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c. E.

Emmer, "Kitsch Against Modernity"

Art Criticism Vol. 13, No.1 (1998), pp. 53-80
The present version has been lightly corrected for missing quotation
marks and italics. The wording, even when open to correction, has
been left in its original form. The pagination is still that of the
original (a subsequent remark, added to page 56, has been set in
a different type and color to avoid confusion). Except for the
aforementioned minor corrections, this is a facsimile of the original.
NOTE. For ease of use, this version has a supplementary WORKS CITED
list, not supplied with the original publication
A Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, N 1 1 794-5400
The editor wishes to thank Jamali ad Art & Peace, Inc. , The Stony
Brook Foundation, President Shirley Strumm Kenny, Provost
Rollin C. Richmond, the Dea of Humanities and Fine Arts, and
Paul Armstrong, for their gracious support.
1 998 State University of New York at Stony Brook
ISSN: 0195-41 48
Robert Smithson: An Esthetic Foreman in the Mining Indust (Part
by Ron Graziani ... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
A Natural Order: Observation and the Four Seasons
by Karl F Volkar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
The Reading of a Still: The Evocation oj Death in Dorthy Dandridge s
by Charlene Regester . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41
Francesco Clemente and a Memor ojhis Childhood
by Mary Elizabeth Karoll . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. ...... . . . . .. . . ..... . . . ... . . . . . .... ... . . .. . . . . . . . . . 48
Kitsch Against Moderit
byC.E. Enuner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . .......... ... ..... . . . .... .. ...... .. . ... . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . 53
Wat s the Matter with Matter? Prblems in the Criticism ojGreenber,
Fried and Krauss
by Hope Mauzerall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Tamara de Lempicka s Women
by Tricia Laughlin . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . .. . .. . ... . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . .. .. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . .. . . . . . . ....... .. . 97
Using Ar To Laugh OeslSick: Two Eamples Of Punning In Early
Avant-Garde Art
by Donald Kuspit. .................................................................................. l 07
YL. 13, No. 1
Prface: Dores' Compendium of Kitsch
The standard English-language text on kitsch is Gillo Oorfes' Kitsch: The World
of Bad Taste, which came out almost simultaneously i a numbr of languages
around 1968-9.2 Dorfles' Kitsch brings together a number of essays on various
subfields in the topic ofkitsch,3 interspersed with Dorfes' introductions and com
mentaries. I addition, the bok is literally ad haphardly supplied with hun
dreds of photographs of various "kitsch" items.4 Overall, the presentation makes
the book somewhat confsing; even though the text spaks of "the shrewd [indict
ment] of a situation which is so dangerous for our soiet" the numerous photo
gaphs, which are accompanied by (presumably) Oorfes' editorializing, and which
fequently threaten to crowd the text right of the page (sometimes leaving only
fvc lines per page of the essy for which they are ostensibly illustrations), give the
impression more of celebration t condemnation. Curtis F. Brow's Str-Spangled
Kitsch, which refers to Oorfes' bok as "informative, at times abstruse,"5 shares
this seemingly self-contradictory trait, but to a much higher degree: the text loses
even more ground to the illustrations, and the tone, though occasionally moralizing
and always derogatory, actually inclines more towards laughter and a sort of 'aen't
we Americans silly?' attitude.6
I was draw to the subject of kitsch to a large extent for this very reason,
i.e., the peculiar ambivalence which almost always haunts its discussion. When I
frst came across Dorfes' book, I thought it was hilarious. My frst reaction to it
was enjoyment; I joined the editor i his amaement at the stupidity, shallowess,
and basic tackiness of the great majority of objects with which we surround our
selves. Each page presented yet another fnctional mismatch, another invitation to
a rugged suspension of disblief And yet, as I spnt more time with the book, I
began to question the disdain which my laughter presupposed. O one level, I
wondered to what degree my laughter and dismissal could be part of a maneuver to
achieve a(n unjustifed) feeling of supriority. O a even deepr level, I began to
come across moments when the object which was presented for my disapproval
had once been -or still was - something I honestly enjoyed or respcted. At
VOL. J 3, NO. J 53
these pints, my refections upon the naive consumer were no longer theoretical,
not even empirical obserations, but extremely intimate.
Clement Greenber's essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" appears in the
Dorfles collection abridged. When I read the essay in fll, I came across this com
Kitsch is deceptive. It has many diferent levels, and some of them are
high enough to be dangerous to the naive seeker of true light. A maga
zine like Te New Yorker, which is fndamentally high-class kitsch for
the luxury trade, converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde
material for its own uses.7
Now I had always considered the idea of being published in Te N
Yorker as a sig of quality, an honor, a true mark of distinction, and had noted
how may of (what I considered to b) the bst pieces of fction (such as Mark
Helprin and Denis Johnson) had frst seen print in its pages. I was familiar with the
'watered-down avant-garde' phenomenon of which Greenbrg spoke, but had usu
ally noticed this sort of dishonesty or structual abivalence when I had come
across it. Had I now come across -in Greenberg's words -one of "these acci
dental and isolated instances [which] have foled pople who should have know
better"? I could excuse myself by auing that perhaps Te New Yorker of the late
30's was a diferent creature than in later deades, but that might well only be a
cheap shot at doging a criticism which happened to include me.9
Furtherore, and at an even shorer distance, there were the undeniable
examples of the kitsch attitude which I discovered in my ow diaries (fom my late
teens), which I had just recently uearted fom my attic. All the signs were there:
paeas to the glories of the later Pre-Raphaelites, sketches fom Edward Bwne
Jones, idealizing prose poms on nature ad love, half-hidden lust, and misty aspi
rations, all witten in calligraphy ad abundant flourishes, peppered with oca
sional runes. I ca remember during that time the indignation I felt upon reading a
comment that Bwe-Jones' work was "suffoated in syrup." Reading over these
diaries again, afer havig for the most part forgotten what they contained, I am
reminded of Mar's self-criticism of his state of mind upon arriving in Berlin:
lyrical pt was bound to be my frst subject ... owing to my attitude
and whole previous development it was purely idealistic. My heaven.
my art, became a world byond. as remote as my love {Jenny von
Westphalen]. Everything real bcame hazy and what is hay has no
defnite outlines. Al the poems of the first three volumes I sent to Jenny
are marked by atacks on our times, difse and inchoate expressions of
feeling, nothing natural, everhing built out of moonshine, complete
opposition between what is and what ought to be, rhetorical refections
instead of petic thoughts. but perhaps also a cerain warmth of feeling
and striving for petic fre.
(We may note that Marx's self-rticism culminated in his bwning his attempts at
"ptic fre.")
Now, I have heard the chare brought against discussions of kitsch that
they characteristically bgin fo hythetical cnsumers going throug hypthetcl
emotions based on hypothetical motives - in other words, that the standard
'kitschogapher' dos not spak fom knowledge, but has simply made up the en
tire phenomenon under discussion. Vis-I-vis the theor of artistic choice as status
drve, for example, we fmd this:
Not one empirical study ... fnds respndents ofering sttus as the main
reason for their [artistic] choice. [It may b objected that pople would
not want to admit this.] Perhaps. But how do we know? Unsystematic
data? Our own longing? For so empirically minded a discipline as soi
ology, this weak support for a central thesis is unsatisfactor, and pr
haps even scandalous.
At least in the case of these diaries, the complaint of spculation or archair psy
chologizing cannot b loged, for I know this sappy sentimentalist prsonally; in
deed, these were events and emotions that I myself lived and blieved!
The ambivalence I have sensed in relation to the kitsch concept seres as
a sort of preliminary intuition. The upshot of this inkling is tat the kitsch concept
as I have come across it will, upon closer examination, probably exhibit a combi
nation of usefl and useless insights. Therefore, the goal of this essay wll b to
perfon an examination of the kitsch concept, in order to discover what it is, if it
has any legitimate use, and, if it dos, to discover what the limits of that legitimate
use are.
Intrduction: Defning Kitsch
When one discusses kitsch, what is one discussing? Though for ayone presum
ably reading this, the tenn "kitsch" will automatically bring to mind a numbr of
related tenns (e.g., "schlok," "schmaltz," "bric-a-brac," "tchotchkes," etc.), let us
bgin at the bgining, with a short list of "typical" or "traditional" kitsch items.
I his essay, "Notes on Traditional Kitsch,"I) Aleksa Celebnovic ticks of a healthy
numbr of examples: traditionally, kitsch is udersto to refer to such things as
"souvenirs, animals, sickly statuettes, non-fnctional tumblers and dinner services
... [p]lastic knick knacks, plaster Buddhas, bare-breasted enameled negesses, cel
luloid trays with lace engravings ... [and] huge cushions of fake velvet." Dorfes'
ow list gives a feel for the wider application he wants to give the word: "the
braen styling of the bodyork of cas, the vulgaity of tourism, the inhuman hor
ror of sUer baches ad winter skiing resbrts, and, similarly, the newly-weds'
bdroom fiture, American kitchens, hordes of garden gomes and rabbits and
Disneyland chaactes, the Swss-miniature phenomenon ad s on. "
4 Tough sme
thing inefable seems to foat btween all these things, what really strikes one is the
incredible variety and chaotic hogepoge, as if the collation of kitsch results itself
in something not unlike the mess of trinkets on a bdrom shelf destine for a
kitsch catalog.
L. 13, No. 1 55
Hennann Broch, in the frst lines of "Notes on the Problem of Kitsch,"
was us not to "expct any rigid ad neat defnitions. Philosophing is always a
gae of prestige played with the clouds, and aesthetic philosophy follows this rule
just as much"; 15 elsewhere, he obseres that most concepts in the human sciences
evaporate "upon closer inspction into something vague and therefore highly un
scientific. Our topic -kitsch -is subject to these observations in an especially
maked fashion.
This is due, I suspect, to the fequent use of the tenn "kitsch" to mea
simply aything done in "bad taste," which can b discovered in as wide a feld as
the prson applying the word wishes to leave remaining as the foal circle of "goo
taste" is increasingly naowed. Indeed, the critical lens ca be focused to such a
fme point that the miniature projection of the sun which results leaves behind only
a smoking scar of but flesh. O the other hand, like any other word, the word
"kitsch" can be used with a higher or lesser degee of precision and cae, and, to the
degree that it is used merely as a sign of denigation and is practically interchage
able with any numbr of other pjoratives, its useflness -or revelatory power -
is greatly (if not completely) dimiished. We should, however, not make these
obserations sloppily; for in discussing the scop of "kitsch," we refer either to
the degree of precision which a user gives to its meaning, or we can refer to the
numbr of things which will b allowed to fall uder ths teOll, whether in its more
precise or less precise use. Even if "kitsch" is defmed in a very restricted way,
cases can b found in which the restricted meaning is allowed a wide feld of appli
cation and a geat numbr of examples.
Sueying te literature, we fId "kitsch" apparing rather regularly in
association with a sort of family of related tenns. Certain adjectives, for example,
appea regularly in its company (notwithstanding that many of these words are
English traslations of words fom non-English boks and essays). This family of
related tenns has a numbr of more or less distinct subivisions -I have lettered
them (a) through (h), ad supplie each subivision wt rprsntative tenns. Taken
at once, we seem to already have a rather Uageable collection, 17 but, we might
reassure ourselves, kitsch b taken to appear in a variety of milieus.
