Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Unbearable Lightness of Being (book and film) is predominantly about philosophy of life, relationships, politics, and art with how each impact our lives. In the film, one of the primary characters, Sabina, is an artist who uses her own body, mirrors, paints, air brushing, whatever media she finds, including a hat, to inspire her artistic direction. Her life is her art.

Because this story is also about totalitarianism, it looked at various ways totalitarian regimes impact those who live under them including the arts using kitsch. Frankly I had never thought of kitsch as having a political purpose.

I think most artists do think about whether what they are doing is kitsch-- in other words is it trying to be too cute, to manipulate emotions, to provide an answer instead of thinking. (I recognize that one person's kitsch may be another's concept of great art.) I know why I don't like things I label kitsch, those I see as maudlin or too cute when I am decorating my home, but I had never thought of it the way author Milan Kundra saw it as actually serving purposes in getting or maintaining power-- politically or religiously.

Kundera wrote that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult with which to come to terms, offering instead a sanitized view of the world, in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions".

Because totalitarianism doesn't respect differences nor does it allow it, kitsch serves its purpose with papering over complexities with something that appeals to the emotions while it not challenging the mind. And so we have the flag pin that impacted the last election. Meaningful? How?

In a healthy culture, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable direction; by contrast with totalitarian thinking, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life." Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch."

"Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch." Milan Kundera

What could be defined as kitsch is a question that gains more interest when you consider that kitsch (in entertainment too) is really about control. Do we go through whole eras where kitsch dominates the art world? Should we be concerned when art (including writing) that challenges is pushed aside for art that feels good and denies think about it. I have said I like 'feel good' but when is it healthy and when is it harmful and actually serving aims beyond our own?

When thinking of examples of the 'think about it' kind, the kind that challenges and makes people angry demanding they think, Andres Serrano's photograph of a cheap plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine comes to mind.

Offensive? Definitely. Shocking? You bet. But what was it saying? Was it about what religion has done to Christ? Was it putting down Christ? Was it a statement about the Church itself? Or was it about kitsch, meaningless objects that people venerate? What exactly was it saying? Most people got so angry they didn't care. They just wanted it gone. I would say it was not kitsch based on Kundera's definition anyway.

A painter who comes to mind when considering art that is not kitsch would be the Australian artist, [Norman Lindsey]. The film Sirens is roughly based on his work, was set in his home in Australia, and (along with artistic nudity) presents the argument of whether art is intended to challenge or to comfort. Not to say that art cannot be comforting but what about that which isn't? Should it be banned? Totalitarian regimes (of all sorts) would do exactly that.

Finding examples of what is kitsch is harder for me. Is this? Is that? Well if it makes us content with the status quo, if it doesn't inspire us to find our own goals but catches us up in the goals of our government, if it sedates us, numbs us to thinking for ourselves, well maybe that's it. I can see how it can be especially used in entertainment. Some think the powers that be are political parties. What if they are not? What if they are corporate?

The digital painting at the top is mine based on a photograph that was also mine of an eagle along the Yellowstone River in Montana. Does it qualify as kitsch given the symbolism in it? I personally don't think so as it stands, but what if I added a flag to it and used it in a campaign for some political goal?


Parapluie said...

I think of the iconoclatic controversy inwhich fundamentalists destroyed religious icons with representations of people. These human figures in icons were windows to the spiritual realm. The icons were destroyed by fundamentalists just as art requiring reasoning is endangered by kitsch politicians. Instead of progressing maybe we are becoming less and less able to fulfill our humane potential.

Annotated Margins said...

Advertising = Kitsch
Anything done by government = Kitsch

(I've never figured out how to classify paintings of Elvis on black velvet.)

Rain said...

Elvis on black velvet reminds me of something that came early into my marriage. Farm Boss saw a wall hanging, a huge wall hanging of the same kind as the Elvises. It was of a mountain sheep high in the mountains. We had it on our walls, working its way through the houses in which we lived for as long as it took me to come up with a reason to not have it there. We do still own it and it's in the attic. I don't think it's kitsch. I am not sure what it is. I can't say it wasn't pretty either but.... If it had been just a bit smaller, maybe I could have lived with it better... Maybe it's funk? *s*

Kay Dennison said...

