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however. and too funny to be serious. Kitsch belongs to a broad category of objects that inhabit the contemporary material world that defy the normal definitions of fine art and design. kitsch presents a particularly intriguing group of physical objects with which to explore how people make sense of the world through artifacts.JUDY ATTFIELD ^ D g ^ S X TOWARDS A POLITICAL ANALYSIS OF DESIGN AESTHETICS This issue of Home Cultures is dedicated to examining kitsch from a variety of perspectives. It is the culmination of a project that started with a suggestion that I write a book on kitsch. It has been used as a strategy to elevate its own status to allow its integration into serious academic discourse as in the case of Gillo Dorfles's volume of critical essays (Dorfles 1968). and in the material culture of everyday life (Attfieid 1996. It seemed. it is most commonly a form of ornamental non-functional object associated with the domestic interior and as such. Moreover it seemed possible that kitsch as a genre might hold the key to help explain popular taste. > To consider just a few ofthe meanings kitsch has enjoyed—kitsch has been used to peddle ideology by fascist demagogues and been made the subject of serious critique by art historians.g. 1997. Attfieid 1995: 185-201). Kitsch cannot be reduced to a single stylistic genre and can only be recognized from within a consciously critical context that has something to say about taste. 2000). in the domestic interior (Attfieid and Kirkham 1995). like an obvious next step in consolidating a long-standing interest in popular taste (e. with the help of the contributors found in this volume who have also found it fascinating. Although kitsch is found in all manifestations of visual culture. what was there left to say about it that had not already been said by art critics like Gillo Dorfles (Dorfles 1968).^ At first sight kitsch might seem a flimsy subject with no substance. It has also been used as a way of questioning elitism in fine art and positing a more historical view of taste than that allowed by what Danto calls the "eternalist . Therefore. In the search to explain meanings embedded in popular taste kitsch is an extreme version that has a lot to tell about changing attitudes to aesthetic value. representative of popular taste. My first reaction was rather guarded. The subject seemed too much like fun. So here. to cheap seaside souvenirs. kitsch is examined in several different ways according to a variety of perspectives and contexts. But apart from running the risk that might label all my writing as so much kitsch. as well as from various specific fields of study from design and architectural history to anthropology. from high art. But what makes kitsch fascinating and first drew me to tackle it as a subject worthy of serious study and attention was because it belongs to the genre of "wild things" (Attfieid 2000) that elude categorization under conventional definitions.
That is not. he uses the tongue-in-cheek term—"corn-temporary art. asserting that culture can found everywhere. and sociological analysis tells us that taste is socially determined. there is the case of Victor Margolin's ironical reference to kitsch in his essay "Culture is Everywhere" in which he actually avoids the term altogether (Margolin 2002). particularly those associated with art. The aim of this introduction is primarily to initiate a redefinition of kitsch by contextualizing it within aesthetics. material culture studies. into a recognizable category that would make more sense today. then it has to be acknowledged that there is something very elusive about kitsch that defies definition: hence my reluctance to attempt to pin it down into a single category of forms. popular taste. however. it is impossible for it to be sidelined or to escape its presence as part of the material culture of everyday life. a visual style and could be reclassified from the typology set out by Gillo Dorfles.. and from there to other fields such as anthropology. As Eugene Goodheart said in a symposium on kitsch in 1958: "there must be something in all of us that wants kitsch." But how can it be useful to redefine kitsch. Margolin questions the hierarchical position of art galleries and museums who consider themselves the arbiters of taste. to unpack it from its stereotypical meaning of bad taste and jokey ironical garden gnomes that we encounter in Londos's visual article here and the flying ducks that have joined the array of 1950s cute memorabilia collectables so highly desirable among the connoisseurs of camp? (Burns and DiBonis 1988). and contemporary culture studies and to suggest how such a redefinition might contribute to the fields of Art and Design History. from where my own studies derive. At the other end of possible definitions. So. So if kitsch is posited as a style and a taste. except to argue that as a visual form kitsch does offer a genuine aesthetic experience. In categorizing kitsch as the paradigmatic postmodern style. This introduction is an attempt to position it as a more general aspect of material culture that refuses to judge it according to aesthetic categorizations and thus to provide a conceptual platform from which to examine it within a broader cross-disciplinary context."^ a small display of his personal collection of souvenir tat. although it does not fit into conventional aesthetics as a valid subject.REDEFINING KITSCH: THE POLITICS OF DESIGN view" (Danto 1977). that needs kitsch .. kitsch is. w g ^ ^ S X . my project. nevertheless. In what can only be taken as a spoof "Museum of Corn-temporary Art. and ethnology as represented in this issue. By decontextualizing kitsch from any of the customary slots where it is usually found it is possible to attend to a category of mass design that continues to be absent from most academic fields. [it] is an appetite which everybody shares"(see Kulka 1996: 22). In his efforts to reassess kitsch and distance his collection of objets d'art (which he defines as "a popular art" that mostly comprises "inexpensive multiples") from a demeaning classification.
