Kitsch and class

Culture, social status, and morality.

When the American artist Thomas Kinkade died in 2012, people of good taste around the world breathed a sigh of relief. One comment on a video reporting his death read “Our long national nightmare is over.” Another proclaimed “I hate Thomas Kinkade with every fibre of my being.” The man and his works were obviously the subject of some disdain, but why is this?

Thomas Kinkade, Candlelight Cottage, 1996

The self-styled “painter of light” was known for his brightly coloured, idyllic fairy-tale paintings of castles and cottages. Reproductions of his works were incredibly popular and generated over 100 million dollars in profit for the artist’s company, an impressive feat considering that most Kinkades aren’t worth even $5000. His business made profit by selling to a broad cross-section of the public, one in every twenty American households owns a Kinkade. He was obviously popular with the public, but the art world didn’t quite warm up to him, most critics derided his works as formulaic, hollow, and worst of all kitsch.

Any person of good taste knows that kitsch is the ultimate insult, like ‘derivative’, but amplified. According to the art world, the only way to enjoy kitsch and still have good taste is ironically, otherwise it must be spurned, rejected… declared a “national nightmare.”

But why does kitsch inspire such contempt? Why does good taste involve its rejection?

In fact…

What is kitsch?

The word kitsch was invented in 19th Germany, where it described cheap, popular sketches. It came into English in the 1920s and was used to describe the phenomenon of mass-produced culture made for the consumption of working-class people. The 20th century heralded the arrival of a new, larger proletariat whose ranks consisted mostly of former peasants. They were more educated than their predecessors, but they remained ‘uncultured’ and had neither the time nor the education to enjoy formal culture. Despite increased rates of literacy, widespread literary culture was slow to develop, mostly because of the expense of books. This ever-growing underclass found folk culture irrelevant, thanks to the alienating creep of urbanisation, but still needed culture. The formal culture of the time was inaccessible to them, owing to the amount of time required to study and understand its cultural products (take, for example, the output of the literary modernist movement). This is where pop culture and mass production came in. In the 30s, the mass-market paperback was invented, and soon mass-market writers came up (think romance novels thick on plot and thin on substance, the kind of stuff one reads once and never again.) Soon after that, the household knick-knack (an echo of Victorian middle class bric-a-brac) found resurgence (think your grandmother’s collection of ceramic dogs). On the visual art side, artists like South Africa’s very own Vladimir Tretchikoff were making their money from mass-produced prints (Chinese Girl- The green lady is thee kitsch artwork.)

Your grandmother’s ceramic dog, usually one of three

The 20th century cultural critic clement Greenberg described pop culture as “insensitive to the values of genuine culture.” He characterised it as simulation- mechanical, formulaic, and undemanding on its consumers. Kitsch art, rather than requiring the consumer to stand in front of it for hours, noting form, composition, colour, subject matter etc, presents its meaning to the viewer. It almost assaults one with its obviousness. One need not study it, one knows what it means just by walking by it. This obviousness is often achieved through the use of exaggerated figures and bright colours. But that art’s meaning is obvious does not mean viewers will enjoy it, it must also be pleasing, and because the creators of kitsch items will rarely be interested in innovation, they fall back on imitation. Kitsch culture takes the best of historical works, imitates the best-liked parts of them, and forgets everything else. This is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a subtle, rich allegory concerned with ambition, revenge, isolation, and prejudice, but subsequent imitations and adaptations are crass scary stories with simple villains and uncomplicated monsters. Kitsch will often imitate the aesthetic of ‘better’, more ‘opulent’ times, even if those times weren’t better at all. It may be a part of all human nature to indulge in nostalgia, especially for times that seem simpler, times before we were born, but kitsch embraces this tendency and runs with it. It is these qualities that can lead kitsch to be described as ‘garish’ and ‘sentimental’. Where kitsch imitates a golden age, it indulges in nostalgia, making it sentimental. Where it makes itself accessible through obviousness, it may be called garish. Kitsch, and pop culture as a whole, presented a solution to the dilemma of the new proles. Where formal culture was not accessible, kitsch was. Where folk culture was unrelatable and unsophisticated, kitsch was urban, modern, and elevated the status of the prole as compared to the peasant. It turned workers into consumers.

