Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl is one of the most prominent examples of kitsch art, but then again, according to some art lovers, so is the Mona Lisa. Love it or hate it, kitsch is here to stay.
According to the Oxford dictionary, kitsch art is generally held in disregard as being garish and sentimental. The definition goes on to acknowledge that fans’ appreciation of the style is often ironic. Let’s take a closer look.
Linked to Pop Culture
Originally German, the word ‘kitsch’ has been used for a century. It first appeared during the 1920s, when it was used as a derogatory term for popular culture. This use of the word is exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, Avant Garde and Kitsch.
In the essay, Greenberg described a polarised view of culture. At its heights, civilisation produces poetry and art such as that created by TS Eliot and Georges Braque. At its low points, the results are songs of Tin Pan Alley composers and musicians, and the covers of tabloid magazines. For the critic, art was either serious and meaningful, or trashy.
Moving Beyond Taste
The thing is, the kitsch of pop culture has been reclaimed by a younger generation that has cultivated its own tastes, rather than relying on the opinions of educated critics. It is art that has turned its back on traditional good taste. It is art that celebrates pop culture for what it is.
30 years ago, comic books were dismissed as unintelligent nonsense of no consequence by ‘serious readers.’ Now, respected galleries such as California State University, Northridge Art Galleries host specially curated exhibitions of comic book art. Another example is the number of young people who play real money Bingo games today when only a few years ago the game was dismissed as a pastime for pensioners.
Kitsch Has Undeniable Appeal
However derogatory the word was understood to be for the better part of the last century, the art and other things branded as kitsch have always had mass appeal. Years ago, that branding was due to that appeal. Nowadays, the appeal is partly due to those paintings or other items being described as kitsch.
Some retail brands enjoy a roaring trade in anything from prints of artworks such as Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, to replicas of 1950s-era Tiki mugs. That said, kitsch existed long before Germans invented the word. If you want good historical examples, look no further than the Mona Lisa, which oozes sentimentality, and the garish sculptures of Bernini.
Kitsch Concentrates Meaning
It can be easy to be distracted by the gilt of the art, but look beyond that, and you might just find concentrated meaning. According to Prof. David Lloyd, symbols such as those with cultural links that often find themselves used in art considered to be kitsch take on a profound new meaning among second- and third-generation emigrant communities.
Looked at like this, an aesthetic that previously was dismissed is seen to be not only relevant, but meaningful. It also makes it clear that the style is here to stay.