values as it does not have any special features. If one has a vanity of being in the upper class, it full-fills his desire and brings delusion of being an artistic cultured person. Therefore, it delivers his delightful happiness. Kitsch is the feeling of delightful happiness of possession of culture and material culture.

Every kitsch object is targeting on the public's tastes. As a result, it is art to the public when it responds to their tastes but from the artist's perspective it is kitsch. Mainly kitsch referred to the repetition from the originals. Therefore, the originals with the artist's creation with his own hand were regarded with the lofty values while the copied kitsch does not have any values. These oil-paintings were produced by printing and sold and as the copying techniques were developed, it was copied on copy machines and calendars. Mass-copying destroyed the structure of the entire values of high arts, and mechanization destroyed the mystique of high arts.

Fundamentally, even if the art works had sort of copying natures, mechanical copying had never happened. From this influence, the art work's aura was destroyed and the art works became free from traditional form and ritual (magic and religion). The art paintings were drawn and wished to be copied into illustration in the art magazines. The modern art unsuitable for copying cannot be easily covered in the art books and magazines therefore it cannot be well-known. Copied items can be this easily produced and this means that kitsch art has been expanded. However, as it entered into the internet age, the originals on websites are copied without any difference from the originals and those images could be delivered to the entire world via emails without any costs. Every image was meant to be copied from the beginning, thus there were no uniqueness. Every image has fallen into the territory of kitsch.

Therefore, in the contemporary society, it is required to change the meaning of the word, kitsch. If the definition of kitsch was the relation between the object and human, now it can be merely image and not the object any more. In fact, the images in the internet are just computer files and sometimes there is no original copies existing. In other words, kitsch's meanings in the high art is that not only the relation between the object (art works) and human but it also shifted to image versus human. And if the standard of kitsch were related to the desire of possession between the object and human, it changes to the reactionary, expansion or overturn of information in the relation of image and human. In other words, if the human's mental is referred to the accumulated chunks of information, it changes to the relation of either provoking to switch the person's identity or justification of existing information. (Jang, 2001)

Art works are objects or images and these are related to the creator of them and also to the audiences. Therefore, there could be difference on judging whether it is kitsch or avant-garde can be differ depends on the standards from either the artists or the audiences. The Angelus by Millet became the epitome of kitsch from its sentimentality, nostalgic delightfulness, or happiness. In other hands, Manet's the Luncheon on the Grass or the Olympia was regarded as kitsch at that time but not it is referred as a great avant-garde. Jugend-style was estimated as kitsch for long time. Most of the famous avant-garde art works were regarded as kitsch when they were presented. In contrast, the art works which were praised as great works at that time but nowadays most of them are vanished as kitsch works. Like this kitsch plainly reveals by the history. Furthermore, as Peterson (1992, p. 243) criticized, the traditional model of cultural hierarchic system is inadequate to apply into contemporary culture because it has been experiencing the transformation from 'elite and mass to omnivore and univore'. According to Becker (1982) in his book Art Worlds, there is no apparent boundary between high and low culture, as Binkley (2000, p.132) pointed out that 'consumers of popular culture are critical and creative in their reception of goods, while producers of 'high' arts are themselves constrained by institutional and commercial strictures.'.

(2867 words)