By creating these subivisions, we have generated a rough-and-ready sur
vey of the topics broached in most scholarly discussions of kitsch. Even though our
list has given us a sta, this sorting of qualities into categories still comes of rather
clumsily. I might b noted that, given the geneally negative import of these char
acteristics, each characteristic actually fonns just half of an oppsition, the other
half of which is easily generated by supplying the reverse, say, with the word "not."
Tadeusz Pawlowski has generated a list of the key oppositions necessary for a
discussion of kitsch, which he refers to as an expandable "comprehensive tpol
ogy" necessary for "cop[ing] with existing diversity," though his oppositions are of
oppsing approaches to the question of kitsch.IB He concludes that, "[ a]t best kitsch
phenomena fonn a family of subsets, cormected only by paial similarities. "19 Pierre
Bourdieu obseres (though in a radically diferent context) that, "when confonted
by a confsing multiplicity in cultural phenomena, the frst natural reaction for the
professional itellectal, who is inevitably imbued with structuralist habits, is to
The list in question can be found on page 80, following note 91.
draw up a 'table' of the prinent oppositions, for each author as well for the set of
related authors. I fact the efect of such a fonnal construction would b to destroy
the specifc logic of these ideological clusters. The spifc feature is their indeter
minate nature, which makes them akin to the fdamental plarities that structure
mythical systems . ... Thus, any thinker may, in a particular situation or context, de
velop applications which b contrary to rigorous logic, yet may b justifed in
terms of the logic which matches the pairs of practical contradictions that found the
paial systematizations." 20 Presumably the situation is a little bit diferent here, for
unlike Pawlowski, who is attempting to map the whole tradition of' kitschogaphy'
into a system, what we are attempting to do is to rescue the valid conceptualiztions
(should any exist). O the other hand, Boudieu seems to suggest that any system
atization based on oppositions is likely to b less rigorous than it takes itself to b,
and there is a chance that ay answers we come up with may exhibit this tendency.
The Deduction of Kitsch
Pawlowski raises the question of "corroboration," or the justifcation for declaring
something to b kitsch (he seems to concentrate mostly on the intention of the
producer). He observes that most of the statements made abut the intention of the
author or producer of that which is alleged to be kitsch rarely fmds substantiation.21
What needs to b clear is that there ae two levels to this "corrobration." There is
the level at which Pawlowski discusses it, namely, (a) deterg whether or not
the object to be designated as kitsch actually confors to the defnition of kitsch
then bing used (in his discussion he refers to "fals naiviete," pretentiousness, ad
imitativeness).22 At another level, one must (b) deterine whether or not the char
acteristics being scrtinized desere the kind of attention they receive, espcially
given that discussions of kitsch usually hinge upn putting a god oppsition
into play.
Tis obseration brings us to a particularly entenched set of gobad
distinctions which ofen work their way into evaluations -whether or not they are
consciously intended to have such an efect. The analytic triad of class, gender, and
race, though a conventional one, is so for a goo reason: these are three aspcts
which inform almost all aspects of life, even if only as strong infuences or paa
eters of meaning, and not completely determinant. I will only have the space to
sketch out the bgining of an analysis into the efects of these topics upn the
ariculation of the kitsch concept as it appars in the standard literature. But this
sketch should be enough to alert us to their implications (difcult though they may
b to lay out systematically) for the kitsch concept in ters of this second level of
"coroboration. "
Concering class, it sems that a numbr of 'kitschographers' wished to
take this variable into account, but did so on the assumption that status (or status
seeking) was the prima categor for investigating class and kitsch. For example,
an idea fequently broached in discussions of kitsch is that membrs of the "lower"
classes only purchase kitsch because it is an imitation of "upper" class art forms,
and they would like to have the appance of blonging to that class, even though
they do not pssess the skills (education or soialization) necessary to reognize
YLL.13, No.1 57
"real" art, let alone understand it. Therefore, goes the argument, they are depen
dent upon the advice of experts (who do understand these "upper" class art fonns)
or are depndent upn advertisers who simulate such experise ad advice.
This contention, however, if true ocasionally (it is always a possibility),
is not br out by the research done by David Halle, who found out e.g. that people
who ow and display a reproduction of Leonardo's Last Supper fequently do not
know (and apparently could not care less) who the painter of the original was. So
the motive for purchasing these reproductions was not to show it of as a Leonardo!
I aother instance, Halle describs asking a woma about the painter of Vincent
van Gogh's Sunfowers (a reprouction of which was displayed in her home): "she
examined the signature ad said it was by someone named 'Vincent'!"25 Nonethe
less, class distinctions are not unimprant; the pint is merely that in pointing to an
object as kitsch because it has "lower" class consumers may reveal more about the
untested -perhaps class-based! -assumptions of the pinter than the meanings
of class diferences.
The category of gender also makes its mark on the kitsch concept of the
'kitschographers.' This is most obvious in the denigration saved for the experienc
ing of emotions or levels of emotions associated with women (even if the perhaps
the writer bars no particular animus against women). All of the "overly sentimen
tal," "weepy" emotions usully assoiated with ad criticized in kitsch are emo
tions or emotional respnses nonnally assoiated with women. We fnd a gentler
exaple us such an attitude in a recent movie review: "What are two intelligent
people ... doing in this retro weepie plot? Love Afair is kitsch derived fom old
'woma's film' fonulas"; at its strongest, we have the waing fom Lenin: "I
can't listen to music ofen, it afects my neres, it makes me want to say sweet
nothings ad pat the heads of people who, living in a flthy hell, can create such
bauty. But we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten of."26
Immanuel Kat's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful ad the
SubliMe-which, for a bok which fouses on bauty, certainly has some repUlsive
obserations on gender and race!-though it does not deal specifcally with kitsch,
bears out the abve remarks on kitsch ad gender, and touches on the long history
of such attitudes. For if one examines the dichotomies set up therein btween the
bautifl and sublime (which Kat assoiates with women and men, respectively
[see esp. section I ), one will fmd an almost one-for-one correspndence with the
emotions most 'kitschographers' connect to kitsch (the beautifl, 'womanly' emo
tions) as against 'real' a (the sublime, 'manly' emotions).27 Just as with the class
categor, things are not as simple as they may at frst appar, and due caution must
b Use.2
The main caution is to b wary of searching out phenomena which are
representations fom faulty oppositions or baseless conceptions, or if one does
search them out, to investigate them rather as indicators t sources. I may not be
the phenomena under obseration which need to b critiqued, but the schemas
fom wich they get their present meang. And yet so far we have only sketched
out a negative description of the kitsch concept, i.e., wat it should not b. It is time
to push forward into an attempt to describ that conception which deseres not
attack but supprt. Nonetheless, if such a conception is found, it will still have to
pass the test of the first level of "corobration"-whether or not the kitsch objects
or kitsch expriences exhibit te characteristics they ae claimed to have.
Sufce to say that to gain more cohesion one would have to move byond
the qualities of kitsch objects (such as we have aranged in our table of kitsch
qualities, m end) and on to what kitsch is alleged to "do," or what the kitsch
"attitude" reveals or promotes, much of which cannot b easily captured in single
adjectives or even tables of such adectives. Te basic thrust of Dorfes' anthology
is to press for the progression fom an understding b on classifing objects,
through stctues which thes objets exhibit, te teiques u to prouc them,
and fnally to the psychic phenomena which suppr them, culminating in the con
cept of the "kitsch-mensch," or the obsessive consuer of kitsch.
We shall also use this more "subjective" approah, but only to a degree.
For even though it ts out tat a SUbjective analysis will b cental to the kitsch
concept here advanced, we will not abandon the imprative to fnd empirical sup
port for this conception either. Collecting and cataloging kitsch objects, however,
would b much to de-contextualized for our use. I Giesz' words, the idea would
be "to start appreciating the supriority of an analytical, appaently over-generous
outlok which spaks for example of kitsh-ma and dos not collect (' scientifi
cally') kitsch pstrds, cushions ad suveirs, nor wor aut ctloging them."2
Afer the Grundclearing: Prliminar Distinctions
We have, ten, eliminated a numbr of standard elements in the us of the kitsh
concept, or at least marked them as questionable and admissible only when handled
with an extremely light touch. I general, the 'ethical' or 'psychological' uses of
the kitsch concept, in their tendency to degenerate into hevy-haded derogatory
evalutions, reveal less abut the psychology of their ostensible fous than te
psychological state of teir proponents (angr, silencing, plemical, plarizing,
self-paque).3 The prsptive which holds more promise for actually revealing
something abut its object is a 'historical' (or een a 'a historical') conception
of kitsch.
The last assertion may require some clarifcation. For though my claim is
tat this 'historical' view of kitsch i btter than the 'ethico-psychological' pr
spctive, the psychological prspctive has as its ver pint the idea that "kitsch
mensch" tries to escap te surrounding historical conditions. A btter formulation
may b that the downfall of the 'ethico-psychological' ptive is its inclination
to conceive of this escap as te symptom of a necessaily morally weak or emo
tionally disased psyche. Broh, for exaple, states tat "if you ask yourselves to
what extent you are afected by this avalanche of kitsch, you will tind -at least I
fmd it as far as I a prsonally conced -tat a liking for kitsch is not all that
rae. 'le conclusion tat we are heading towads a ever-increasing uiversal neu
rosis dos not b ufounded.")l The diference would have to b that btween
(a) a psychological conception which is a psychological aalysis (a diagnosis or
evaluation) ad (b) a psychologicl approh which by ay other name would b a
subjetive (i.e., 'mental' or 'intentional') investigation. The adequate prspctive
VLL. 13, NL. 1 59
will then inspt the 'subjetive' (o 'pschological') aspcts of coing with rel
evant historical phenomea.
Kibch as Modem
If thc kitsh concept includes moeit (as it dos e.g. for Broh and Calinescu), 32
then the frst step in its justifcatio is plishe: we rescue kitsh -or at least
one conception of kitschfom te frst obstacle, namely, tat it is a concept so
vague and pliable tat it b applied anywhere at will. To connet kitsch to
moeity attaches it to a spifc historcl prio with paricular characteristics.
It thereby has at least a refernt with certain bundaries, a referent wit a cerain
structure (dialetical thoug it may b).
This move also answers the question of the range of kitsh in place and
time. Kitsch, in this conception, would not emby a 'typ' which could desend
anywhere upn a unil feld (granted that, even in its widest conceptions, it still
confnes itself to the advnt of huity), We need not delibrate endlessly over
whether the erotic dCtion of Etruscan tombs and situlas or the gaudy spctacles
of the Caesrs also constitute kitsh (though the question would still b opn
should they b imitated toay). We L also dispns with the question of kitsch in
cultures umeached by moerity (should any existV3
Te Orfes athology for the most part presents t kitsh concept as
historically restricte ("not ... outside ou ow age; o at least no earlier than the
Baroque prio"),J for two ns: (8) the historical fnction of a ctegori
cally diferent in pre-moem soieties (on the one had, it had "religious, ethical or
political" functions which were conceivd of wthin a "absolute" realm,35 and
which tok place in a sacre or ritual context;3 on the other hand, it had not yet
bn absorb into a mass-prouction proess,37 nor culd it take p in the ro
mantic conception of the world);] and (b) our knowlege of antiquity is extremely
limited (at the crdest level, only a few douments fom that time have survved,
and almost exclusivly fom the aristoracy);39 feo, the recogition of the
kitsch 'tone' requires a lived familiarity with cultural materials and meaning, so
that recognizing kitsh in unfamiliar materials is basiclly "impssible. '
Granted, bth resons givn by Orfes rule out fnding kitsch amongst
the ancient Romans, but how thes exclusions play out in each case is not the sme.