aesthetics is a divisive notion that does more harm than good. It is often the antithesis of serious. which at a flick of a button will inflate you to impressive proportions" for a mere £39. as anyone who has attempted to write about this subject will know. and yes—boring. Just to give one of many available examples. superficial subject. however. Because of my initial doubts in committing myself to a whole issue on kitsch. it is necessary to break quite a few rules. 'high' is defined as serious and difficult while 'low' is usually defined as comic and easy" (White n." But. First one must deal with what has to be acknowledged is a funny. associating kitsch with art relegates it to a minor. But she insisted the title had to be "Kitsch" and suggested I visit Dollywood. And as Emory Elliot writes in his Introduction to Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age: many feel that the recent theoretical revolution has made the term "aesthetic" and the cluster of ideas it contains outmoded and irrelevant. The fact that kitsch is a bit of a laugh is part of what makes it intriguing. study. they will seek to define standards of judgement and thereby fall back into aesthetics. The publisher also insisted I remove the word "Aesthetics" from my proposed subtitle—"Kitsch: The Aesthetics of Popular Taste"—suggesting the term made it sound stuffy and boring. but it only conforms in part with what Allon White wrote in "The Dismal Sacred Word" that "In the separation of high and low. and recommend. take the "Kitsch inflatable sumo wrestling suit" with which a man can gain weight instantly and effortlessly by donning a "superbly daft and fun costume . my first proposal to the publisher was a general study of the aesthetics of popular taste. as Tomas Kulka says in his book on Kitsch and Art (1996: 17). Furthermore. Dolly Parton's theme park town in Tennessee.99.).d. marginal position beyond the pale so that the discussion becomes circular. There are countless definitions of poor or bad taste but definitions of kitsch are rare. As long as people review and evaluate cultural expression and make choices about what to preserve. And by the time I had investigated aesthetics to see what it could elucidate about kitsch I had to agree.. One of the most difficult tasks has been to produce even a working definition of kitsch. finding that Aesthetics (with a capital "A")—the philosophy of art—has indeed "neglected" kitsch. Then there are the Motown washing-up gloves with decorative fun-fur cuffs from the Taste by Mail catalog at £14. The issue then is not whether we can rid ourselves ^ D g ^ S X .99 plus 4 x 4 double-A batteries. some might say. For those who believe that art itself is an elitist notion that only serves to sustain false hierarchies of expression.JUDY ATTFIELD In attempting to tame kitsch sufficientiy and subject it to academic analysis.. it is far from easy.
