Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

What? Clotheslines and Popbeads Aren't Trashy Anymore?: Teaching about Kitsch

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

What? Clotheslines and Popbeads Aren't Trashy Anymore?: Teaching about Kitsch

Article excerpt

Kitsch, depending largely on context, can be defined in numerous ways. For example, Art Nouveau is sometimes described as kitsch, often in a degrading manner. It is thought to be decorative, filling a lower level function in the modernist art world. In a recent exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, an effort was made to reassess Art Nouveau beyond the kitsch associated with its embellishment and ornamentation (Riding, 2000, p. AR23). While this exhibition attempted to separate what the curators saw as the art form from the kitsch, it also represented a missed opportunity to address the important social implications of kitsch, which will be discussed in this article. However, the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit is important because, until recently, it was unusual for so-called fine art museums to deal with conceptions and examples of kitsch.

Objects identified as kitsch are usually associated with items integrated into the everyday lives of people. Consider, for example, the plastic pink flamingo, the velvet Elvis painting, or the Las Vegas snow globe. Attitudes that people bring to their appreciation of (or distaste for) kitsch will vary. Kitsch may be revered as a treasured memento of a significant event or be appreciated with a sense of irony. In relation to the later, the ubiquitous plastic flamingo is thought to be so tacky (read as kitsch) that a current trend in Florida is to temporarily place dozens of them as a joke in up-scale and conservatively landscaped yards under cover of night (Erickson, 2000, pp. Al & A14; McCombs 2001, p. D4). Residents are said to have been "flocked." Kitsch can also be associated with gender, for example, a "girly" world like the world of Betty Paige pin-ups, frilly lingerie from Frederick's of Hollywood, and spiked high-heeled shoes are associated with femininity in the extreme. Kitsch in the girly world can be so elaborate that ultra-feminine drag queens are looked to for expertise, moving kitsch, in this case, towards a cross-gender kind of experience (Bright, 1997, p. 132). Through its association with gender and sexual orientation, kitsch has also been linked with "camp," particularly Sontag's (1961) delineation of "camp" as artificial, ironic, playful, stylish, exaggerated, and theatrical. For Sontag, many examples of camp are also kitsch. For Felluga (2004) camp is selfconscious kitsch. Welch (2003) elaborates on the relationship between kitsch and camp by arguing that camp amplifies kitsch by

focusing on... irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humor. For example: A bed is not campy. A bed displayed as art is probably kitschy. But a paint-splattered bed, previously occupied by two men, hung on the wall, is definitely campy, (p. 1)

Kitsch is traditionally associated with bad taste. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett (1998) suggests looking

no farther than neighborhoods where... certain property values will plummet with appearances of clotheslines, satellite dishes, storage sheds, birdbaths, or recreational vehicles or the wrong types of lawn grass, mailboxes, awnings, or siding material, (p. 265)

Kitsch, a concept originating in the 19th century among German art dealers to describe bad art, is commonly associated with fakes, aesthetic rubbish, and that which is cheap. While (good) art is thought to require effort and seriousness, kitsch is linked with pleasure and entertainment. Kulka's (1996) conceptual analysis of kitsch as an aesthetic category supports this view by identifying kitsch as being deficient and less valuable in all ways than art.

Because of its association with bad taste, kitsch is devalued aesthetically, economically, and culturally. Greenberg (1939) affirmed the devaluation of kitsch within a modernist perspective in his now famous essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in which kitsch was linked with the aesthetically undesirable, not suitable for cultivated people and identified as low culture. Greenberg ultimately made "social snobbery look progressive" (Gopnik, 1998, p. …

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