Consideration of the 'historical fnction' takes place on a 'a priori' (or 'theoreti
cal') level, whereas the 'limits of knowledge' apprach ofers an 'a psteriori'
('practical,' 'technical,' or 'contingent') criterion. Tis 'practical' criterion, due to
the distance which critics of kitsch usually b to have fom the subulture they
critique, while presumably bracketing, sy, ancient or medievl culture or even
'primitive' cultures in our ow time, is also liable to bcket subultures within our
ow, the very groups so ofen taken to b in the dangerous thrall of kitsch!41
Gies?' discussion of the kitsch attitude endemic to tourism, in particular
packaged tour-groups,42 presnts the two alteatives of universlly pssible ver
sus strictly historically confined kitsh as "the two extreme psitions.''') From the
basic r(lct that we (humans) live as it were in the tension btthe transcendental
and the empirical (ot even btween the transcendent and te worldly), he aues for
navigating between the "extreme" ples, namely, recognizing that kitsch involves
elements of the psyche (e.g. tension, release, boredom, curiosity, projection, etc.)
which ae inded universl,44 but which are noneteless brougt to b upn sp
cifc historical proesses ad conditions (any "mass age"), ad which only thereby
ocu as kitsch.4s 'Tis nuce is what allows Giesz to discuss the holy water brought
back by the crusders and "[cans] of 'Berlin A'" brought fom a moer-day
vacation as "kindred phenomena ... atbopological[ly).'>6 'Inc psition we take,
then, would b characterized as "extreme" by Giesz; for we are psiting kitsch as
confned to, and indeed structurally depndent upn, te moem age.
Modernity and Its Infections
If we are going to discuss kitsch as a co-phenomenon with moderity, what are we
referring to as 'moem'? Most cerainly not a bald assertion of date which would
impreably separate to realms, one bfore, one afer. Two conceptions in particu
lar seem the most promising, and will lie at te base of our discussion: what we
could call (a) te 'ient' conception and (b) te "linear" conception.
The immaent conception of moerty concentrates on te increasing
compartmentalization, spcialization, and autonomy of ditrent realms of life and
thought following the loss of control over the Wester world on the part of the
"Catolic" Church (refected in te world of ideas by the disintegration of the
wholistic world view).47 Though tis proess, each relm seeks to (or has no choice
but to) develop its ow logic without te prescriptions of other realms. Philosophy,
for example, once the "queen of sciences" (taken up ad interalized by the Catho
lic church), sees the various divisions witin it (once understo as integral ele
ments) sparate like buds of yeast into their ow domains of natural science, psy
chology, political science, etc.; natual science itself splits otf into physics, chemis
t, biology, etc.; and physics divides from Newtonia mechaics into macro- and
In general, each of these new divisions in the theoretical realm is caried
by divisions in their human departments. All realms split apart and -each accord
ing to its ow "feedom" -develop their ow languges and methoologies. Each
seeks to fmd its direction from within, so that e.g. in te fne ars an increasing
formalism and purity takes hold of the infuential movements and seed ideas. Tra
ditional content evaprates as paintig loks to its materials and bcomes a logic
of color arrangements, ptry concentates on its word, sculpture bcomes the com
psition of tre-dimensional for, a muic, sen as te most pure and contentless
art form, bcomes the moe1.48
In te Gern Ideolo, M describs te seemingly contradictory logic
of this increasing division. In te brodest terms it is te movement from history to
world histor. O te one had, each geographical region bcomes less and less
isolated, more conecte to te oters, ad more stongly afected by develop
ments elswhere, b that an invention in Englad causs famine in India.49 O the
oter had, accompanyig ts incre iterdepndence is a multiplication of the
divisions of labr, initially btween diferent regions which had all ben more or
less self-sufcient, ad eentually dow to te individul worker, who once com-
VOL. 1 3, NL. 1 61
manded an entire craf but who now, with the rise of manufacture and big industr,
prfonns one task alone.5 In a pre-industal, 'merely' historicl, ad yet holisti
cally conceived world, the wholistic world vew allowe theologians to disuss the
angels on the head of a pin; the fagente yet interdepndent world-historical
world only allows the worker to make pin heads.
The linear conception of moety fouses instead upn the logical con
clusions of the ascendancy of linear, historical time over cyclical, mythological
time - conclusions which have only fully emerged in the last few centuries.
Calinescu's elucidation of the linear conception describs the ascendancy oflinear
timc and the subsequent development of what he calls "the two moeities," namely
"burgeois" moerity and "aesthetic" moerity. `
[,inear time was the revolutionar sed inside Christianity's world view.
Originally, time had ben conceive in a mythical, generally cyclical manner, in
volving cycles of reincamation (e.g. Plato), endlessly rotating sheres (cf. Aristotle)
-two philosophical elabrations of the mythological view -or repating con
flicts and rebirths (e.g. Indian mythology). These myths, while indeed including
grand naratives of creation fom chaos ad fnal battles of te gos (e.g. Greek or
Norse mytology), in geneal incorprated'humanity into rating universl cycles
which came long before and would follow long after. Calinescu underscores the
fact that, while moderity is usually associated with the falling away of te church
as the leading force in soiety, the forard-moving, historical, non-repatable time
which is moerity'S fndamental presuppsition dos not contradict, but instead
finds its most imprtant center of propagation in, the Christia world view. 52
lbe Old Testament world view did psit the world as historical (indeed
the universe itself was only seven days older than humanity's organiztion of it!),
but Christianity, with te stark, radical break and unrepatability of Christ's ap
parance at its center, coupled with its messianic spirit, heightene this historicity
and prolaimed this "go word." Granted, the revolutionary impr of the Chris
tian conception of time was dampned during the Middle Ages (during which time
it was covered over with the earlier mythological, organie-continuous additions),
but eventually (with inter alia the spread of the Bible itself) it took r t. In the
secularism of moderity we see that Christ the table-tuer prolaimed a world
view of discontinuity and radical change which in the end outstrippd its very mes
Calinesu desribs "two moerities." The frst he calls "burgeois" mo
derity. Bourgeois moeity developd as linear time eventually came fee fom
Medieval accretions ad Christianity itself Tis frst moeity is, he sys, "a stage
in the histor of Wester civilization -a prouct of scientifc and tehnological
progress, of the industrial revolution, of the sweeping economic and soial changes
[of! capitalism."11 Emblematic of burgeois moeity arc "[the middle-class val
ues of] the doctrine of progress, [optimism in] science and technology, the concer
with time [as measurable and buyable), the cult of reason, and the ideal of [abstract
humanist autonomy, coupled with a worship of practicality and) suecess."1
Ove against this stands "aesthetic" moeity (often called "moerism")'
This moderity is an artistic or "acsthctic" concept. Oer against burgeois moder-
nity, which exhibits linear time as positive progress or improvement, aesthetic mo
derity expresses te constat chage of linear time more radically, as disgust with
te recent past, ad defnes itself principally in oppsition to burgeois moderity.
lbe heterogeneous psitive programs of the moersts (such that they existed at
all) only make snse when sen through their centrally negative stands. "When
moerity comes to oppos concepts without which it would have been inconceiv
able [e.g., reason, progress, science] it is simply pursuing its deepst vocation, its
constitutive sense of creation trough rupture and crisis.
As regads the relation between tese two ways of conceiving moderity
(i.e., the iMent conception ad the linear conception), it can be seen that the
inunanent conception fors a compnent of the world, seen as bourgeois moder
nity -the incresing purity of science, telmology, and time, the incrcasing sp
cializtion in maufacture, packaging, education, entertainent, etc. There seems
to b a conflict btween the iMent conception (insofa as it approachcs a mate
rial desription, espcially in Ma) ad te linear conception (insofar as it takes
what could b called a histor of ideas approach), but it is easy to see that the two
complement each other: insofar as, within the increasing world situation of spcial-
. iztion (material inunanenc), each successive goup which taes over control breaks
with the past, the concept of change and ireversibility (linear time) taken up by
these groups lends authority and meaing to their actions; on the other hand, inso
fa ech group acelerates change towads comparmentaliztion witin the world,
the concept of linearity only receives more supprt and reality, and the wholistic
mytical conceptions of the world make less and less sense. 59
Kitsch against Modernity
So far, te picture we have draw depicts kitsch as coval with moerity. What
must b show, of course, is that kitsch did not simply happn to occur alter the
advent of moerity, but that moerity had something to do with this ocurrence.
What then does kitsch have to do wit moerity? Taking up what we chose as the
best metho for approaching the question of kitsch, namely, that perspective which
inspects the 'subjective' aspcts of engaging historical phenomena, we can formu
late a preliminar defmition: kitsch is the modem coping-mechanism for moder
nity. Kitsch is not as such evil, but rather an attempt to deal with the vicissitudes of
moem life, to make it, in its implacability, inhabitable.6
As has ben made clear by te preceding exposition, modem times are
marked by increasing encOlmters with change, disontinuity, instability, complex
ity, breaks with tadition, and (due to the division of labr, coupled with the lack of
continuity) confmement. (Remembr that increasing interconection of a world
historical world produces at the sme time an increasing compartmentalization and
fragmentation of individuals living in that world.) To the degree that these forces
create difculty, stress, unease, ad discomfort -ad it is had to sec how they
could not -tere are basically two choices for fmding relief: (a) to counteract
thes forces (work against them) at some level by replacing them (if only tempo
rarily) with stability (real or imagined, loal or general), or (b) to forget tem (opt
for distraction) by substituting a diferent instability, which although an instability,
VLL. 13, NO. 1 63
is at least a chosen one. Kitsch (a prouct) follows the frst path (that of counter
action), takes up the materials and tehniques at hand (i.e., moem matrials and
techniques) and fashions some so of stability fom them, principally tough pro
jecting images of nature, stsis, ad continuity, our sepaation fom which bur
geois moerity has made it difcult not to fel . Te seond pat could bst b
labeled enterainment (diversion, "f": vide games, action moves and televi
sion, and prhaps sprs).
To make a crde aalog, imagine a ship without a pilot which seems to
be approaching a whirlpo l. Most of te pssengers fnd temselves becoming
more and more fightened. Some of te p ers try to do something to counter
act their precarious situation: a few strap themselves to the ship (some bcause
they feel it would be bst to hold onto something which floats, others simply b
cause they have followed the safety manuals) and a few bard the lifebats (though
the lifeboats seem just as likely to follow the ship). A certain number een resorts
to prayer. Some of the passengers, however, take the other path (that of distraction
and diversion): they opn the hold and have a mer time with the champagne.
(Now at the head of the ship there is a great, heav anchor which might b able to
save the ship, but unfortunately releasing it would probably require the strength of
most everone on the ship.)
