What is Kitsch?

Shaochen Shi
October 23, 2020

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. 

The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! 

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“Kitsch” is a euphemism used by art critics to attack things they do not like as “lowbrow trash”.  Just like many other terms for newly emerging cultural concepts over the past five hundred years, kitsch is a loanword from German: originating in the late 19th-century art market of Munich, the word was used to describe “cheap, marketable and popular art.” In other words, kitsch is the exact opposite of “high art” that requires more craftsmanship and materials. With such a description, it is not hard to imagine that western kitsch art was heavily influenced by the industrial revolution: the growing capitalism that stimulated art purchases, the mass-production that could copy Mona Lisa overnight, and the modernized living conditions society had advanced that allowed art to become not just for aristocrats and clergy to acclaim, but for the “vulgarized masses” – from lowly-born robber barons to factory workers – as well. People brought home copies of romantic paintings and went to local concerts of famous composers simply because those were what others had been doing. Kitsch paintings, sculptures and architectures thus became prevalent throughout the world, so along came thousands of professional criticisms, attacks from various art movements, and, of course, millions of dollars.

Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol

However, we cannot denounce kitsch art as meaningless imitations of great works under capitalism and superficial aesthetics, not without examining its prolonged arguments. The aesthetician Clement Greenberg believes that kitsch is intrinsically a devolved version of “art” – to him, it all started when “academic art” became mainstream after the Renaissance as the true spirit of art was replaced by soulless, repetitive imitations. His statement is seemingly similar to how Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and several other well-recognized and beloved modern masters are accused of being kitsch. Their artworks meet all the standards of kitsch: they are popular, mass-produced and profitable. But just as Andy Warhol would say, the mass-production of his famous prints is artistic in itself – the value and purpose of his artworks are fulfilled by their kitschiness. As they were welcomed by the media, Wall Street upstarts, hip hop artists, and the youth of that time, kitsch art became a satire of high art, a challenger of the Old Masters at the Louvre, and ultimately an exploration of art itself. With this layer of meaning, how could kitsch not signify something artistic, perpetual, and great?

It is no surprise that people still argue on this topic to this day. Perhaps there is one valuable outcome to its discussions – Next time, when you see hypebeasts waiting in line to buy pricey copies of the art by Takashi Murakami or Daniel Arsham, don’t forget to ponder for a few seconds and ask yourself: what is kitsch, really?

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