Saturday, October 12, 2013

"Kitsch" (1968): drawing the fine line between art and artifice

For whatever reason, some books just stay with you. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles is one of those books.
It's long out of print, but ten years ago I found a second copy; the familiar figure playing the violin on its cover demanded I pay her one-dollar price at a book sale.

It replaces a copy I left behind in college thirty-five years ago. This was the book I would turn to on rainy days to pass the time between classes, and in upstate New York there was a lot of bad weather. Mr. Dorfles and a wide-ranging group of art critics rack their brains (and twist ours) trying to describe what makes kitsch so appallingly bad.

The dust jacket offers a wry introduction to the wreckage of art and commerce inside: Kitsch is "profusely illustrated with more appalling pictures than you can shake a stick at," as the New York Times reviews with atypical over-statement. Newsweek puts it more succinctly: "This compendium of corn is guaranteed to contain something to offend everyone."

The essays here tread widely around the topics of taste, advertising, and the marketplace. Some critics, like Herman Broch, are afraid they may pose more questions about bad art than they answer. But a ten-minute look inside at the kaleidoscope of images in Kitsch will open eyes to the avalanche of junk that makes up popular culture.

The titles in this collection of essays, photos, and illustrations, published in 1968, indicates, really, that bad taste knows no bounds.
"Death," "Christian kitsch," "Tourism and nature," "Politics," and "Pornokitsch and morals" are just a few of the topics surveyed. The reader will also see more creative uses for the swastika of the Third Reich than one could imagine possible after 1945.

Also included is Clement Greenberg's essay "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch," published originally in 1939, tracing the rise of art in the service of totalitarian regimes. In this case, one photograph of Mussolini and Hitler at the Borghese gallery speaks volumes. The palpable disdain on their faces as they survey the half-nude reclining figure of Napoleon's sister on her couch makes it clear:
Il Duce and Der Fuhrer will soon put an end to the decadence of the Little General's age of neo-classicism. Tomorrow the world.

Mussolini and Hitler, art critics

Kitsch -- "trash" or "cheap finery" in German -- has become a universal term for much of the things consumers see, admire, or desire. Mass production has made kitsch an unavoidable part of contemporary culture; it's so pervasive that most of us see elements ofkitsch everywhere, yet would have a difficult time separating the art from the artificial.

Let's face it, no one goes to Disney World expecting an adventure in high art, but now that Times Square in New York has been "imagineered" by Disney, who can say where the kitsch fantasy ends? Dorfles states thatkitsch "threatens to become the most pervasive style of our times." Considering the book was written forty years ago, the relentless, artificial tide has only increased.

The book was first published in Italy and many of the photographs and illustrations are from European sources. Yet the sentimental and commercial pull ofkitsch, with its tug at the heartstrings and purse-strings of millions, is universal. Anyone who thinks of The Lone Ranger or Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange when listening to "The William Tell Overture" by Rossini has been influenced by kitsch.

While the line separating art from kitsch is exceedingly fine, one man's trash is still saved from being another man's treasure by context, or more rightly kitsch's complete lack of it. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa appears much less inscrutable on a plastic shower curtain. Mass production has made the irony of "authentic reproduction" available on a grand scale.

Some of the academic essays have not aged well, even if the gently tortured Italian-into-English translation has its own charm:
"And obviously before long (and even now in fact) we will witness the anti-family kitsch, the kitsch of hippies and long-haired youths, the kitsch of addicts and beatniks," writes Dorfles -- foretelling Nirvana's cover version of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" by a good 20 years.

Fascinating, funny, and full of hideously bad art, this book is a wonderland of the high-brow, the low-brow, and the no-brow of taste. In a pop-culture blender that makes no such distinctions, how else can you explain the success of American Idol?

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