Tn any case, this move against the stresses of unstable "mechanical" mo
derity, this move towards placidity and tradition, explains kitsch's repated at
tempts to bring back the "natural. " This can be seen in the imager of retur to
origins so ollen invoked in plitical campaign material, adverising, arts-and-crafs,
and new-age culture, which (in ofering itself to the kitsch defense maneuver) pro
claims itself in tur as "natural:' "folk," "country," "valley," " home-made;' "hand
made," "far-fesh," "April fesh," "family vlues," "genuine," "organic," "time
less," or "authentic," e.g. Mountain Spring Daw (Dishwashing Detergent), Irish
Spring (Deoorant Soap), Surf (Laundry Dtergent), Light Scent SunRise Fresh
Dowy (Fabric Sofener), Peppridge Farm (Cokies), etc.61 This same impulse
informs even such apparently marinal contemprar activities as witchcraf62 and
membership in the Soiety for Creative Aachronism.63 Spngler noted strikingly
similar impulses in the frst half of the century:
A weariness is spreading . . . Men are returing to forms of life simpler
and nearer to Nature; they are spnding their time in sprt instead of
technical exriments. The great cities are bcoming hateful to them . . .
And i t i s precisely the strong and creative talents that are turing from
the pressure of practical problems and sciences and towards pure spu
lation. Occultism and Spiritualism, Hindu philosophies, metaphysical
inquisitiveness under Christian or pagan coloring, all of which were
despised in the Darwinian priod, are coming up again. "
It could apear that we are dealing with merely a prennial human urge for stability
and comfort. But what we have here is not someone closing the dor against the
rain. Rather, thcsc expressions are anti-progress, anti-rational, and anti-science
and require the advent of progress, rationality, and science in the same way that
expressly anti-Chistian atheism makes little sense in the absence ofChristianity. 6s
These impulses, when they are amplified, reach a level of crisis. Those
movements which Spengler noted as the Nazis came to pwer reached their frui
tion in a political culture the excesses of which fnd their only meaning in a crisis
outlok. Hans Sluga notes (in Heidegger' Crisis) tat, in the first decades of the
century, te symblism of crisis "sered as common coinage . . . passing from hand
to had as the metaphor for the age [which allowed] philosophers and politicians
alike . . . to move easily back and fort btween philosophical discourse and politi
cal rhetoric.''But he questions this vision of te present which sees it on a histori
cal scale, and questions the epistemological pssibility to discer, before a great
historical tuing pint h passed, that a crisis is actually upon the world.67 And
yet the ver structue of moerity, with its essential discontinuity, encourages the
crisis interpretation to b chosen. Sluga continues:
[The 1 sense of crisis is a product of a culture of SUbjectivity in which
the structure of individual exprience is projected as the order of time
itself This is also the mark of moerity, and hence we are entitled to
say that the thinkers of crisis, from Fichte through Nietzsche to
Heidegger, are all essentially moem thinkers, even though they may
have desribd themselves in other terms. Indeed, their conviction of
having transcended moerity appars to us now as just one more ex
pression of their moment of transition, one more sign of an essentially
moem blief in crisis."
The same structure appars in aesthetic moerity. Aesthetic moderity,
which pushes the discontinuity of linear time into high relief, beyond a spirit of
optimistic change, and into a disgust with the past and even the present, can reach
an even more frenzied form in avant-gardism, which essentially exhibits the artist's
vision of crisis. Calinescu observes that the concept of the avant-garde was able to
surive the inspction it received in the 60's because it was secretly protected by its
inner contradictions, indeed by its innumerable aporias (extreme forms of
moerity's insoluble atinomies), and paradoxically, by its long and almost inces
tuous association wit both the idea and praxis of cultural crisis. The fact is that
from its very outset the artistic avant-garde developed as a culture of crisis.69
We saw in Ma's description of the development of high industry the
double nature of moderity -a higher integration of economic effects over the
world, coupled with an increased division of labor ad life. It is precisely this
double nature which allows the same chages in soiety (i.e. moderity) to be taken
as either progress (optimistic bugeois moerity) or decadence (negative aes
thetic moderity).70 Marx saw moderty a both a promising tool for the future (an
organization of te world to b taken over by the proletaat) and a horrible oppres
sion (a fetter to te development into fll humaty). And moerity as decadence,
as oppression, as increasing fragmentation, is precisely the object against which
kitsch also labrs.
VLL. 13, NL. 1 65
Kibch: A Concrte Example
So far, our discussion has remained at a relatively theoretical level. The time has
come to discuss a concrete example in more detail . One of the kitsch items which
exhibits most clerly the characteristics we have highlighted is te contemprary
(i. e. , recently prouced) ladscap picture. It is difcult to discuss the prouction
and meanings of most of thes landscaps, since they are almost all done anony
mously -either bcause they are photo-litho reproductions, or bcause the single
artists who produc the hand-painted pictures are not well-know (some landscap
paintings are apparently also prouce by a division of labr, in which diferent
people are responsible for diferent elements of the painting).
A certain numbr of contemprar landscap painters, however, such as
Leroy Nieman and Bob Ross, have attained some degree of fame. ` Leroy Nieman's
output is available in a range of proucts (and prices), fom original paintings,
through limited edition serigraphs, to photo-litho reproductions for the Olympic
games and in Plaboy magaine. Owing to its dissemination principally through
televi sion, Bob Ross' output is even more accessible (though one can also pur
chase Bob Ross videos, boks, and painting kits). Since Bob Ross' show, "Joy of
Painting," ofers us a direct observation of the production of and, indeed, the inten
tion bhind, a ppular ladscape artist's work (work which ou kitschographers
would undeniably place in their pantheon/penitentiary), we shall concentrate on a
description of the genesis of a Bob Ross painting.
"Joy of Painting" is a weekly teleision how-to progra which shows
Bob Ross prucing a complete ladscap painting in a half-hour. I opns with a
title sequence in which Bob Ross uses a paint roller to fll a giant cavas (via
Chromakey) with a fnished painting in a few strokes, uderscoring the ease with
which a painting can b made. Then Bob Ross appears in font of a blank canvas,
greets the viewers, and' bgins to paint The most fequent subject in his paintings is
a view of a mountain range through a lakeside forest Usually he bgins with a wet
canvas (the "wet-on-wet" technique), blending in a sky/water background with a
large brush, On top of this he pokes a few white clouds, With a palette knife he
spreads on dark, basic mountain shapes and adds highlights to the sides of the
mountains, He blurs the base of the mountain rage with a brush. He scumbles in
background color for a forest On top of this he applies the basic tree shapes with a
fan brsh, He smears the tree colors with a brush to create the efect of reflecting
water. He puts details in the trees, scumbles in foregound grass and bushes, and
puts details at the water's edge. Finally, afer these details, he norally paints in a
small cabin or hut The painting is complete.
So far we only listed the technical inforation of the half-hour sequence.
But Bob Ross supplies us with much more than that This entire process is accom
panie by a rhetorically supplied awa. His ru ing commentar is favred through
out with diminutive laguage and reassuring asides which let us know that painting
is not anything to b afaid of, that nothing can really go wrong, and that w are
always in control. He paints the "little painting" on a "standard 01' pre-stretched
canvas. " '{e blender brush should be "very sof, as my rathe used to say, tcndcr as
a mother's love. " He pkes in douds: "add your ow, add or subtract whatever you
want . . . aother little cloud, you put as many clouds as you like . . . in your world,
you decide how may clouds live in it." When puinting a ladscap. "we dOIl'1
make mistkes, we just have happy accidents," and you can paint "any dream that
you conceive" bcause "in your world you have tolal ad absolute power. "
A even more imprant element remains. For, bsides ofering a non
treatening, fiendly, and inviting atmosphere, Bob Ross also preates his com
mentary with organic - almost animistic - metaphors. Everthing "grows" or
"lives" (one mighl even say, 'dwells'). Bob Ross lays down a few black strokes:
"we had a mountain in our world, ad it lived . . . right here at the top. " He considers
a "big 01' tree" bhind the covered bridge -"mayb he'll live over here" -and
another: "now let's give tis tree a friend . . . there. " His brush moves under the
bridge: "the water's going to live right dow here." Back in front of the bridge,
"mayb a couple little happy trees live here . . . maybe he had a friend."7) We wateh
the painting slowly come to life and bring forth its ow inhabitants at te cOlIunand
of the painter. Te painting, overfowing with life, is ready. "Happy painting, and
Go bless."
As we have seen, in most cases the intention of the painter is at best con
jecturaP4 I contast, the Bob Ross painting appears as the conclusion to its own
stor of creation (not unlike Hegel's Phenomenolog). The intention is supplied,
not through guesss abut symblism or iconography, not through the advice of
press kits and dealers, not even through interviews and biographical research, but
with the painting, at every step in its development. And what is that intention?
Precisely to supply an emotional resting place, an unbroken continuity through
time, and a sense of connection with nature -the goals of the kitsch maneuver. (At
this level we are simply discussing "Joy of Painting" as something bing watched,
but even to the degree that a possible application is the viewer's attaining mastery
of a "do-it-yourself' genre, we would still be dealing with the creation of emo
tional resting place Urrough the viewer's painting -as production, of course. )
We are still iet with the question of the reception of such a work. Again,
in general, theories and discussions of reception are usually weakly grounded and
are supplied with guesses and imagination. Halle, however, has done an exemplary
study (Inside Culture, 1 993) to determine how works ae actually received. Halle
interewed hudreds of residents and investigated the works hung in homes from
across the class spctrum in the New York area. Now, the received wisdom holds
tat the "easier" ladscaps would fnd preference among the "lower" classes, that
is, people unfamilia with or uneducated in the fne a or avant-gade culture.
Contrar to this asswnption, Halle disovered that pople prefer landscapes across
te bard. Not only was te preference for ladscaps a feature of ever class, but
the prcentage of ladscaps among pictures displayed in homes was the same in
ever class (a little abve 30%).7S
This universl preference was confmned by the 1 994 installation at the
Altertive Muswn i New York by Russia exatate artsts Komar ad Melamid,
People s Choice: The Polling ofAmerica.7 Komar ad Melamid's idea was (paro
dying plitical opinion plls) to conduct an opinion pll to detennine the tastes of
YL. 1 3, NO. 1 67
Americans regarding ar, and ten, using te pll a a sor of instruction manual, to
do a series of paintings wich refete the various te assoiate wth diferent
income levels. The Boston fr of Merilla & Kelly conducted the s, plling
1 001, pople nationwide. Te results ho cme to Koma a Melamid as a
"shok": "initially, te ide to paint diferent pictus for difernt incomes,
but we realized that there's no diference! Te [preference for the color blue] di
minishes with income and education, but still the color blue is the majority in every
group. And ever group wats these ladscaps, with sof cureS."7 L by the
results oftheir pl\, Komar and Melaid wt ahed with the installation, but only
made two landscap paintings, America s Most Wanted and America s Most Un
wanted. America s Most Wanted was a medium-size landscap with a few "flly
clothed" figures, and America s Most Unwanted was a small, orange-black geo
metric abstraction, along the lines of Kandinsky.