I like Diane's answer.

To me, kitsch is sort of fun. It often takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us readdess. I have (to me) funny signs (e.g.,"Good Morning, Let the stress begin") scattered throughout my place. Are they kitsch? Probably, but I like them. I suspect that one man's kitsch is another man's art!!!

I'm still trying to decide is Andy Warhol's soup can is art or kitsch or both.

TaraDharma said...

very interesting ideas and comments. kitsch to me has always meant 'meaningless' and 'trivial.' No message, no questions, just cutesy. Given this, I think Elvis on velvet is kitsch, but maybe for a die-hard Elvis fan, it speaks to them.

From Websters: bathetic: effusively or insincerely emotional; "a bathetic novel"; "maudlin expressions of sympathy"; "mushy effusiveness"; "a schmaltzy song ..."

Dick said...

I think I'd go along with what TD said her meaning of the work kitsch is. It is certainly uncommon enough in usage that we don't have much experience with its use and it seems likely that it does have different meanings to different people and at different times.

As to the Elvis (or whatever) on black velvet, I think it is just an example of extreme contrast. Any of them that I've ever seen always leave a fairly large expanse of the velvet exposed around the main subject. That large area of very dark makes whatever colors are used jump out at the viewer. It is kind of the same idea as using a dark mat around a piece of artwork rather than a light mat.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

The problem with all of this is---One's definition of Kitsch....I would venture to say there are probably as many definitions as there are people....!
There was a documentary made with and about Marlena Dietrich where she is never seen in the film but we hear her talking all through it...Maxamillian Schell made the film...On it she talks a lot about "kitsch"...For the life if me I cannot remember any of what she said, but I remember thinking at the time, that it was quite profound...lol! I'll have to watch that film again now!

Rain said...

The comments on this have as usual been quite excellent. What thinking of kitsch, as having a purpose, has done for me is make me aware of it as a manipulation. I think the biggest concern is probably when that is for political purposes by powers seeking to control. I didn't have an answer to what it was either and still don't, but it doesn't seem innocuous to me as it once did. As an example, I thought it was silly with the flag pin (which made somebody money at the least) but look where we have come with it where now the same ones who were manipulated into thinking politicians should wear one as sign of loyalty to our nation are now talking (and some actively preparing) revolution against the same nation.

I don't think little signs to make us smile or think are kitsch by the way but who knows. They could be, I guess depending on whether they also were manipulations. Someone who has lived under a totalitarian regime probably sees this a lot clearer than we do who have had at least some freedom. Although if you read that link about Norman Lindsey, he had his work destroyed in our country back during WWII when he had sent it here to keep it safe and the powers saw it as pornographic or something and burned it. His comment was-- I have more paint. I can paint them again. Maybe I am getting off the track with that and it's more about censorship. I don't know. The whole idea of this post was about thinking and awareness, not providing answers :)

20th Century Woman said...

This is a really interesting post.

I like Kundera's definition of kitsch. It wouldn't be quite mine, and I think kitsch can vary in definition. To me kitsch is work without layers. You look at it, you get it, there's nothing to think about. It's formula. I don't think the Serrano crucifix in urine is exactly kitsch, but on the other hand, as art I find it quite trivial. It is supposed to be shocking, but he had to tell us that he peed in that jar for us to be shocked. To me, the image itself is banal.

Darlene said...

I always defined Kitsch as tawdry or cheap items. I associate it with plastic flowers (of which I have many) instead of real ones. Or junk jewelery instead of the real thing.

I never thought of it as having a message other than being in poor taste. I do see Kay's point, though.

And if Andy Warhol's cans of tomato soup is art I have been missing a golden opportunity. I can reproduce cans of corn and call it art and sell it for thousands. Of course, the problem with that is, I would have to make a name for myself as an artist first. ;-)