degraded designs. 2002: 9)." First. the particular feature that Benjamin (1969: 217-51) brought to our attention in his essay on mechanical reproduction. once the intellectual analytical process is put to work it becomes surprisingly problematic to pin down. In the History of Design. The characteristics that define kitsch. rather. These are all familiar critical characteristics identified by cultural critics from Adorno (1994: 202-3) to Kulka. There seems to be a universal agreement that taste is socially determined (Gronow 1997: x). Dorfles 1968. who in his book Kitsch and Art (1996) only includes one illustration and description of an actual work of kitsch art—the Lady Playing the Violin (by an unnamed artist) reproduced self-referentially from the jacket cover of Dorfles. but the object is the same to "evaluating cultural expression in ways that are fair and just to all. which again does not help in defining it. for example. the Frankfurt School in Strinati 1995). particularly in relation to fascism (see. non-functional miniaturizations. My project to attempt a redefinition of kitsch is a smaller project than a redefinition of art. in the dual opposition of good design/bad design (Walker 1989: 191). However. He was one of two generations of critical theorists who understood the political implications of mass culture. There is a common-sense meaning with which we are all familiar and can recognize without difficulty. Kitsch can be said to be a modern term insofar as its origins lie in the age of industrial production. assuming that it can be recognized by the cognoscenti. This is not helped by art critics like Gillo Dorfles and others who rely on their own common-sense definition and have explained it away by using the term interchangeably with "bad taste" without actually defining its formal characteristics. One of the earliest and still relevant cultural critiques to attack the pretensions of middle-brow taste was Thorstein Veblen's (1934) seminal work—The Theory of the Leisure Class—m which he ridiculed the consumption of goods with no use value. according to Dorfles and others since are: parasitical poor imitations of fine art or classical designs. It only seems to exist within a normative context—in everyday speech where it pops up all over the place as evident in the examples given above. That first generation of critics used the term "kitsch" to define the aesthetics of mass culture that they considered to lie outside K p § " 2 x . kitsch has been used as a kind of shorthand for bad taste. as in Sociology.REDEFINING KITSCH: THE POLITICS OF DESIGN of the disciplines that address the desire for beauty and art. Sontag 1983. it must be how to redefine the parameters of "art" and formulate new questions for evaluating cultural expression in ways that are fair and just to all (Elliot et al. sentimental subjects that require no thought to interpret them and appeal to the lowest common denominator for purposes of profit or the dissemination of political ideology. cheap copies. it is necessary to consider how kitsch is normally defined.
However. personal advantage or sensory gratification) as in the concept of "art for art's sake. utility. however. too. Aesthetics. and have used kitsch to rubbish popular taste. the kind of encounter with the "real" that gives a sensation of being in direct contact with authenticity. that. it takes on a more general meaning—aesthetic as a style. Traditionally. the aesthetic experience is supposed to be unadulterated by any interest outside itself (that is to say—not dependent on considerations of morality. a "falsification" of art. . Such a definition depends on a given understanding that art is about an ultimate definition of beauty. more immediate satisfactions" (1984: 34). Bourdieu refers to a popular taste that prefers "dfrect. But can we have an aesthetics of popular taste that is not a contradiction in terms? That is only possible when kitsch is posited as an aspect of popular taste and contemporary culture.JUDY ATTFIELD 1 2 § y o S X the hierarchical framework of fine art. where ordinary things have pretensions to aesthetic form. emanates from wider debates concerning the mounting escalation ofthe artifactual world and the material culture that it engenders (Binkley 2002: 131-52). and a critical understanding and an awareness of what is considered beautiful and therefore good in terms of taste. that there has been a degradation of taste made to appeal to the uneducated masses for base purposes of politics or to stimulate consumerism. is usually associated with the elite definition that assumes an educated intellect and sensibility that can contemplate and recognize a certain type of beauty. The rather cynical argument is that in an age of mass production/consumption. a form of inauthentic art. If we put kitsch in the frame of aesthetics in the lower case. the focus of this investigation of kitsch seeks to analyze it as an aesthetic manifestation of cultural significance within the context of popular taste that needs to be addressed in new and more subtle ways. current academic interest in kitsch beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art. would not include kitsch within its remit. Thus. therefore." In the light of these observations it would seem that what is called for is a redefinition of kitsch outside conventional aesthetics that would not work towards reinforcing the poor image of kitsch in relation to its elitist connotations. as in the quotation from Emory Elliot above. the concept of aesthetics is adopted in terms of a much more visceral experience like that described by Bourdieu. In Distinction he associates popular taste with the working class and characterizes it as a direct response rather than the intellectual analytical definition that would automatically define kitsch as the inverse of classical forms representing perfection. that delivers pleasure from the direct visceral experience of immediate recognition of a familiar form. While earlier critics have been concerned with the incursion of art into politics and propaganda through aestheticization. outside the fine art frame. What can be argued. in other words.