Even though the arists were plagued by the fear that pople would only
respnd with "what pople think they should sy a oppse to what they truly
[ prefcrl,"7 I lal\e's research seems to indicate that the pll respndents did for the
most part give honest answrs, since Hal\e recorded the actual work which pople
displayed in the privacy of their ow homes, for their own viewing. The similarities
between the two investigations striking -they agree on almost ever question
of taste which appared in bth studies. lbe "People's Choice" surey found that
outdoor scenes were prefered (88%) over indor scenes (5%), and that, of out
door scenes, bies of water (49"1), forests (49"1), and rural senes ( 1 8%) were
prefered over man-made strctues (8%).7 Presumably, Hal\e would b pleased to
see thc results of te "People's Choice" s. 1
The agreement btwen the studies also includes, over and abve the kind
of picture that pople prfer, inforation prtinent to the meaning of art for its
viewers, or the reasons for the choices they make. Haile discovred that the land
scaps pople chose for display in their homes "refet an overwhelming prefer
ence for a sedate and tranquil nature. Almost al\ are calm, not turbulent. Rivers
flow serenely, oeans placid; trees unbnt by the wind; snow lies evenly,
fal\en, but rarely fal\ing"; he continues, "Of the 349 landscaps prominently dis
played in the houses samples . . . only two were turbulent. And one of these met its
dowfall during the study. ` Answers to queries abut pople's reasons for chos
ing landscaps only confre this obtion: "Tey like these pictures bcause
they arc 'calm,' ' restfl ' ; they ofer ' solitude' ad ' quiet' ; they sothe. "12 Like
wisc, the "People's Choice" opinion pl\ found that pople prferred ar wich
made them happy (60%) and which "relaxing to lok at" (77%) 13
We psited that kitsch was a moe coping mechanism for the geneal
structure of moerity, and that it sought to prouce a reverse image of moeity,
a lous of stasis, continuity, and connection to nature. Granted that empirical inves
tigations will only give parial results (the results of pl\s being even more opn to
question), if our theor is right, it must stil\ say something abut the real world.
With the little direct or solid evidence availahle, what have we hen able to con
frm? 'Ibe kitsch mechanism describd abve (as a coping mechanism) dos in
deed seem to explain the phenomena in question. In particular. we have ben able
to fnd evidence relating to thl cOlltent in ad intcntion behind the production of
the contemprar landscap picture (taken as a paradigm kitsch object), and the
content of ad intention bhind its reception. As Matisse put it, a is analogous to
"a god armchair which provides relaxation fom physical fatigue."8
Ktsch and Art
Now why should we end a discussion of the kitsch mechaism with a Matissc quote
on the fnction of a? Precisely to underscore their afnity. For if bth ' fne' (mod
em, abstract) a and kitsch have as their pr fnction a counter-movement to
moeity, as it were a emotional negative print of moerity, then obviously the
two are similar in a ver imprtant way, ad not, as Greenbrg asserted, mortal
enemies. Indeed, it seems that the basic diference btween the two is that ' fne' a
has, over ad abve its primary emotional fctions, additional 'intellectul' fc
tions, or at te ver least stylistic, foral, or contextual makers which allow it to
more easily prform anoter, pssibly Wrelated task as an object of ' fne' a.
As we saw ealier in Doffes' treatment of the rage of kitsch, kitsch did
not ocur bfore the advent of moerity bcause (among other reasons) in pre
moer soieties, a had a diferent historical fnction. lbis points to another
aspct of kitsch: kitsch aalY.ed as an a form. There ae a number of ways to
uderstand this. The frst involves utility: in general we could say that kitsch docs
not sere a 'physical' purpse, but a emotional or symblic one. By this criterion,
then, a wedge of wo which scres as a dorstop, or a metal container tor serving
cofee, would b tols for accomplishing some physical goal, whereas a stufed
animal or pstcad of a kitten sere primarily emotional purses. lbis distinction,
however, L bcome problematic, bcaus there are for instance dor "cosies" (or
"mufers") fahione i the shape of a sae (some people call them "door snakes")t5
and teapts in the shap of a cat. I such cases, prhaps the answer is to ask if the
object fills the emotional role, ad not whether it flls it exclusively.
Anoter approach is to consider forms: kitsch appars in the forms which
are recognized as a fors, e. g. , paintings, photographs, sculptures, monuents,
novels, plays, flms, etc. , even if it is said of kitsch items that they are "merely
aalogous" to the "real" a forms. Indeed, the objects which are referred to as
"taditional kitsch" (kitsch in its narrower uderstanding, such as bric-a-brac, lawn
oents, rustic paintings) fall generally into t categories of sculpture and paint
ing (or at least "pictures"). Finally, the status of kitsch as a variety of a can be seen
in that it is marked as such, principally through the practice of display. Displaying
involves placing an object in a place which is easy to see, and which is marked as
a place for loking, such as within a fame or on a pedestl (losely understood) or
Umbo Eco is one prson (inter alia! ) who agues for a strong distinc
tion btween ' fme' a and kitsch. One of Eco's central arguents in "The Struc
ture of Bad Taste" is tat kitsh is consume by pople who ae too uneducated and
to busy to "dee" the complex informtion store in 'fme' a, and yet desiring
someting a t a ' fne' a expence, instead consume kitsch which has br
rowed ' fme' a "stylemes" but which ofers tese in an unintegrated fashion ad
YL. 1 3, NL. 1 69
for immeiate consumption.
7 Here m a discussion which applies aspcts ofa
more developd approach to kitsh (the discussion of structurl ad technique is
sue as well as subjectiv reactions in a moer context) but which falls shor on the
class caveat.
Furtherore, Halle's rh shows that those who blong to the 'uppr'
classes receive abstract a in much the se wy as they do landscaps: as a soth
ing decoration. Even those whose attraction to abstract art is that abstract art
"unleash! es] the creativ imagination," wen aske were their "unleashe" imagi
nation gos, responde half of the time tat tey imagine ladscaps!1 Of thos
who did not imagine ladscaps, most of the remainder reprted family motifs and
rclationships btween pople coming to mind -the ver material of the faily
snapshots that are a close seond to landscaps in universl ppularity. Again the
most reasonable conclusion is that the fnction of even abstract ar is more akin to
that of kitsch tha oppsed.
I summar, it would b that if there were a diference btween 'fne'
art and kitsch paintings, it would b that 'fne' art has markers or involves a recep
tion context which allows it to also take on a additional 'intellectual' task, presum
ably for artists, dealers, critics, scholars, and uppr-level students. But this dos
not seem to touch the essence of what the works accomplish, merely an additional
function. 91
What, thcn, have we accomplished? We have reiew the variety of kitsch con
cepts and placed them into an order of kitsch qualities, formal structures, ad sub
jcctive aspcts. We have discarde kitsh conceptions which overly depn
dent upon unexamined assumptions abut class, race, and gender diferences. I
doing this, we arrived at a kitsch conception which concentrates on subjective ele
ments in their relation to the complex know as moeity. By this means m
that there is foal pint for a legitimate investigation of kitsch. Using this fous, we
see that the kitsch object is bst understo as a tol in a stggle against the par
ticular stresses of the moem world, insofar as that struggle in understoo as an
attempt to provide (at least) temprary relief, a place for recoer. Finally, this
conception was tcsted against the most direct evidence available.
What do these accomplishments mea, at least practically? At the ver
Icast it seems that psiting a stark or absolute contast btween kitsch and fne art is
unjustifiable; both exhibit the same rots and have the same goals (though it ap
pears that fne ars add some others). Furtherore, and prhaps more importantly,
wc should view the impUlse to extend such absolute value judgments of the con
sumers of kitsch with suspicion, including when we are the targets of those judg
mcnts. In my ow case, it should b clear that my teenage joural entries conform
to thc kitsch concept here developd, and that this conception makes my entries
more understandable -at least to the degree that they exhibit any general tendcn
cics. Evcn if one should wish to examine the kitseh mechanism under a harsher
light, it seems that approaching it as a psychic diseasc would b unfruitfl, given
that it is a par of a general human defense strategy, a healing proess, an expres-
sion of the pyshe's ow strength.
Grated, over the coursc of this investigation a great simpliiication has
ocured. Our conception of kitsh is still inadequate to that multiplicity and un
ending variety which falls under the rubric of "kitsch"; nonetheless, with our con
ception, a wide range of kitsh entities b legitimately graspd and basically
understo. There may indeed b a great nwnb
of particular aspcts which will
forever elude a rational explaation, but ten again these have not ben the focus of
ou energies.
This essay was delivered in earlier versions as a papr at the Graduate Student
Collouium, "Kitsh and Colleting" (together with Kevin Melchionne; comments by
Prof. Robr Crese and David Salz), on Sept. 28, 1 995 at SUNY Stony Brook and as
a guest lecture ("Der Kitsch gegen das Moere") in A. 10rgens-Kirschholf's course
"Kunst und Trivialkultur" (WS 97) on lan. 2 1 and 29, 1 997, at the Universitit
TObingen. I gratefully thank Profs. David Allison, Edward Casy, Robrt Crease, and
Donald Kuspit (all of SUNY Stony Brok) for their supprt and guidance as 1
worked on this essay. The artist Nancy Romines of New York City also made many
useful comments on an early draf of the work.
2 Gillo Drfes, ed., Kitsch: The World ofBad Taste (New York: Bell Publishing,
1 969). Some information on the translation of Dorfles' Kitsch can b found in
Tadeus Pavlowski, "The Varieties of Kitsh," Dialectic and Humnism, no. 4
( 1 977), 1 05, n. 1 . Richard Egenter's bo k claims to b the first on the subject to
appar in English, but deals almost exclusively with religious art (The Desecration of
Chrst, ed. Nicolete Gray, trans. Edward Quinn [Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press,
1 967], 1 0).
3 Three ofthe essays are by the reigning ' kitschographers' at the time of Dorl1es' book:
Clement Greenber (whose "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" had reached quasi-canonical
status), Hermann Broh, and Ludwig Giesz. Subtopics treated included politics, the
family, death, flm, prography, and architecture. References to those authors will
first give the page from the original (or parent-language) source, followed by the
correspnding page of the Drfles' English translation, if available. I have used the
Greenbrg "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" essy fom Art and Cultur: Crtical Essays
(Boston: Beacn Press, ( 965): 3-21 . Likewise, though the Broh essay excerpted by
Drfles was taken from Broh's Dichlen und Erennen, Vol. 1 (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag,
1 955), my references are to the more reent Schrilen zur Literatur 2: Theorie, Ed.
Paul Michael LQteler (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1 975). References to
Giesz use "Der 'Kitsh-Mensch' als Tourst" in his Phinomnologie des Kitsches,
2nd ed. (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1 97 1 ): 75-84.
4 "More appalling pictures than you ca shake a stick at," says the New York 71mes
back-cover blurb [no date supplied].
5 Curis Brown, Slar-Spangled Kitsch: An Astounding and Tatelessly J /lustrated
Eploralion ofthe Bawd Gaud Shodd Mas-Arl Cullur in This Grat Land oj
Ours (New York: Universe Boks, 1 975), 200.
6 Its subtitle captures this jovial tone prfectly, and may b exctly the sort of phenom-
YL. 13, ML. 1 7 1
enon Harold Rosenbrg had in mind when he spke of "kitsh criticism of kitsch"
("Pop Culture: Kitsh Criticism" in Te Tradition o/the New [ew York: McGraw
Hill, 1 965], 261 ). Cf Ludwig Gc' obseration, "It is infnitely simple to list mass
prouce [objets J in b tste and without any aristic value, and to crticize their
faults either kindly or mercilessly. There & countless albums and anthologies which
serve this purpse" (75lrfes, 1 56). There is reasn to doubt that Drfles' b k
escaps Giesz' characterization -which it of course contains! The ide of "kitsch
criticism ofkitsch" is also taken up b Haroldo de Camps in "Vanguarda e Kitsch,"
A Arle no /orizonle do Prael (SA Paulo: Editora Persptiva 1 969), 1 95-196. In
the case of Brown's b k at least, given its less biting tone, one could prhaps argue
that it is an attempt at a criticism through go-natured humor (of the t advoated
by the Earl of Shafesbur), and if so, is prhaps the more 'efective' criticism.
7 Op. cit., I I .
8 A example of which could b Thorton Wilder's play, Our Tow, which blends
futurist'non-objective' theater technique with full-blown narrative.
9 The complexity and ambivalence surrounding kitsch can b sen in the exmple of
Milan Kunders's novel, Te Unbearable Lightness o/Being, which I have heard
called kitsch, which is a meitation on kitsh, and which includes a paricularly
schmalty scene involving a pt near its end. It frst appared in English in the pages
of- what else? -The New Yorer, and the passage of the novel there selected dealt
precisely with kitsch. (Prof Robrt Crease reminded me of the novel's discussion of
10 Karl Mar and Friedrich Engels, The Mar-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Ed. Robrt C.
Tuckcr (New York: ww Norton & Co., 1 978), 7.
I I David Halle makes this charge in Inside Cultur: Art ad Class in Ihe Amrca
Home (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1 986), 5-1 1 (esp. 6 and 7) and 1 20.
This issue will b further discussed under the topic of "corobration" (sen. 2 1 ).
1 2 I should note at the bginning that 1 am discussing kitsch qua kitsh -not kitsch
which has ben taken up in an ironic fashion, such as the cse of smene who buys
kitsch precisely bause the items sem ugly and in bad taste. I am refeting upn
"innoent" kitsch. In a strange parallel to the impssibility of refleting upn one's
own mind immediately (contemplating one's own exprences always pushes them
one step away), the labl of kitsh under discussion pints to kitsh as it exists bfore
it has ben lablled as such. Put simply, I am here fousing on frst-order, non-self
conscious kitsch.
1 3 Dorfes, 280-289.
14 Op. cit., 292.
I S Op cit., I 58/Dortles, 49.
16 Op. cit. , 89.
17 Not to mention self-ontradictor -compare from our list of representative terms,
e.g. "chaste" and "obscene"!
I R Op. cit.. 1 05-1 06. His tplogy consists of eight oppsitions:
I . "Kitsch as a prouct of human action versus kitsch man, kitsh atti
tude. kitsch exprience, and kitsch bhaviour."
2. "Intentional and non-intentional kitsch lin reference to the arist's
intention ). "
3. "Kitsch characterized interally and exterally" [structure of kitsch
object vs. comparison btween objects. usually btween one which is
original and anothcr which is derivative).
A ClrlSM
4. "Kitsch as a natural creation and as a human product."
5. "Relative and absolute concept ofkitsch" lkitsch as a bad quality vs.
kitsch as bing such within a certain range of Iomparisonl .
6. "Subjective and objeltive Ionlept of kitslh. "
7. "Classiflatory and oomparative concept of kitsch."
8. "Historical and universal ooncept of kitsch" [ 1 05-1 06).
This papr will b taking up principally ( I ), (2), and (6), which seem to me to amount
to the sme thing, and also a consideration of kitsch as prouct produled and prouct
19 Op. cit., 1 1 5.
20 Pierre Bourdieu, The Political Ontolog ofMartin Heidegger, Trans. Petcr Collier
(Oxford: Polity Press, 1 991 ), 20-2 1 . Though Bourdieu is discussing the attempt to
sort out the variety of Nai writers, we may note that the cultural prodults of the
Nais have not infrequently been Irticized for their kitschiness! Cf. Hermann Wein,
"Nietsche und Faslhismus," Club Voltair: Juhrbuchf r krilische Aujlanmg, no.
4, ( 1 970), 332-341 : 335; Saul Friedlander, Reflections on Naism: Essas on Kitsch
ad Death, trans. Thomas Weyr (Blomington: Indiana Universit Press, 1 993); and
of oours, Grenbrg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," op. Iit.
21 Op. Iit., 1 07-108. "Authors writing abut kitsch ofen refer to an intentional proprty,
but they do not always substantiate their statements in a clear and mtthodologilally
oorrect manner. Even if they do make a oonscious efor to ascertain the intention of
an artist, they Ian do it only indirectly by way of drawing Ionclusions from observa
tions of the kitsch object and from available external information" ( 1 07-108). The
question of corrobration is also touched on a numbr of times in Robert C.
Solomon, "On Kitsch and Sentimentality," The Joural ofAesthetics and Art
Criticism, Vol. 49 no. I (Winter 1 991 ), 1 -14, and, as we have seen, discussed directly
in Halle (n. I I ).
22 Op. cit., 1 08.
23 The word "class" is usually taken by 'kitschographers' to refer to B directly propor
tionate relationship btween (a) inoome and economic/soial level and (b) education.
acculturation, and accumulation of "cultural capital. " The question however is
whether these two are always lound togcthcr; this qucstion is touchcd on C.g. ill
Greenber, 8-9. In the immediatcly lollowing discussion of status-seeking, the lOCus
is on acculturation (to "high" culture). seen as a means to a higher soial position.
24 Se Umbro Eco, "The Structure of Bad Taste," in The Open Work, trans. Anna
Cancogni (Cambridge, Mass.: Harard University Press, 1 989), 1 80-21 6 (we will
discuss this in more detail latcr); Greenbrg on kitsch as "erstz culture" ( 1 965) l O
I I and 1 5-1 6 [Oodles: 1 1 6); and de Camps 1 98-201 . The following discussion
utilizes Halle's obserations, but Andrew Ross also subjects the status argument to
scrutiny in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Cultur (New York: Routledge,
1989), 58-64. Both Halle and Ross brng a go amount of attention to the status
argument put forward in Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique ofthe
Judgmnt ofTaste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, M: Harard University Press,
1 984), passim.
25 . O. cit., 80.
26 David Denby, "Love Afir," New York Magaine (November 7, 1 994), 97; the Lenin
quote is fom V I. Lenin, On Literatur ad Ar (Mosoow: Progress Publishers,
1 97), 226, cite in David Laing. Te Marist Teor ofArt: An Intrductor Surey
(Bou1der, _Colorado: Westview Press, 1978), 1 35, n. 5. Robrt C. Solomon's detailed
essay defends sentimentality against the various attacks it routinely sufers.
VLL. 1 3, No. 1
Rosenberg's comment that "kitsch is much more likely [than art] to exclude prsonal
malice" (264), at least, eonfons to the basic idea bhind Solomon's essay.
27 Immanuel Kant, Obseration on the Feeling ofthe Beautiul a Sublime, trans.
John T Goldwaith (Berkeley: University of Califoria Press, 1 991 ).
28 for example, though it is ofen said that women are traditionally assoiated with
nature and men with culture, and that therefore women are seen as more emotional
and men as more self-eontrolled, there exists at the same time a traditional oppsition
which posits women as more civilized than men, less likely to allow themselves to get
dirty. and more sensitive in general, wheras men are seen as the typ to go hunting
in the woods, to pursue blo sprt like an animal, and to get covered i n mud without
hesitation in doing so (Kant remarks e.g. that women "are cleanly and ver delicate in
respect to all that provokes disgust," [ibid., 77] and have made "men's customs . . .
gentler, their conduct more plite and refned, and their baring more elegant" ibid.,
95 I). One explanation for this apparent contradiction i s that the more "natural"
woman is seen as blonging to the home, whereas the more "cultural" men are placed
outside the home, whether that home is in an urban or forest dwelling. At any rate, it
is a complex phenomenon. Added to this is the debate over whether the traditionally
ascribd gender roles should b equally valorized. reversed. combined. or abandoned
As concerns race categories (about which 1 am still not well-enough infonned), these
too should be treated with caution. In relation to kitsch, it may b noted that the same
idea of plarization and mutual interpenetration ofen posited between kitsch and the
avant-garde (stealing and appropriation of kitsch by the avant-garde vs. adulteration
and coptation of the avant-garde by kitsch [cf Dodles, Eco, et al. ] ) can b set up in
regard to categories of "authentic" and "inauthentic" black culture. And yet "white"
and "black" music. for example, are ver hard to completely separate and distinguish
( sce the bggling symbiosis describd in Ross, op. cit., 67-68]. On the other hand,
Curtis Brown's Star-pangled Kitsch ofen makes kitsch a target of his go
humored criticism preisely for its racism.
29 The concept of the "kitsch-mensch" was frst propsed by Broh, adapte by Giesz.
and finally used as a core concept for the Drfes anthology (see in particular Broh.
I S8 lDorfes, 49; Giesz, 8, 77lDorfes, 1 59; and Ddes, 4.
30 Egenter characterizes kitsch as a tol of Satan for obstructing souls fm reaching
God [op. cit.. 1 3- 1 4], but Broh's discussions are just as extreme: "He who produces
ki tsch is not one who prouces low-quality art, he is no fgure of little or no ability,
he is definitely not to b judged according to the standards of aesthetics, rather he i s
. . . to get to the point, a bad prson, he is an ethically depraved prson, a criminal
who desires the radically evil. Or, put less dramatically: he is a pig. For kitsch is the
evil itself within art. Would you like a colossal example of kitsch? -Nero playing to
the fireworks of burning Christians: the spcifc dilettante, the spifc aesthete, who
docs cverthing for the sake of bautifl efects" (op. cit., 95, my translation. Cf. also
p. I 54lDorfes, 76).
Incidentally. concering Egenter's opinion of the relation betwen kitsch and Jesus, a
dissenting voice can b found in Hans Conrad Zaner. a foner Dominican monk who
writes of his life in the monastery that he then "experienced the verses from the Old
Testament as primal, pwerful. and true. id the verses from the New Testament as
kitsch" (Ecce Jesus: Ein An.chlag gegen den neuen rligiOsen Kitsch [Reinbeck bei
Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1 992]), 1 2.
3 1 Op. cit., p. 1 7 1 1D0rfes, 65.
32 Matei Calinescu, Five Faces ofModerit: Moderit, Avant-Garde, Decadence,
Kitsch, Postmodmism, 2nd cd .. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1 987). I should
thank Prof David Hertz of Indiana University, l3Iomington, lor directing me to this
33 These pan-historical pssibilities have indeed been taken up, as we have seen in the
case of Broh, who, though he characterizes kitsch as the ofspring of Romanticism,
draws comparisons btwen his "kitsch-mensch" and Nero's aestheticization of
torture In. 30). A we shall m, Gies tkes a similar stance.
