Literature review: Kitsch
A few years ago upon the discovery of my Russian heritage, whilst researching my family tree; I grew curious of the Russians folk story Vasilisa the Beautiful. There are interesting characters in this story: the heroine Vasilisa the Beautiful (fig 1); Baba Yaga, the ‘Boney Legs’ witch (fig 2), who owns a conscious magical house that runs from danger on giant chicken legs (fig 3); and a number of other fantastic ancillary characters. Folk stories are used in the arts: decorative and folk arts, postmodernism and bad taste called kitsch. My interest in this folk story and of figurines and decorative style, has lead me research kitsch: its creation, influences and connection to folk story.
Fig 1. Lisa Svensk. 2011. Vasilisa: Sketch of the Russian heroine.
Fig 3.Lisa Svensk. 2010. Aquarelle painting of chicken leg house.
Fig 2.Lisa Svensk. 2010. Sketch of Baba Yaga Boney Legs.
Dorfles Gillo (1969) explains how kitsch has reached all facets of the art and design industry. The author provides examples of kitsch influenced by da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (fig 4) and the famous Italian Murano Glass; due to their mass produced souvenirs and constant reproduction. Gillo surprises the reader; he breaks the naïve illusion of unique art. ‘Kitsch – The World of Bad Taste’ gives the impression that postmodernism has corrupted art in the modern era. Artistic value has promptly become an exclusive kitsch value because souvenirs are reproductions or because of the way these ex-masterpieces are used, enjoyed and idolized by “kitsch-men”, who buy and fill their home with such pieces.
Fig 4. Mona Lisa Souvenirs from Paris
How can this virulence of kitsch be explained? It is a choice between the re-imagined and the genuinely new. Greenberg (1939) thinks the masses prefer kitsch simply because their governments condition them toward it. Yet there does seem to have been, more or less, a general agreement among the cultivated of mankind over the ages as to what good art is and what is bad. Clement Greenberg warned: “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times”. “And thus, he argued, it is the exact opposite of art: mechanical, stereotypical, second-hand experience” (Tietenberg 2010 p32).
Kitsch is very easy to like. “The essence of kitsch is the conclusion of the ethical category of the aesthetic category: a ’beautiful’ work, not a ‘good’ one, is the important thing is an effect of beauty” (Gillo, 1969 p71). The absence of beauty is a device an artist uses to gain the viewer’s attention, to contemplate the ideas presented. Kitsch is always subject to the dogmatic influence of ‘what has already been’. Kitsch does not take its realistic terminology directly from the everyday world, but uses prefabricated expressions, which harden into clichés (Gillo p72). Kitsch in its beauty is false and filled with utopia; romanticism. Kitsch is imitation and content to falsify the finite reality of the world.
Tietenberg (2010) argues that you need to only learn to love steel, chrome and glass to like kitsch. “After design museums started idolizing objects as icons of their time that, in line with the postmodernist maxim ‘anything goes’, have broken with the principles of functionalism, they can no longer act as a bastion against bad taste” (Tietenberg, 2010: 32). Because of these opinions, can we assume that kitsch can be dividing in two categories: beauty and bad? After all taste is a matter of contention.
A great example of kitsch art is ‘For the love of god’, 2007 (fig 5): A platinum skull with human teeth fully covered by diamonds. “What strikes me about the skull is its giant stride forward in media coverage
Fig 5. For the love of God, 2007. Platinum, diamonds and human teeth,6.75x5x7.5 in.
-bejewelled, bizarre, and bewitching- and what lurks at the heart of this interest price” (Robert, 2008: 43). What makes this art kitsch? To my knowledge it is one of a kind, not mass produced or an imitation like Gillo presents. In any case, by combining the diamonds with white ceramic, Hirst has managed to make it look cheap. “Kitsch in art, borne by love of the unnatural, is tricks and exaggerations”. (Tietenberg, 2010: 32)
Kitsch and tourism goes nicely together, but why is every object from folk lore instantly made kitsch by tourism? “Tourism is one of the most noisome aspects of a rite that transforms and mythicizes every event with which the individual comes into contact, once he has been drawn into the mythagogic(sic) ritual” (Gillo, p 153). A folk story covers all the features of kitsch: typical storyline, modern heroes and reproduction. In Russian culture folk stories reproduction reaches the art and design as well as the kitschy industry; souvenirs (fig 6), illustrating (fig 7) and decorative arts. Folk stories are part of the magnetisms tourism and industrialization.
Fig 6. Decorative Russian Nesting Doll; Firebird Matryoshka
Fig 7. Victor Vasnetsov. Baba Yaga 1917
Russian culture is full of religious rituals, symbols, ornaments and other mythological elements which all are strongly attached to kitsch. Gillo presents that a great deal of the ritual apparatus, figurative paraphernalia, decorations and emblems which accompanied any movement was decidedly kitsch. If ritual and the scenic apparatus are not based on any authentic religious tradition and for that reason can easily degenerate into kitsch.
There is no such thing as a “pure” national folk tale or literary fairy tale. The oral folk stories were told in different ways thousands of years ago, preceded the literary narratives, but we are not certain who told the tales, why or how. The efforts of the Brothers Grimm and projects which they inspired, such as Aleksandr Afanes’ev Russian Fairy Tales (1855 – 1863), have resulted in a false impression of the nature of folk stories and fairy tales (Zipes, 2006 p43). Zipes opinion of a non-pure folk story supports Gillos opinion about institutionalising those stories. Myths have become kitsch as they have been developed and bastardised in order to maximise their commercial value, thanks to the energy and magical characteristics of the genuine myth, which the pseudo myth can reproduce (Gillo, 1969 p46).