aesthetic genuine experience. In this case popular taste does not imply "dumbing down" or the degrading of art to make it easy to assimilate. wildly exaggerated. Kitsch works well as a stylistic medium for expressing irony and is often used knowingly in this way to refer to art and taste. I seek to explain the current interest in what has been considered bad J3 § g ^ s x . For instance kitsch is enjoyed by those with a camp sensibility even though they know it is in bad taste. One of many ways that this approach differs from the classic critique of kitsch is that it recognizes the irony of kitsch. as crude. According to them. and graphic design under the more inclusive heading of Visual Culture. this type of perspective "does not do justice to the complexity of contemporary society" in which "some members of one class can and do share or appreciate the culture of other classes. this type of sophisticated reference to kitsch for its expressive propensity is only one use of it and does not clarify its meaningfulness as part of the material culture in the everyday lives of many of its consumers and users. Positioning kitsch within a social context of popular taste recognizes popular culture as a more inclusive field of inquiry. Nor is it meant to imply that kitsch is admired by those who know no better. My own project in attempting to redefine kitsch is intended as a contribution towards a political analysis of design aesthetics is not necessarily the same as the other contributors to this special issue. that it conveys a pleasurable. I want to argue that kitsch is a valid category of popular taste. in other words—those with no taste." However. As a form of popular taste in contemporary culture. Irony is a knowing send up and has become part ofthe language of postmodernism. that it applies to many types of object not necessarily those normally categorised as art. who have included popular forms of art.REDEFINING KITSCH: THE POLITICS OF DESIGN is that kitsch is not necessarily a working-class taste but responds to a much wider need for an engagement with authenticity. photography. undiscriminating masses. have criticized the definition of kitsch as a "low" vulgar form of culture or entertainment associated with commercial producers and consumption by passive. the material culture of everyday life. Metaphorically speaking. In contextualizing kitsch as an aspect of "popular taste" the intention is to position it in a positive context. it has political implications in making culture accessible. kitsch design can be allied to the term "gold plating" used to denote overdoing it for the sake of making an impression.^ Thus. Recent critics of aesthetic elitism like Walker and Chaplin (1997). over the top. such as graffiti. kitsch can be considered an ideal form for making a personal statement that expresses a sense of identity. it acknowledges the aestheticization of everyday life as a positive aspect of culture and allows the consideration of taste as part of the habitus. often inflating the importance of a trivial object for its symbolic potency. but can also apply to design and everyday things and that as such.
providing an encounter with authenticity in a world full of commercial artificiality. to construct a personalized world within their home. There are accounts of peoples' engagement with kitsch from the perspective of architects and tastemakers. it can work for some who refuse to take art too seriously and at the same time be appropriated to respond to personal needs for sentiment. The question that remains to be addressed is why do people love bad taste? I suspect that it is something to do with how kitsch operates. It can stand in for the need for beauty and somehow form a bypass to the real. and artists of all media. It has not proved productive to be confined to theories of aesthetics based on classical philosophy of art that label kitsch as bad taste. it is also amenable to a variety of interpretations as this collection of articles very readily shows. Paul Overy's article "'The Whole Bad Taste of Our Period': Josef Frank. Kitsch is more than a single style. The aim is not necessarily to elevate their value but to attempt an explanation of their popularity within the domestic context and an interpretation of their meaning as an aspect of identity. theoreticians. Kitsch is part of our contemporary culture that refuses to be overawed by art. indiscriminately stealing and appropriating references from every cultural genre and reworking them into familiar accessible forms and inserting them into everyday life. to consumers who use objects that they do not think of as kitsch. but a much wider manifestation of consumer society in which people form their identity through their unconscious attitudes to things.JUDY ATTFIELD taste and characterized as kitsch on the part of the general public as well as the serious attention currently accorded it by historians. Adolf Loos. It is no longer acceptable 1o confine it to . comparing it with his Austrian g •3 g ^ s X . The subjects are all related to domestic culture In somo way while the actual material objects range from Hawaiian grass huts and garden gnomes to dancing Father Christmases and other items generally considered tasteless. it is an aesthetic that establishes a rapport with a vast audience used to deciphering the mass media with a strategic knowingness about self-identity through taste choices. and Gschnas" takes an oblique view of modernism through the work of Josef Frank. the crude elitist critique that categorizes kitsch as bad taste and a cynical manifestation of consumerism. my conclusion is that taste is no longer a matter of polite etiquette. So far. A GROUP OF INTERPRETATIONS Just as kitsch adapts itself to a variety of aesthetic styles and material manifestations. as well as through their consciously chosen lifestyles and the accoutrements that go with it. so that they become imbedded in contemporary material culture. Kitsch can use humor to be subversive and make powerful political statements by exaggerating artificiality and making light of serious concerns. critics.