Vladimir Tretchikoff, Chinese Girl, 1952

From the above discussion, we may formulate a definition of kitsch- A piece of art is kitsch when it engages in aesthetic imitation, has simple themes, has a widely accessible meaning (if any at all), and contains exaggerated forms or colours. This is as neutral a way of formulating the essential nature of kitsch. The oxford art dictionary defines kitsch as “art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” As noted at the beginning of this section, kitsch originally meant cheap, popular, marketable paintings, then evolved to describe the culture of working class people in the post-war west. These three definitions together can tell us what kitsch is, who enjoys it, and what its moral character is. Kitsch is art which imitates and exaggerates, is thematically simple and is accessible, this makes (or made) it a favourite of the working class, and it is considered bad.

Kitsch and class

The hall of mirrors at Versailles

Let us consider Versailles. The French Place and similar places are often sold to us as the pinnacle of old-world good taste and elegance, but to my mind they are shows of crass opulence, of kitsch on a royal scale. Let’s apply my definition to see why this is:

Imitation: Versailles is full of references to Greek and roman mythology and history, and the use of pillars and arcades is reminiscent of ancient temples and palaces. In fact, most of European architecture from the renaissance until the gothic revival can be seen as an attempt to capture and exceed the magnificence of the roman empire and its architectural achievements. Versailles is no different.

Exaggeration: Versailles’ art (in fact all baroque art) is never subtle. It is full of dramatic figures, complex forms, bold colours, stark contrasts, and exaggerated motion. The baroque aesthetic originated in the context of the counter-reformation. Where the new protestant churches were austere and simple, the Catholic church designed more colourful, more opulent interiors. Paintings commissioned by the church were more dramatic, exaggerating colour and movement so that the messages contained in the art were more easily understood. This aesthetic was soon taken on as the aesthetic of absolutism, which Versailles represents.

Thematic simplicity: the works inside Versailles are mostly allegorical, and the allegory is always something to do with the magnificence of the Sun king, Louis XIV. The whole palace and everything in it were simply testaments to the king’s glory. The message Versailles sends is simple and impossible to miss, “this is the palace of the sun, this is where divinity lives.” The palace was open to the public at all times, thus making it physically accessible, and its simple, boldly asserted theme was intellectually accessible.

It almost feels sacrilegious to describe Versailles as kitsch, but according to my definition (however loosely applied) it fits the bill. Versailles is just one example of a thing that isn’t considered kitsch but would be if we used the neutral definition. There are others, the Mona Lisa seems as kitsch as kitsch can be. The music of Tchaikovsky is extraordinarily sentimental, almost dripping with gaudiness, and yet we would never deride it as kitsch. Even more numerous are those things which are known to be kitsch, but which are exempted from the moral judgment that kitsch usually attracts. Take Wagner’s Tannhauser, Kaws’… everything, or oeuvre of the aforementioned Tchaikovsky. Why is it that ‘kitsch’, a term used to insult and deride, is applied so liberally to some things and not others, even when those things are substantially the same? Why is it that some kitsch is handled with kid gloves? The distinction doesn’t seem, to me, to be rational or substantive. Instead, it seems to be rooted in that most powerful of distinctions, the distinction between rich and poor. The secret ingredient, as usual, is class.

When we discuss kitsch, we discuss taste, and when we discuss taste, we discuss class. This is a fairly simple logic and can explain why we call Tretchikoff’s Chinese girl kitsch, but wouldn’t dare describe Vermeer’s Girl’s with a Pearl Earring in the same way. The difference, fundamentally, is in who enjoys the art, for whom it is made, and who can own it. Kitsch is bad taste, the “taste of the tradesman” as McNeill Whistler put it. Formal culture is good taste, the taste of cultivated people with pure motives (pure motives being code for ‘no financial need’). Whatever is deemed part of formal culture is inherently good, and cannot share the pernicious character of low culture, even if it shares the substantive character of items of low culture. What is part of formal culture is determined by those guardians of taste, the magazine editors, cultural critics, museum curators, university professors and art collectors, all of whom are either part of the ruling classes, or are tied to them by ‘an umbilical cord of gold.’ Their decision as to whether something is part of formal culture is informed, at least in part, by the context of that thing’s creation. Versailles, built for a king, is not kitsch, whereas Caesar’s palace is. Vermeer’s oeuvre, most of which was painted for an unknown (but certainly rich) collector is high culture, whereas Chinese girl, made for mass production, is low culture.

