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.
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
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.
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
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 (email@example.com).
Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist.