Friday, October 26, 2012

Kitsch, the Anti-Cultural Commodity

The essence of art, its final end, is to explain to man his own nature, what it means to be human.   Any art which does not have this for its end cannot truly be called "fine art."  Art, however, that  is created for the sole purpose of being sold in the market cannot, in an unqualified sense, be called true art, since it does not share the same final end.  Now this sort of art, which has for its end the pure utilitarian end of the maker, is called kitsch.  Kitsch, as reader Bob pointed out, can be defined as "the reduction of art to marketable forms." 

Graceland by Thomas Kinkade
Every part of kitsch is ordered toward the end of being sold, so every part of a work of kitsch is calculated to be more palatable to the marketplace. Kitsch uses conventional forms, motifs and even symbols only in so far as they make the particular work of art more marketable.  Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (from which I draw heavily from) remarks that kitsch uses as "raw material the debased and academized simulacra of genuine culture."  The preservation of a cultural memory, or consciousness of "what we are," as I described before, is not the end of this art but rather something akin to the utilitarian end of making money.

Kitsch, Greenberg continues, "borrows from [culture] tricks, stratagems, themes...[and] converts them into a system and discards the rest."  Kitsch sees the products of a culture only as a component to be drawn from, not as a "good thing" in and of themselves.  The "art" of kitsch then is only an art of the most basic sense of making something, just like the art of pouring a concrete sidewalk, or making a chair.  This most basic sense is primarily concerned with its utilitarian end (i.e. making a place to sit or walk), and if it elevates itself to something to the level of poetry, it does so only accidentally.  Greenberg confirms this saying "nor is every item of kitsch entirely worthless.  Now and then it produces something of merit" but these are only "accidental or isolated instances."

Kitsch though may be thought of as some sort of folk art, but as Greenberg argues, kitsch is merely a replacement for the folk art lost by rural people living now in cities as a result of the industrial revolution.  "Discovering a new capacity for boredom ... the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with some kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised:  ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide." [emphasis added] 

Kitsch, the art of a mass-culture is not something that falls on the spectrum of art as poetry, that spectrum between folk art, and high art.  By and large, even though there may be "isolated instances", kitsch cannot provide that consolation that only true culture can, through beauty and symbolism and rich traditions, that gives meaning to the important moments of our lives.  One need only think of those jarring moments when a cell phone jingle goes off in church, worst of all during a funeral. These are moments where the market cannot give us what we really need in our souls.  Kitsch does not have for its end the poetic imitation which leads to a fuller understanding of man and his place in the universe, which is the proper end of culture, both high and low.  

Catholic Mall Chapel, a fine thing,
but somehow seems out of place.
I'm reminded of a story I read about a Catholic chapel in a shopping mall.  The priests would say Mass, and hear Confession, but something about the mall made them hesitate to ever hold a wedding there, not to mention a funeral. It is as if the overwhelming materialism of the mall, entirely ordered towards consumption seems so alien to those parts of life where symbolism and culture are so essential to our very human existence.

Curiously though, this same feeling of alienation is felt less about a funeral on a city street, at least streets in our older cities.   Perhaps this is because even though commerce and all rank of ordinary things happen there, there remains something about the city as a community, that says these things are proper to this public place. The city is the product of culture par-excellance, the place where architecture, art, sculpture and public ceremony all come together where a culture can best express what we are. This notion of cultural identity, this notion of belonging, is cultivated by the arts, and is reinforced by customs and conventions, but it is today under constant assault -- first of all by the assault of kitsch, but also the assault of the avant-garde modernism. This is something I looked at briefly before, when talking about the city stripped of symbolism.  In the next series of posts, I want to look at the relation of modern art to culture, and its relation to kitsch, in so far as it too is an art which is at its essence anti-cultural.


  1. I have been looking forward to reading this latest installment in "The Radiance of Form". And, Oooo... I got a mention! Thank you Erik.
    The notion of a spectrum between 'folk' and 'high' art, which you call "art as poetry", I also believe exists, though it is an over-simplification to think it linear. Perhaps you don't.
    I applaud your looking at Clement Greenburg; his criticism established new ground and heralded the American Avant-garde as the cutting-edge of Modern Art. But be careful, some of his thinking was narrow, as recognized by the next generation of important art critics. [Also, he was a Marxist!] He and I disagree on Pop Art, while his take on the movement, I discern, is similar to yours. You say that kitch rises to the level of high art only accidentally; the Pop artists used kitch to blur lines in the spectrum you speak of very much on purpose. This, in turn provokes thought, and to do so is high art, since time immemorial.
    I must take issue with the last sentence of your blog: You will have some explaining to do in your next blog to support the idea that, "modern art... is at its essence anti-cultural". We'll just have to wait and see about that.
    In an effort to assist you, I invite you to look at Soren Kiekegaard, the Christian Existentialist, for insight into the poetic in Art and Life. Try:
    Finally, I must say, "Well done". The blog was a pleasure to read, and really got me to thinking and looking stuff up. There is one sentence in the blog I will tease you about: a redundant word in a parenthetical phrase. It appears from somewhere; from where you'll have to figure out from reading it yourself.
    That's enough out of me.