" His interest in kitsch seemed to derive from his belief that in all its wildness and unrepressed profusion kitsch and tasteless design held the key to genuine sentiment. He is careful to explain that the types of objects he discusses are not kitsch in as much as that they would not be recognized as such by their user. To give force to his view he suggests the transposition of items normally considered as very tasteful art works and craft as holding nothing but the "emptiness and shallowness that we may associate with kitsch. He examines the concept of Gschnas and it relation to kitsch as used by Loos to disparage his idea of bad taste. Miller's standpoint is that to "think in terms of kitsch is simply to condescend" and thus to fail to engage with the materiality of the population to which he is specifically referring. in particular sentimentality. as the opposite of kitsch because they are "saturated with humanity." It is surprising to find that he believed that "every great work of art must border on kitsch" which he considered a "genuine sentiment" and therefore "a legitimate feeling. But there is little doubt that they would be considered kitsch by taste makers and the style conscious. but from the perspective of a consumer of kitsch. The things that "bright up the place" for Marcia populate her domestic interior with a multitude of objects such as "a litter of six ceramic kittens play[ing] at the feet of a Japanese lady" and "ornamental telephones that never actually ring. and what he called "its brilliant variety and sentimentality." According to Overy." He interprets his subject Marcia's pieces. the case study of his article. excesses. Mainly known as one of the pioneers of modern design." Miller notes the poignancy of the crowd of ornaments and their owner's loneliness. It can be inferred that Frank was a precursor to later designers who felt there was something to be learnt from the art of the everyday in all its confusion. . His softer interpretation drew criticism from the more hard-line designers who labeled his work "modernist kitsch. Gsc/inas derived from a carnival ball celebrated in Vienna and was used to refer to frippery and fancy dress. Frank applied his interpretation of kitsch as a positive feature by combining his minimalist architecture with decorative interiors filled with vibrant and clashing textiles. the Austrian architect Josef Frank who later emigrated to Sweden inspired the "Swedish modern" furnishing style which became internationally popular. derived from the lack of satisfaction afforded by their work. Frank contended that the working class's emotional need for "a plethora of ornament" for the well-being and comfort in their homes. Daniel Miller's article also engages with the type of feeling kitsch elicits. with the transcendence of the divine" and as a bricolage of artifacts and arrangements of objects that speak of her homeland in the Caribbean even though they are not direct representations of the Caribbean.REDEFINING KITSCH: THE POLITICS OF DESIGN contemporary Adolf Loos.