Class and morality in culture

Taste, as we know, signifies class, but it also signifies moral character. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated taste as a class marker and as an act of social positioning. Taste, at its core, locates the appreciator in social space and marks them as a particular kind of consumer. I argue that taste not only marks class and social position but justifies it.

Any ruling class must have a way, other than raw power, to justify its social dominance. In order for any class to maintain its dominance, there must be a moral justification for that dominance. The European notion of divine right, the Chinese and Japanese mandate of heaven, the ‘protestant work-ethic’ and Hindu caste ideology are all examples of such justifications, or legitimising myths. Most of these myths have some concept of the goodness of those who hold power. The mandate of heaven articulates the belief that the emperor’s moral rectitude is tied to or guarantees the continuation of his dynasty, Hindu caste ideology is grounded in the belief that people of higher castes attained their position through right action in past lives. Our modern, global society also has its own myths, mainly the myth of meritocracy, which dictates that merit (intelligence, hard work, talent) attracts success, and thus powerful people must, in some or other way, deserve their power. One of these forms of merit is taste, because it is a sign of moral goodness. Max Nordau, in his book Degeneration, argued that society in the 19th century was degenerating, becoming morally hollow or objectionable, and this degeneration was represented and partially caused by the new decadent art of the age. Fundamentally, his argument was that bad taste (a taste for bad art) was a sign and cause of moral corruption. Further, a widely held belief from the enlightenment age was that love of beauty is a sign of moral character, and what is taste if not the ability to discern and love what is beautiful? So, good moral character, which is merit, is tied to good taste, which only the dominant classes can have. This is because good taste is learned, and cultural education is, largely, the preserve of the dominant classes. In this way, the dominant classes spread a cultural myth of meritocracy, then bestow merit on themselves, then make merit unattainable by anyone except those whom they choose.

Rich kitsch- when people who should know better don’t do better.

It’s clear that good taste, because it requires a cultural education, has been the preserve of the dominant classes, but what happens when kitsch goes upper class? My first guess? Donald Trump.

Trump’s New York apartment, an exercise in awful taste

The wannabe fascist dictator and soon-to-be former president of the United States was born to millionaire real-estate mogul Fred Trump, he attended private school and two universities, operated his father’s business and inherited at least $413 million dollars when his father died. Trump was born rich, was educated at some of his country’s finest schools, and has probably never been insecure as to his financial future. From these facts, we know that he should probably have good taste, or at least a staff of people around him who do, but from photos of his apartment, we know that he’s really just the Liberace of real-estate moguls.

Donald Trump doesn’t just appreciate kitsch, he is kitsch. He violates the implicit rule in Paul Fussell’s Class, which is that people who are rich, and are born rich, have nothing to prove, and therefore should adhere to good taste. They should choose simple, elegant clothes whose cost is never obvious, they should drink lesser-known (but still expensive) alcohol, their lives should be private, their names should be in public discourse as little as possible and their houses should be hidden. Trump doesn’t just break this rule, he grinds it down to powder. His home is the lavish, vulgar Trump Towers, he has his name stuck (in gold lettering) on any building he has anything to do with, he was the face of luxury steaks (???) and was the host of a reality TV programme in the 80s. He is what happens when rich people no longer scoff at kitsch, but embrace it, and the public loved (loves?) him for it.

