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Kitsch

Kitsch refers to the low-art artifacts of everyday life. It encompasses lamps in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, paintings of Elvis Presley on velvet, and lurid illustrations on the covers of romance novels. The term comes from the German verb verkitschen (to make cheap). Kitsch is a byproduct of the industrial age’s astonishing capacity for mass production and its creation of disposable income.

The critic Clement Greenberg characterized kitsch as “rear-guard” art—in opposition to avant-garde art. Kitsch, he observed (in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in fall 1939), “operates by formulas…it is vicarious experience and faked sensation. It changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our time.” He defined kitsch broadly to include jazz, advertising, Hollywood movies, commercial illustration—all of which are generally regarded now as popular culture rather than kitsch. Although Greenberg’s definition of kitsch is overly expansive, his analysis of how it operates remains apt. Today kitsch is most often used to denigrate objects considered to be in bad taste.

Attitudes toward kitsch became more complicated with the advent of Pop art in the early 1960s. What had been dismissed as vulgar was now championed by individuals who were fully aware of the reviled status of the “low-art” objects of their affections. This ironic attitude toward kitsch came to be known as “camp,” following the publication of the essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” by the cultural commentator Susan Sontag in Partisan Review in fall 1964.

Obscuring the distinctions between low and high art was key to the repudiation of modernism and the emergence of postmodernism. Beginning in the late 1970s, kitsch became a favorite subject for such artists as Kenny Scharf, who depicts characters from Saturday-morning cartoons, and Julie Wachtel, who appropriates figures from goofy greeting cards.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.