What is Art? Part 1: The Kitsch Movement

Author: Lea Della-Cerra (Gamma)

There are countless books and academic literature written questioning what art actually is, obviously there is no definitive answer, and it will continue to be debated. I believe a subject so vast cannot be addressed in one article; therefore, I am splitting it into parts, each addressing a different art genre, so settle down and allow me to take you on a tour through the London Underground Of Art.[1]

What Are You Looking At? – Will Gompertz

Personally, I love the debate between whether kitsch is art or mockery, I’m not arguing for either side – actually, most art debates I have an opinion for, but I decided to pick one I was unfamiliar with so I can give you an unbiased two-sided argument. Hopefully answering some of the popular questions, is Kitsch ironic, does it revel in its kitschness or is kitsch as a term now outdated? Have other forms emerged? What is relevant and how does commercialism change the work and how we view it?

The Kitsch Movement began in 1998 when Odd Nerdrum declared himself a Kitsch Painter, the problem is, the word Kitsch does not even have a clear definition, the term is often used quite ambiguously.[2] Labelling an artwork as kitsch might sound offensive and/or aggressive, as critics have suggested it is actually “bad and ugly” art, which is arguably not the case, it does not have to be neither offensive nor aggressive; nor can it always be classified as “Not Art”, a popular amateur critics’ term used for controversial works.

Fundamentally, there is no use having a word that cannot be defined, so we use art manifestos to define our genres. Consequentially, Kitsch can be defined as a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons, according to the Oxford art dictionary, kitsch is "art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way". Many art critics argue that kitsch art is characterized by exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama.[3]

This is debateable but at least it is concise. The problem is our description is still not definitive – does a work have to have a cynical undertone to be Kitsch? Is Kitsch defined by medium? Does the irony have to be aesthetical or political? Is this work Kitsch?

Disgusting (2020) – GammaTheReaper [Lea Della-Cerra]

Is something that is ugly without underlying meaning Kitsch? Surely the underlying meaning is what makes an object into an artwork? Knowing what something is defined as evidently is not the same as knowing what something is. This is what I like to call a ‘contextual description’.

Our Contextual Description for the topic at hand I sourced from Walter Benjamin. According to this famous cultural critic and philosopher, "kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer; it offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation".

What does that actually mean to a non-artist? Plainly put, it means Kitsch is not art. It is the substitute for dumb people. Insulting, right? Not really. Mr. Benjamin was writing in the 1890’s, a time where art was part of the behaviour and lifestyle of people with the highest levels of wealth and social status. It included their related affiliations, social events, and practices. Otherwise phrased, art was hierarchical, and it belonged to the elite. As Clement Greenberg famously said: “Art is tied to money by an umbilical cord of gold”[5]. This opinion, of course, changed over time, but according to independent arts journalism, “Education, Not Wealth or Class, Matters Most When It Comes to Making Art” – apparently, Kitsch is something you can appreciate without education, which evidently offends the educated into deeming it ‘not art’. However, ‘instantaneous emotional gratification’ indicates that perhaps kitsch holds the same purpose as art?

Art is continually open to interpretation. The era and context change the public view of “good” and “bad” art, what was once considered idiotic is now a highly desirable object. The lava lamp is an excellent example[4], Edward Craven Walker, a British accountant turned apparent ‘contemporary artist’ whose other claim to fame was making underwater nudist films. Now the retro lamp is considered the Icon of Kitsch art, remember, kitsch can be mass produced.

Invention of The Lava Lamp [9]

Greenberg suggests in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"[6], that avant-garde and modernist art was a means to resist the "dumbing down" of culture caused by consumerism. That "art" made for mass consumption and commercial gain was dumbed down and as mass-produced, no longer art as art was for pushing boundaries and for the few, such as Jeff Koons.

Though its etymology is ambiguous, scholars acquiesce that the word "kitsch" entered the German language in the mid-nineteenth century. Synonymous with "trash" as a descriptive term, kitsch may derive from the German word kitschen, meaning den Strassenschlamm ausammenscharren (to collect rubbish from the street) or the verb verkitschen (to make cheap). The Oxford English Dictionary defines kitsch in the verb form as "to render worthless," classifying such objects as "characterized by worthless pretentiousness."[7] Many years ago a German who loved England said, “I like your English word plain; it is a word for which we have no equivalent in German because all German women are plain.” He might well have balanced it by saying that English has no equivalent for the word Kitsch.[8]

Non-objectively, I see Kitsch as the sequel to pop-art, only the latter used mass-produced items to create something unique, and the former uses unique items and makes something to be mass-produced, I find that interesting, turn the tables and you create an entirely new genre. I don’t believe any artist ever wanted to create a new ‘box’, ironically, most of the time they were trying to escape the box, to become ‘genreless’.

That brings me to my disputable conclusion. Art, much like politics, is something that when discussed leads to argument and discontent which can be irritating to the producers of the art that more often than not wish to unite; of course, artistic feuds are prevalent – but when you have the greatest minds working in competition what can one expect? I discussed the reasonings behind this genre and presented opposing points of view, I encourage the reader to see it as I do and learn to simultaneously understand both sides at once. I hope this article is just one indication of how complex the web of the art world is, and how big a job each artist has to try creating an undivided community.



[1] http://bookpretty.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-map-of-modern-art-from-william.html

[2] https://haus-a-rest.com

[3] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/kitsch




[7] https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/art-and-architecture/art-general/kitsch

[8] Edward J. Dent, "The Music of Arnold Schönberg," "The Living Age," July 9, 1921

[9] https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mathmos.com%2Flava-lamp-inventor.html&psig=AOvVaw0IPXFBPCRV_BOn8umgoHaP&ust=1627137120222000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=2ahUKEwjDttehtPnxAhXG44UKHZQcBEoQr4kDegUIARCtAQ