Fran Lebowitz described Donald Trump as a ‘poor man’s idea of the rich man’, and I think that’s the whole attraction about him. He represents the loosening of taste’s hold on the public imagination. I think a scene from the FX series POSE sheds some light on the Trump phenomenon. There’s a moment when the character Matt Bowes says “for the first time in American history, it’s considered a good thing to flaunt your success… god bless Ronald Reagan.” The latter half of the 20th century ushered in a kind of Golden age for significant portions of the population in the western world. Working class consumers had access to all kinds of luxury items and leisure time, for the first time, it really seemed as if anyone could become mega rich, and that everyone could at least lead a solid, middle class life. This was the era of the ‘self-made man’, where what we now call ‘flexing’ became acceptable. Capitalism had finally created the illusion that it was inclusive. In this atmosphere, taste became odious, because it is exclusionary. Imagine what taste would mean to a culturally uneducated member of the nouveau riche. It would mean confinement, limiting the ways they could spend their money, but it would also mean exclusion, because the people who had taste would never accept them as part of the upper class, they would always be lower class in aesthetic sensibility. In a world where wealth is no longer deemed exclusionary, taste seems offensive, and rich kitsch, bad taste by rich people, has a kind of democratising effect. The difference between the average person and a Camille Paglia was a lifetime of education, the difference between the average person and Donald Trump was a bank account balance, which could disappear with one lucky break. I think that’s why Donald Trump and his ilk were so popular, they served as a bridge between the wealthy and the poor. Before them, taste was a barrier, after them, taste was something that could be shared across the classes. The function of rich kitsch, therefore, may be to ingratiate the rich to the poor, to make the lower classes feel affinity toward the rich.

My second guess as to what happens when kitsch goes rich is this: hipsters. Hipsterism is what happens when prosperity becomes boring, taste seems limiting, and irony passes for intellect. Hipsters are middle class, university educated, (usually) creatives, who partake of a pastiche culture. The hipster aesthetic of the 2010s indulged in everything vintage and niche from hand rolled cigarettes, film cameras and vinyl collections, to free trade coffee, quinoa, and hand-crafted door stoppers. Inevitably, kitsch artefacts would have entered the domain of the hipster, but most hipsters (being raised middle class and above) have some idea of what good taste looks like, so how could they have justified their enjoyment or employment of the kitsch aesthetic? The solution was irony. Wearing or owning an item of kitsch ‘ironically’ worked to protect the wearer/owner from accusations of bad taste, and it elevated their social profile. The hipster who wears an item ironically is known to have good enough taste to know what is ugly and beautiful, and also known not to care about all of that. They come to occupy a position of intellectual superiority, being above superficial, bourgeois concerns of taste. Ironic kitsch is how the enjoyment of KAWS, the MET gala camp outfits, and Tretchikoff’s work can be turned into a means of elevating social status. Ironic kitsch may, however, be giving way to another kind of secondary enjoyment of kitsch: nostalgia. A fetish for the 20th century has created a kind of loophole through which kitsch may be enjoyed indirectly. The appropriator need not enjoy the kitsch object itself, but they enjoy the age of which it reminds them. It’s a sad, cowardly kind of enjoyment, indulging in mockery as much as it does nostalgia.

Quo vadis, kitsch?

Kitsch is almost universally loathed by the commentariat. In his Marxist-inspired essay, Avant Garde and kitsch, Clement Greenberg lambasted kitsch and academic art, and asserted that democratic socialism was the only system under which the tastes of the masses could be elevated and kitsch could be extinguished, thus implying that the tastes of the masses needed elevating, and kitsch needed to go. It's on this last point that most criticism of kitsch falls flat for me. The majority of critics rightly attack the superficiality of kitsch, but then go on and argue that we must find a way to eradicate it. I fail to see why a world where formal culture is universally accessible to all needs to be a world where low art disappears. Kitsch has a lot of flaws, that’s certain, but it serves a purpose, just the same as the avant garde. Kitsch is fun, easy, and escapist. It is these qualities that make it attractive to so many people, and so long as there are people, there will be need for easy things that demand little of us, or at least demand less than our daily lives do. Where formal culture prides itself on requiring interpretation and study, kitsch revels in appealing to pure feeling, its anti-interpretation, just as Susan Sontag said we ought to be. Yes, kitsch is mostly consumerist, but it is popular, accessible, democratic, and has the capacity to create a common cultural language. It’s true that man cannot live on kitsch alone, but the same can be said of formal culture. There is a place both for the superficial and the deep, the pseudo and the genuine, and we ought to embrace that. Besides, no matter what the great and the good think, people will always appreciate a little bad taste. Love it or hate it, kitsch is here to stay.

In which I ramble