34 Op. cit., 1 1 -12.
35 Ibid., 10.
36 Ibid., 40, 32, 1 07.
37 Ibid., 20, 31 , 94-95, etc.
38 Broh, 1 62-1 66, Oodles, 54-59.
39 Op. cit., 9.
40 Op. cit., 26. "[I)t is almost impossible to judge the ' kitschiness' of a translated
passage or even a piee wrillen some twenty yers bfore," ad lo.
41 Drfles' comments on cmics for example ("such stupid and utterly dull ligures as
Suprman and Batman," 40) give me the impression of someone who is indeed
familiar with, but who dos not however know, them. Of course, the whole pint of
such continuously derogatory rhetoric is to demonstrate a proper distance.
42 Op. cit., 75-84lrfles, 1 56-1 74.
43 A lo.
44 Giesz uss elements of the psyche kindre with Heidegger's existentialia or human
"categories" (Being ad nm, Trans., John Maquarrie and Edward Robinson I San
Francisco: Harpr, 1 962), 9, 70). But his indebteness to Heidegger is also
linguistically indicated. This indebtedness, palpable in the German, is dulled in the
English translation of Drfles' anthology. The English "[a)nalyzed fro the existen
tialist pint of view," 1 62, for exmple, translates Giesz' "[d)aseinsnalytisch
btrachtet," 78. My impression is that the English translation sufers bcause it is a
translation fom the Italian, itself presumably translated fom the Giesz' German
original. At any rate, the German is appreciably clearer than the Oodles translation
-was the English prhaps intentionally aimed at a 'lower' American audience,
45 See esp. ibid., 78-81/Drfles, 1 62-166.
46 Ibid., 79/Oorfes, 1 63. This comparison was more recently taken up in a discussion of
ancient religious relics B momentos and souvenirs in Vicki Goldbrg, "In Search of
Diana of Epheseus," New York nms (August 21 , ( 994), sec.2, H33.
47 Our disussion will (as will bcome clear) cite principally Marx but we may indicate
others: Dick Howard, Frm Mar to Kant, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press,
1 993), esp. 34; and Grenbr, op. cit., 5-7.
48 This development was worked out in paricular by Greenbrg. Besides the passages
already indicated fom "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," see his "Twards a Newer
Laoo n," Clement Grenber: Te Collected Esas and Criticism, Vol. I , Ed. John
O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1 986), 23-38. Later, non-formalist
developments in the a world have teir prllels in other moem forms of the
division of labr such as fee-lancing and multiple-task work also described by Marx.
49 Op. cit., 1 72.
50 Op. cit., 1 80-1 86, 1 90. Martin Heidegger makes strikingly similar obserations. Hc
had aligne with a pary which saw itlf B an alternative to bth moerity
(Aerica) and one respnse to it (communism) -"btween two great pinccrs"; his
vision, to, was thus a response to the challenge of moernity. He describs the same
YL. 13, ML 1 7S
world-historical world B Mar ("when any ocurrence, in any plac and any time,
has bcome accessible at any sped, when & attempt on the life of the King of
France and a symphonic concer can b live at the same time") and his questions,
"What for? Where to? -And what now?" eho Lenin's "What is to b done?" from
33 ycars bfore. All quotes (except Lenin) are moife fom Marin Heidegger, An
Intrduction to Metaphsics 2nd e., trans. Ralph Manheim (Garden City, New York:
Anchor Boks, 1 961 ), 3 1 , as cited in Conceiio Neves Gmeiner, "Marin Heidegger
e o Nacional-Soialismo," Leopold/aum, Vol . 2, no. 1 ( 1 975), 3-2.
5 1 Op. cit., 5, 7, 1 0, 1 9-22, 41 -42.
52 Op. cit., p. 1 O.
53 Calinescu notes: "The overall traditionalism of the Middle Ages and the prevailing
medieval disregard of historical time, made up of unique, un repatable moments, go
against the dep sense of historicity implied by Christianity's philosophy of time. The
paradoxical view of the Middle Ages' rejetion of the original Christian notion of
time has been convincingly argued by Denis de Rougement in Man: , Modem Quest,
trans. Montgomery Belgion (New York: Harpr, 1 957). To the revolutionar
challenge of the Christian time, Denis de Rougement writes, 'the middle ages resisted
by going back to cyclical conceptions and by a sharp limitation upn the size of the
past and the future: the efect of the kind of congelation of time which this entailed
was the elimination of all becoming' (95). According to de Rougement, 'the Middlc
Ages were the "Eastern" perio of Europc, ' because of their 'growing propnsity . . .
to substitute tradition, mythical allegory, and legend for the facts which only
Scripture, ver little read at the time, showed to be historical. 111 this strengthens my
view that the Middle Ages, far from standing for some "golden age of Christianity"
-as the Romantics were the frst to allege and has bn repate ad nauseum ever
since -were rather, generally spaking, a long defensive reaction against the
rcvolutionary ferment introuced into the world by the Gospl' (90)," 31 3-31 4, n. 4.
54 Perhaps the epitome of radical diference in the succession of time can b found in
Heidegger's description of the Hegelian prsentation of time, a succession of "nows"
cach of which is "either 'now' is-no-Ionger, or now is-not-yet" -in other words,
completely diferent from the singular "pint" of the now in the present, which
conception however "mov[esJ wholly in the direction of the way time is ordinarily
understod" (Being ad Tm, 483).
S5 Op. cit., 1 0.
S6 Ibid., 41 -42.
57 Ad lo.
58 Ibid., 92.
59 The great interconnectedness of the immanent and linear conceptions of moerity
relUlts in their often being conllated or discussed in the same breath. The implica
tions of both conceptions play out in Wittgenstein's comment, "It sounds to simple:
the diference btwen magic and science can b expressed in [the fact] that there is a
progress to science, but not in magic. Magic has no diretion of development which
lies internal to it" (trans. altered] (Remr on Frer s Golden Bough, Trans. I C.
Miles ( Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press Interational, 1 991 ], 1 3);
cf. Foucault's account: "A profound historicity penetrates into the heart of things,
isolates and delnes them in their own coherence, impses upn them the forms or
order implied by the continuity of time . . . things bcome increasingly relexive,
seeking the principle of their intelligibility only in their own development" (The
Orer o/Things: An Arhae% K ofthe Human Sciences, Trans. anon. [New York:
Random I louse, 1 973 J, xxiii ).
6 This thesis is greatly indebted to Calinescu (see esp. his Introduction and 246-248).
61 We could extend our list with the brand names noted by Adoro, albeit in a dillerent
context: "Jjgermeister, Alte Klosterfrau, Schanke" ("Master Hunter, Old Nun, Ye
aide Tavern"; 1e Jaron 0/ Authenticit, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will
[ Evanston: Northwester University Press, 1 973) , 44)
62 Referrng to what she calls "cosmic feminism" or "ecofeminism," Kathy E. Feruson
notes that it "typically invokers) the plitical and epistemological pssibilities of
transcendence and return . . . invoking the traditions of premoern soieties . . . as
sources for cosmic feminism's struggles against moerity," this modernity being
seen as "the gradual attack on and erosion of the bundar btween wilderness and
civilization" (The Ma Prblem: Vsion o/Subjectivit in Feminist Theor [ Berke
ley: University of Califoria Press, 1 993J, 98-1 00).
63 An organiztion with clubs across the United States which establishes imaginary
medieval sieties, complete with royal titles, jousting, sword fghts, and unicor
6 Man ad Technics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1 932), 97, as cited in Bourdieu,
Political On/olog, op. cit., I I . The italics are Bourdieu's.
65 Fergusn notes: "Any vision of erly soieties available to the residents of moernity,
no mater what their spiritual sympathies, is a version fltered through moerity's
categories and afeted by its conquests," op. cit., 1 00.
66 Hans Sluga, Heideger' Crisis: Philosophy and Politic in Nai Gerany (Cam
bridge, Mass: Harard University Press, 1 993), 6 1 .
67 Ibid., 65.
68 Ibid., 73-74. A regards the Nais in particular, Sluga warns: "the notion of great
crisis that motivated Fichte, Nietsche, Heidegger, and the Nais is, to use Foucault's
words, one of the most destructive habits of moem thought. The idea promises us an
unconditional libration fom whatever we have found constraining in the past. It
promises a moment oftransformation and a world that is in no way like the old one.
h losns all moral and traditional bnds and projects the right to total freedom.
Nietsche wrote that 'individuals and generations can now fix their eyes on tasks of a
vastness that would have seemed madness in earlier ages, and a trifling with Heaven
and Hell. We may experiment with ourselves! Yes, mankind has the right to do that.'
He could not foresee that National Soialism would teach us a quick and ugly lesson
concerning the prils of all such exprimentation." To this he cites Foucault's
rejoinder: "One must probably have the humility to admit that the time of one's own
life is not the one-time, basic, revolutionar moment of history, from which
everhing bgins and is completed" [73-74). (We should note that the equality of
Nietsche's conception of experimentation and that of the Nais is still in debate. )
I should clarif here that I do not wish t o say that kitsch i s always benefcial.
Though I am in general arguing against the idea of seeing kitsch as a sickness or
virus, my analysis refers mainly t kitsch when it is a tol for creating a domestic
snctuar; but when such tactics are applie on a large, national-plitical scale, then
kitsch bomes questionable, even dangerous. The Nais are a case in pint, but
Reagan's "Morning in Aerica" television campaign ads move in the same direction.
69 Op. cit., 1 23-124.
70 Compare the futurist f T. Marinetti and the dadaist Hugo Ball. Items #4 and 19 of
Marinetti's futurist manifesto assert: "We declare that the splendor of the world has
b n enriche with a new for of but, the bauty of spe d. " and "We will glorily
war -the only true hygiene of the world . . ... ("The Foundation of Futurism" ( 1 908),
fom Teores o/Modem Art: A Soure Book by Artists a Crtics, ed. Herschel B.
YL. 1 3, ML. 1 77
Chipp [Berkeley: University of Califoria Press, 1 968], pp. 284-289: p.284). In
oppsition to this, Hugo Ball writes in his diaries: "The war is bs on a crass error.
Men have ben mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should b deimate. At
some future date, when only machines march, things will b btter. Then evryone
will b right to rejoice when they all demolish ech other" (Flght Out ofnm (1910-
1924), ed. John Elderfeld, trans. Ann Raimes [New York: Vking Press, 1 974], entr
for July 26, 1 91 5, p. 22). In regard to the simultaneus ability of progress to eual
decadence, one may note an od linguistic coincidence: the word "moem" in
German can also mean "deaying."
71 Also worthy of mention are Mark King. a Leroy Nieman imitator (or at least a
comptitor for Nieman's market), and Alexander, Bob Ross' predeessor and mentor,
whom (as far as I can tell) Bob Ross long ago suprseded.
72 This description relies upn a numbr of broadcasts during the month of August,
1 994, on WNYE, Channel 25, in new York, and WLlW, channel 21 , in Long Island.
All quoted material was transcribd live from these broadcasts.
I should mention that Bob Ross died on July 4, 1 995; I blieve his sn will b taking
over the television show. Examples of Bob Ross' painting can b sen at his
company's webpage, http:// which includes pictures of paintings
by people who have applied his doit-yourself techniques.
