The Kitsch Alternative

8 Aug 2012

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) often cited the derisive term kitsch to critique artwork that, in his mind, failed to live up to the tenets of the modernist movement. His theories privileged formalist nonobjective abstraction and greatly influenced the type of art that was exhibited and critiqued in America's post-war heyday. The fallout, particularly for oil painters, is well known: representational work that referenced the figure, offered narrative content, or had sensual appeal was sidelined.

The Kitsch Biennale in Venice, Italy, in 2010 featured oil painting works by Odd Nerdrum among others.
The Kitsch Biennale in Venice, Italy, in 2010 featured
oil painting works by Odd Nerdrum among others.

Greenberg's clever adoption of the term kitsch exploited deeply rooted associations with the European art market and German aesthetic theory. Back in the 19th-century, German fine-art dealers, competing in a mercantile market flooded with mass-produced decorative objects, were keen to distinguish those objects from the one-of-a-kind works they represented. The dealers labeled mass-market items kitsch--roughly translated to mean "thrown together," "derivative," or "shoddily made."

The tactic worked; discreet one-of-a kind objects ascended to the status of high-culture icons. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose writing on aesthetic judgment remains the centric critique defining "high art," expanded upon the definition of kitsch to include art he believed to be inferior. In brief, Kant applied the kitsch label to artwork that referenced a preceding school (which he dismissed as "unoriginal" and lacking individual "genius") or works that were overtly emotional or sensual. Greenberg's theory on kitsch is a logical progression from Kantian thought and squares perfectly with the modernist aesthetic. To be modern was to be new. In one fell swoop, the modern art world nailed the coffin shut on centuries of art practice, oil painting techniques, and tradition. 

Reappropriating the term 'kitsch' allowed Odd Nerdrum to distinguish his work and philosophy in a time when there was great opposition to his approach in the art world.
Reappropriating the term 'kitsch' allowed Odd Nerdrum to
distinguish his work and philosophy in a time when there was
great opposition to his approach in the art world.
But cultures shift, and artists by nature are a terribly unruly lot. Greenberg's modernist lockdown on art-making lost ground in the post-modern epoch where the informing "do-it-again" trope holds forth. And yet there remains a considerable institutionalized prejudice against artwork that seriously departs from the modernist party line. Painting figures, work that is sensual, or artworks that aim to be beautiful remain highly suspect. 

Odd Nerdrum's work is all of the above. One-upping Greenberg by usurping the term kitsch, Nerdrum turned the tables on his celebrated critic by applying this same term to his own work. Defining one's own minority or outsider group using an oppressor's vocabulary is a powerfully subversive ploy that has noted precedents: for example, gay-identified university academics currently offer "***-studies" courses.

Beginning in 2002, Nerdrum and a group of his students began a series of kitsch exhibitions culminating in 2010 with the Kitsch Biennale in Venice, Italy. Richard Thomas Scott and Adam Miller, both former Nerdrum students, are planning a Kitsch Biennale in New York City in the fall of 2013, continuing to champion the emotive and eternal qualities of art above the contemporary whims of fashion or the dictates of critics. 

For further information about the 2013 Kitsch Biennale or to inquire about sponsorship opportunities, contact Richard T. Scott (richardtscottart @gmail.com) and Adam Miller (adam@adammillerart.com).

--Michael

Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist.


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Comments

ekquinn wrote
on 18 Aug 2012 5:56 PM

Michael,

I was unaware that Kant played that role. I am an MA in Philospohy, and never read him that way, but certainly accept the issue if properly shown. Kant has criteria of Judgement that have to be followed inorder to reach judgement. Specific people are selected to make judgement not based upon social status, but understanding the criteria which rise out of the history of knowledge. There is no society today to point towards, its mostly bogus.  I exited PhD pursuits because aesthetics and constitutional law were not allowed at BC. They told me even an MA thesis was questionable. I pursued pyschiatry briefly and saw the rise of gay and *** coursing and BC adopted it too well over the above disregarding their mission. They are deeply rooted in thoughts that evolve from reason based upon Kant, Greeks, Aristotle, and some Christian writers(none original as Kant would put it), so its too big an offense to draw down that course where Kitsch became a cloud program within all the above along gay perceptions. If they had stuck to individual creativity that draws on personal experience reflected upon reality: life might have continued. Today people are offended by the gayism rules effecting judgement over common laws on the books. Police ignore gay robbery, rape, scams and the supremes ignore that common law(state general laws) say its illegal. Kitsch gay violence on canvas and the street killed criterian art auction people, owners and dealors creating Kitsch value for their club. I pursued architecture and became the first architect to follow internship and exam laws to become an Architect( 7 years of school post 1991 grad from BC and 10 yrs interning post #1 grad at MIT). The Kitsch gayism logos invaded all state governing bodies by 2007 and they failed to respect that License and issued registration only to Kitsch Club members none examed, interned, or licensed. So they are Kitsch in the dictionary sense of the word. Law not upholding the real license made them Kitsch as well. So, I had to retire: no one would pay me only Kitsch Gay Clubbers. So, yes that is real. As an artist, no auction house would auction over 10,000 items of paintings, sculpture, and hand crafted goods when I left Kitsch MA. I left them on consignment. Sad to say, that by criteria of Kant and Aesthetics my work is valuable, but by Kitsch Gayism its almost trash. Kitsch Life.

Since I am studied in Traditional art of all media and have a degree in Philosophy, I am willing to write a treatise on valid values of Judgement that meets all people, not a culture club.

Make a forum on the subject and if there is an interest and valid comments I could write up a treatise for today.

Kiernan Quinn

Elizabeth_K wrote
on 19 Aug 2012 5:54 AM

I'm paraphrasing a recently heard comment on a TV art show - "if a painting doesn't have something to say, then it's just a pretty picture". My response to that is "what's wrong with a pretty picture".

What is wrong with a painting that is a statement of beauty; that the world can be a beautiful place. I'm most definitely not saying that there isn't a place for the ugly or for meaningful art but it should not be at the exclusion of the beautiful.

Elizabeth_K wrote
on 19 Aug 2012 5:54 AM

I'm paraphrasing a recently heard comment on a TV art show - "if a painting doesn't have something to say, then it's just a pretty picture". My response to that is "what's wrong with a pretty picture".

What is wrong with a painting that is a statement of beauty; that the world can be a beautiful place. I'm most definitely not saying that there isn't a place for the ugly or for meaningful art but it should not be at the exclusion of the beautiful.