  2. I'm not sure I think that all art fits nicely on a single line, which is part of why I'm exploring kitsch, as it falls outside of a linear spectrum. I think its worth noting that Greenberg pointing out that kitsch does have some worth, means that the line gets spread out into a plane. Its all just metaphor anyway...

    I do take Greenberg with a bit of a grain of salt. He has a lot of good things to say, but a lot of premises that I think are false, which lead naturally to a few bad conclusions.

    Your point about Kitsch and high art is something I will indeed be touching on in the next few posts. Its something that I find interesting that artists like Warhol and Koons are self consciously dealing with kitsch. I don't think it's an accident that they find common ground, kitsch and the avant garde.

    Thanks for the good comments. I'll look over the post for edits. A note on compostion, I find it much easier to write by hand as I did with this, then type it up. Thanks

  3. Erik,

    Where I live in Silver Spring, MD, we have an "outdoor mall," and I've always vastly preferred just "hanging out" there over a conventional mall. I wonder if your discussion of a city street points to the reason why. There's plenty of "commercialism" in this downtown, but there are also cultural events held in the space between the shops. I'm not sure if there is a deep amount of symbolism, but it still seems that there is more room for the human to "breathe" than in a shopping mall.
    The Catholic church shares a parking lot with the main grocery store, not exactly "in the middle" of the shops but not fully out of place. Whereas the mall seems too closed off a space.
    Then, there are the people

    Still, I wish you'd look a bit closer at a piece or pieces of kitsch to really illustrate what you're talking about. I mean, having the Kinkade present sheds a little light, but in general your examples are analogies (the cell phone, the mall church) and not kitsch itself.

    P.S. There's also a typo in the sentence beginning...The preservation of a cultural memory

  4. While you are right in your deprecation of modern art, you fail to adress the real problem. Modernism goes far beyond the artistic and philosophical movement of that name, and "classical" art is really of the same intellectual heritage; it is in fact part of a much more general intellectual decline starting in western Europe toward the end of the 13th century.

    If you look at Chartres Cathedral, or the Cathedral at Cefalu and its unsurpassed Pantocrator, or Saint Mark’s in Venice, the abyss separating such traditional Christian sacred art and even the best art of the Renaissance, let alone the ghastly aberrations of the Baroque and the vast, dreary banality of post-enlightenment classicism, is hugely obvious. It is impossible to see a continuity between the essentially contemplative and spiritual beauty of traditional medieval art with its bastard offspring, as relatively innocent as these may be compared to their truly diabolic 20th and 21st century successors. A Raphael virgin is merely religious in subject while being wholly worldly (and ineffably banal withal!) in inspiration; at best, it express a diminished, pious sentimentality.

    And if you look – honestly, dispassionately, intelligently – at the traditional plastic arts of, say, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, you see a similar contemplative quality; this is a human norm and is the trace of Heavenly realities in earthly forms. It would be easy to post links to particular examples.

    Caveat: a viewer seeing great artifacts of other traditional civilizations for the first time – “first” imaginatively if not chronologically – must not confuse his incomprehension and their apparent alienness with objective qualitative criteria.

    The sacred in the corporeal world is the imprint of transcendent realities – universalia in essendi -- beyond form, number, and individual limitation, as they impinge on matter. In art, they first impinge on the purified and trained imaginative faculty of the artist, there take form – shape, color; sensible qualities, and thence, by the artist’s skill, are impressed on the appropriate matter in a mode appropriate to that matter. Mozart famously said that his symphonies came to him instantaneously; all he had to do was write them out – an instance of the Spirit that, like the wind, ubi vult spirat. “What else is the Holy Spirit but an intellectual fountain?” asked Blake. And an inspired modern poet said, “The Muse is not a childish fantasy but a terrible Reality.”

    It is the loss of the contemplative vision of transcendent realities that leads to that “flattene” outlook that is the “illusion of ordinary life”. It is the loss of vision of the universal spiritual archetypes that leaves man in a merely “mundane” world, all on one level, for whom, thenceforth, “God” and “Heaven” are mere abstractions, gradually to be ignroed, then denied. From this, each of the ills of modern society flows by inelectible consequence.

    Even we “traditional” Christians no longer have the normal, albeit mediated vision of the transcendent realities that are the first causes. While Christ talked in moral parables, His words refer to realities that are truly universal – they apply to all orders and all levels of reality. Until we go deeper than pious convention we will not begin to see the danger we are in or what we have lost. And the first step is to see what I have lost and to begin the difficult road back to our origin. To paraphrase a Church Father: “Purify your soul and you will then see the ladder that will take you to the heavenly realities.” The goal of the spiritual life is the original intellectual vision.

    I highly recommend Titus Burkhardt’s wonderfully magisterial work, Sacred Art in East and West. He speaks as one who sees and not as one who merely “thinks”, and his particular genius is the the application of universal principles to their traditional human applications.