The artist Alix Lambrt curate an interesting exhibit, "Joy of Painting," involving
Bob Ross' television show; the show tok place at the cultural center HERE, in New
York City in January of 1 995. She distributed copies of a Bob Ross instructional
video to various arists and had them paint from it. The video and the resulting works
formed the basis of the exhibit. The paintings shown exhibited the entire range of
reactions, from faithful -even loving -reprouction to passionate hatred.
73 Unless I am mistaken, all of the life forms in Ross' paintings answer to "he."
74 Cf the Preface and the discussion of Pawlowski.
75 Op cit., pp.59-61 . The next most ppular subjet for display in homes is the prtrait,
almost exclusively of membrs ofthe nuclear family, pp.87-1 1 8 (ch. 3). It should b
noted that this investigation of taste via art displayed in homes is skewed in one
imprant way -toward homeowners, that is, pople arguably predispsed to seek
stability. This fous also leaves out another typ of domestic projection which still
needs explanation, namely, the decorations native to the teenager's rom, usually
collages of magazine clippings, psters, pstcards, photographs, and assored cultural
fotsam and jetsam, sometimes completely covering over the original surface of the
wall. It seems that we are again dealing with diversion from moerity. To argue that
younger pople do not mind the constant upheaval of moernity would b to ignore
thc undeniable pain brought abut by broken families and freuent moving, two
increasingly frequent conditions brought abut by the moem situation.
76 Alex Komar and Vtaly Melamid, "Painting by Numbrs: The Search for a People's
A" (interview), op. cit., Vl. 258, no. 1 0 (March 1 4, 1 994), pp. 334-348, and Vctor
Navasky, "People's Artists," The Nation op. cit., pp. 328-329.
77 Ibid , pp.342-343.
78 Ibid . p. 343.
79 Ibid , p. 340.
80 The surey (and painting) was then prformed for Russia, with essentially the same
results (Susannah Cassedy O'Dnnell, "The People Spak: ' Blue Landscap,
Please, '" Museum News [NovembrfDcembr 1 994], 9- 1 0, 26). As of 1 998, the
surey has ben prformed repatedly across the glob, including such countries as
Turkey and Kenya. Again and again, the pll returned the same results -landscaps
are preferred over abstractions or interiors. The only exceptions were Holland (which
"most wanted" a small abstraction consisting of bright, swirling colors -- as over
against a brownish interior scene) and pssibly Germany and Italy, whose "most
wanted" landscapes were a little of the beaten track ._- or were Komar and Melamid
getting tired of painting the same landscaps? (Al of the paintings can be viewed at
the Dia Center's webpage at http://www.diacenter. org/kmlpainting.html/. )
81 Op. cit., 69.
82 A lo. In more detail, "A Manhattan man, abut a Chinese garden sccne, with
mountains in the background: 'It's so calm. That's what I like about it.' A Manhattan
woman, on her photographs of the coasts of Greece and Mexico: 'They have a leeling
of slitude, buty, quiet, and pce. ' A Grcnpint woman, on a landscap of trees
and a river: 'It's ver restful.' Another Grenpint woman, on a rural street scene
lined with autumn trees: ' It's pcefl and restful. ' A Manhasset man, abut two
bach senes: 'They're paceful. ' A Medford woman abut a beach scene, with
sagulls but no pople: 'I like it bcause it's tranquil. No one bothers you'" [69-70.
The Manhattan households were the uppr-class urban homes, Manhasset upper
middle-lass suburban, Grecnpint working- and lower middle-class urban, and
Medford working- and lower middle-lass suburban). Aother common aspect of thc
landsaps Halle studied was that they depicted no pople; of the landscapes that did
show pple, they were almost all of landscaps of previous historical priods, while
the "deppulated" landscaps were usually of moem-day vistas.
83 Op. cit., 343. Again, it may be that the "People's Choice" pll might partially renect
what pple blieved they would chose, as oppsed to what they actually had
chosen or do chose.
8 Cited in Halle, 72. Halle contends that the basic reasns bhind poplc's pretcrcncc
for calm landscaps relate to "an orientation to nature as the arena for leisure" (a)
bcause the "home, and viewing landscap therein, ofers some respite from the
perceived hustle and hubbub of the outside world, espcially the world of work" or
(b) bcause "the modem orientation to nature [is] as scener 10 drive past. . . or as the
arena for trips and leisure time" (72-73). This contention could probably b takcn as
either backing up or contradicting my thesis.
85 The name for these objects, as can b seen, is hard to nail down. One mail-order
catalog lists them as "Draf Dodgers" (the copywriters apparently misscd the possible
plitical connotations of the name - unless they meant to say that "draft dodgers"
are snakes!). Thanks to Liz French for bringing the catalog my attcntion.
86 On "display" as a constitutive oCart, Halle (95, 1 1 1 -1 1 2, and 1 20). This has been
ra.ther intuitively summed up by David laChaplle: "The way I see it, the magazines
are the galleries . . . And the museum is the refrigerator. If someone rips out the photo
and puts it on the fridge, that really is something" (Amy M. Spindler, "Mixing Dada,
Cher, Middle Aeries," New York nms, [November 29, 1 994), 81 4).
87 Op. cit., 200-205.
88 Cf. the disussion of the "status" argument i n the "Dduction of Kitsch" section.
89 Op. cit., 1 32-1 34. On a more anecdotal plane, in an interview with Doris Lessing
which tok place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lessing expressed
disdain for most of the "abstract" sculptures and paintings in the exhibition, "The
Itlian Metamorphosis 1 943-1 968," but (reprts Diana Jean Schemo) eventually
Lessing "warms to a few of the works. In a 1 961 sculpture called 'White Fire' by
Fausto Melotti, she m a castle. Lucio Fontana's 'Spatial Concept. Expctations, '
colore panels with almond-shap slits, rminds her of the seashore" ("A Portrait
Unwinds, A In Life," New Yor Tms [ovembr 2, 1 994], CI O). Likewise, we
YL. 13, ML. 1 79
discover that Greenbrg spnt his spre time at the end of his life painting landscaps
(Robrt Burstow, "0 A and Politics," interiew with Greenbrg, Freze, Issue 1 8
[Septembr/Otobr 1 994], 33).
90 Halle, op. cit., 1 32-1 34.
91 As far as the question of "pst moem" ar is concee, for now ali I can ofer is
preliminar. If "pstmoer" ar dos, as is sometimes held, not have relief or stasis
as its goal, but instead furher alienation, then it would apparently conform to the
description of a reaction to moerity that walks with it (entertainment), or tries to
run ahead of it, instead of standing against it. 0 pstmoerism as
'hyprmoerism,' David E. Petigrew notes: "Kant and Freud's fragmentation of the
subject, their critical identifcation of the illusory metanaratives of reason, and their
necessar recourse to the ir-rational, sere to debunk the myth that moerity was
simply obsessed with unity, and rather exemplifes tendencies which have tradition
ally been assoiated with pst-moerity. Moreover, . . . the exemplars of the pst
moem, particularly Drrida and Lacan, themselves exhibit cerain pathologies of
modernity. Reason is prtrayed as displaced from its propriety" ("The Crisis of
Reason in Modem Philosophy: The Pathological Case of Kant and Freud," Diss.
SUNY at Stony Brok 1 \ 991 ], xix). Otherise, "pstmoder" art would conform to
the same structure as 'fne" ar and kitsh, as a movement against moerity.
That which is called "kitsch" is also regularly taken to b:
(a) false ("fake," "inauthentic," "non-authentic," "illusory," "substitute," "spuri
ous," "mystifed," "counterfeit," "hyritical," "imitation,""ersatz," "ahistoricl,"
"seeming," "synthetic," "vicarious," and "deceptive")
(h) of low quality ("cheap," "mediore," "inferior," "vulgar," "degraded," "level
ling," "trashy," and "insipid")
(c) depndent upn ' simple' or ' low' emotions ("sugar," "prett," "sentimental,"
"cute," "naIve," "sensational ," "obscene," "saccharine," "comforting," "chaste,"
and "romantic")
(d) focused on the inessential or trivial ("fivolous," "suprfcial," and "decora
(e) strongly connected to mass prouction, systemati7.tion, ad marketing ("com
mercial," "packagcd," "standardized," "cliched," and "formulaic")
(f) depndent upn lainess or fatigue ("facile," "immediate," "bigoted," "unre
nective," "uncultivated," "philistine," "predigested," and "unimaginative")
(g) calculated for 'mass' appal ("conforist" and "ppular")
and, finally, (h) ethically or morally wong ("depraved," "fetisehistic," "danger
ous," "evil," and "virulent")
Fonnalist critic Clement Greenbrg has been, and in many ways continues to be,
the foremost architect of our vision of Moerism-a vision extended, and to
varing degrees moified, by two initial followers: Michael Fried and Rosalind
Krauss. Tough Greenbrg has come under increasing attack since the Seventies,
his "sigifcance," as Dnald Kuspit tells us, "cannot b overestimated. lie is the
designer and subtle manipulator of moerism, which is the single most important
and infuential theor of moder a. "l Similaly, when Leo Steinbrg embarks in
Other Criteria on an analysis of America fonnalism, it is to Grenberg, and
Greenbrg alone, that he tus-lagely crediting te approach's "strength," "enor
mous infuence," and "theoretical justifcation" to Greenbrg. 2 Consequently,
KUlpit's conclusion seems justifed: that even Greenbrg's "detractors" partici
pte "in what. . .psychoanalysts call the killing of the father-the father," in this
case, "of moer American a crticism," since "they are all, in the last analysis,
his sons."3
Such hegemony makes crucial a precise uderstanding of what motivates
Greenbrg's criticism. This requires more tha merely acknowledging, as is often
done, his allegiance to basic principles of Wester metaphysics,4 since doing m
still falls shor of our appreciating its fll impact on the present vision of Moder
ism. Tis essay, then, will explore more deeply the ofen taken-for-granted aspect
of Grebg's criticism-namely, te extent to which his approach is tied to basic,
idealist tenets of Wester metaphysics: te privileging of form over matter a con
c with transcendence a stess on abstraction, purity and essence, as well as on
inelligibility, clea defnitions, and distinctions. Matter, in this tradition, is the
sufof this world form blongs to a higer, abstract realm that tanscends worldly
materality. Greenbrg's ow commitent to this tadition, though, is at times
obsu by his early advoacy of medixemplife by his championing of
VLL. 1 3, NL. 1 8 1
C. E. Emmer is a dotoral candidate in Philosophy at SUY Stony Brok. His
concentration is in Gennan Idealism.
Ron Graziani is Assoiate Professor of A Histor at Easte Carolina Univer
Mary Beth Karll is a doctoral candidate in the Histor of A at Brn Maw
College. Her dissertation is on Sherrie Levine.
Donald Kuspit is Professor of A Histor and Philosophy at the State University
of New York at Stony Brok, and Editor of Ar Criticism.
Tricia Laughlin is a Ph. D student in the History of Art at Rutgers University.
Hope Mauzerall eared her doctorate in art history at the University of Virinia in
1 996. I ler dissertation was titled "Matter in Moerism: the Boying Forth of A
into l .ife. "
Charlene Regester is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of
Norh Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Karl F. Volkmar is Professor of the History of A at Southeaster Louisiana Uni
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L. 1 3, ML. I l i S
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