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Kitsch

Kitsch is a German term that has been taken over into English that categorizes mundane, folksy, or commercial art, particularly when viewed condescendingly and with irony. The irony generally has the subtext: "This stuff is so bad, it is good."

Typical characteristics of kitsch are:

  • Combination of characteristics of different style periods
  • Simplistic realism
  • A great amount of ornament
  • Mawkish sentimentalism
  • Unintentional humor

The German noun Kitsch was first used around 1870 by painters and art dealers in Munich. According to Webster' Third New International Dictionary[?], it comes from the dialect verb kitschen that originally meant "to scrape up mud from the street" and came to mean "to slap (a work of art) together".

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), viewed kitsch from a slightly different perspective when he defined it as "the absolute denial of shit." His argument was that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions."

In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch." (See The Unbearable Lightness of Being, pp.242-247)

Quotations

  • "Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times." -- Clement Greenberg, "Avant Garde and Kitsch", 1939.
  • "The more romantic a work of art, or a landscape, the quicker its repetitions are perceived as kitsch or "slush". -- Arthur Koestler, 1949
  • "[K]itsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." -- Milan Kundera, 1984

See also



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