" With the disqualification of the term "kitsch. presenting it as a symbol of changing Hawaiian-ness rather than as an opposition between authenticity and inauthentic kitsch. O'Connor's study suggests that there is much to be gained from the investigation of kitsch and popular art as two sides of one coin. uses the category of kitsch for its given general meaning indicating poor taste. which considered domestic ornamental objects. Cieraad shows how taste education lost its credibility in the 1960s and kitsch started to be seen with different eyes. which Miller defines as a "very different kind of aesthetic. tracing the changing features of its materiality. nor does she use comparative historical references or attempt to provide a fixed definition of kitsch. O'Connor's use of the grass hut as a case study shows how the domestic domain represents the most elemental aspect of culture. represents the transformation of the grass hut through various stages of its historical and cultural development." Miller." is very far away from the irony and jokey definitions that circulate around kitsch adopted by other cultural groups to indicate a knowing kind of superiority of taste that looks down on kitsch as amusing." so-called incorrect design was given an aura of respectability and became acceptable in different ways by different groups categorized socially . about cultural change and transition through the consideration of the history of objects not so much in movement but from looking at them "at home. The point of comparison is between the two studies that each reflect a specific different attitude to kitsch and taste—the Porte study of 2006. not as a serious taste misdemeanor.JUDY ATTFIELD 2 § g ^ S X His interpretation can be used to explain how that which is considered kitsch by some cultural groups can also represent entirely other meanings associated with genuine feelings and sentiments. and O'Connor have all in their own ways redefined and reinterpreted kitsch by investigating specific case studies where it is more helpful to look at types of objects that might be recognized as kitsch but that talk of different types of aesthetics and have things to say about shifting cultural values. but as an amusing aspect of the "mundane. Overy. Cieraad uses Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of laste (1984) as the critical backbone to her article. and the Zeldenrust-Noordanus study of furniture published in 1956. in a bid to reevaluate the Hawaiian grass hut from the kitsch connotations that have become attached to it. Her study is an insight into a specific historiography of advice about taste using publications of the time and two studies made fifty years apart showing changing attitudes to taste by several generations of Dutch critics. The latter. She does not claim to present a historically or theoretically watertight treatment on kitsch. Kaori O'Connor's article focuses on quite a different type of concern. however. Cieraad's article. Her case study.
what this group of perspectives has shown is the nuanced and meaningfulness of the material culture of domestic interior space and the objects that inhabit it. 1996. 4. Jo Turney's book review (this issue) shows that this now classic work takes on a different complexion when looked at from a present day perspective. 3. The term "gold plating" has been used to denote the representation by British civil servants of EU directives by overcomplicating them. 2. NOTES 1.2 0 1 . at the University of Ulster. and most significantly the way specific objects and their aesthetics embody matters of identity. So although no one definitive definition is arrived at. 1995. stereotypical. etc. and so on. ." In John Storey (ed. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. She poses the intriguing question "Who's afraid of kitsch?" and suggests a variety of answers. Part of this introduction is derived from a paper first given at the Annual Design History Society Conference. Middlesex: Middlesex University Press. as well as among varying social groupings. which accepted a broader range of popular taste.Boydell (eds) Disentangling Textiles.REDEFINING KITSCH: THE POLITICS OF DESIGN by gender.1 1 2004. My thanks to Brandon Taylor for bringing this article to my attention. T 1994. Attfield. J. various and different historical periods.3 . "The Real Thing: Tufted Carpet's Entry into the Vernacular. Journal of Design History 9(3): 1 8 5 . Kitsch remains an open term. banal. "On Popular Music. "'Give 'em Something Dark and Heavy': The Role of Design in the Material Culture of Popular British Furniture 1 9 3 9 1965. full of possibilities of meanings with which to attempt to understand how people use popular taste to be in touch with the freer aspects of identity and expression. REFERENCES Adorno. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to acknowledge and thank the Leverhulme Trust for their generous support in putting this issue of Home Cultures together. in many languages of aesthetic and taste categories. It shows the rewards of investigating objects "at home" within the domestic environment. September 9 . including the highbrow view. Shoeser and C. . The terms "corn" and "corny" in adjective form are American slang for trite. age." In M. sentimental. This was part of what Cieraad calls an "omnivorous" taste. sexual orientation. 5. 2 0 2 . all of which are careful to formulate their particular version of correct and incorrect kitsch.) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. pp.
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