Vasilisa the Beautiful no longer has any real historical significance, nevertheless if you read carefully you can still find some of the original Slavic mythology from the story. Reproduction has made it possible to spread artistic and historical knowledge to wide sections of the population. However we should not forget that these days the mania for reproduction has resulted in the paradox of works and objects which are only apparently and extrinsically similar to the original being treasured (Gillo, p31).
While Gillo does not directly accuse folk culture of being kitsch, his comparisons reveal numerous indicators of kitsch identifiable in folk culture, religious, mythology and rituals. The problem is that no one really knows how authentic and pure folk cultures really are. Folk stories are used in ‘kitsch-tourism’ and art, but is it because “the masses prefer kitsch simply because their governments condition them toward it”, as Greenberg explains or do we just find it beautiful?
Even though kitsch divides opinions, a liking for kitsch is not that rare; we see it everywhere in art and design. Kitsch conforms to the public’s taste and thus sells easily and it is considered as a counter-concept to art, but because of kitsch we all can enjoy art in our everyday lives in numerous formats. My inspiration comes from fairy tales and myths which I reproduce in my own personal style, but I would not call it pure kitsch. Though my ceramic art expresses a decorative and folky touch, these do not fulfil all the kitsch criterions; mass production, cheap look and tackiness. I consider all handmade designs to being unique and original, but of course this is only my opinion. If we are to discuss kitsch, we must first clearly define what is authentic, original and beautiful. However such observations are subjective, hence reaching a consensus would be an impossible task.
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Dorfles Gillo (1969) Kitsch- The world of bad taste, Bell Publishing Company, New York.
Hillon Alison (1995) Russian Folk Art, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Tolstoy Vladimir (1990) Russian Decorative Arts 1917- 1937, Edition Du Regard, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Zipes Jack (2006) Why Fairy Tales Stick, Roudledge, London.
Veronika Alice Gunter (2005) 500 figurines in clay: ceramic artists celebrate the human form, Lark Brooks, Asheville/US.
Harrison, Steve (2008) ’Damaged Goods’. Ceramics Technical, 26/2008.
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Hubbard, Patricia (2001) ‘The function of beauty’, in Ceramics: Art and Perception, No 45/2001.
Ibarra, Ana (2010) ‘Wolfe Von Lenkiewicz: Art chemistry& the infinite play’, Elephant, Winter 2010-11.
John, Linda (2001) ‘On Jumping Ship’, in Ceramic review, issue number 190, July/August2001.
Petrie, Kevin (2001) ’Positive Image’, in Ceramic review, issue number 191 2001, September/ October 2001.
Preece, Robert (2008) ‘Why I love Damien’s Skull’, in Sculpture, Vol. 27 No. 1. 2008.
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De Waal, Edmund (2001) ‘Christie Brown: Fragments of Narrative’, Ceramics: Art and perception, No. 46/2001.
Artrusse (2004) The Russian Literature. Availabe at: http://www.artrusse.ca/Pushkin/russian_literature.htm [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Artrusse (2004- 2011) Modern Folk Art Toy. Availabe at: http://www.artrusse.ca/Toys_en.htm [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Boguslawski Alexander (1999) Russian lubok. Available at: http://myweb.rollins.edu/aboguslawski/Lubok/lubok.html [Accessed 7 October 2011]
Greenberg Clement (1939) Avantgarde and kitsch. Available at: http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Fenton Terry (2011) Available at: http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/default.html%5BAccessed 10 November 2011]
Maison Russe, Shukin Family (1996-2011) The Story of Russian Lacquet boxes. Available at: http://www.therussianshop.com/russhop/lacquer/lacquerguide.htm [Accesses 7 October 2011]
Old Russia (2011) Vasilisa. Available at: http://www.oldrussia.net/vas.html [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Old Russia (2011)Baba Yaga. Available at: http://www.oldrussia.net/baba.html [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Polenov Alex (2011) Get the most out of St. Petersburg: Baba Yaga. Available at: http://stpetersburg-guide.com/folk/yaga.shtml [Accessed 8 November 2011]
Sherrad Melissa (1999- 2011) Traditional Russian Folk Art. Available at: http://www.ehow.com/about_7227294_traditional-russian-folk-art.html [Accessed 7 October 2011]
- Lisa Svensk (2011) Aquarelle sketches of Vasilisa the Beautiful.
- Lisa Svensk (2010) Sketch of Baba Yaga from ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ folk story.
- Lisa Svensk (2010) ‘What is it’. Aquarelle painting, 20×15 cm.
- ‘Ulugbekg’ (2007) Paris, France. Available at: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/2399088390072379329nHTCSd [Accessed 8 November 2011]
- Hirst Damien (2007) ‘For the love of God’. Platinum, diamonds and human teeth, 6.75x5x7.5 in. Preece Robert (2008) ‘Why I love Damien’s Skull, Sculpture, Vol. 27 No. 1. 2008.
- iStockphoto/ kodobist (2011) Firebird Matryoshka. Available at: http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/russia/ss/matryoshkadollsphotos_9.htm[Accessed 26 November 2011]
- Tanais Gallery (2011)Victor Vasnetsov. Baba Yaga 1917 The Victor Vasnetsov Home Museum, Moscow Russia. Available at: http://www.tanais.info/art/en/pic/vasnetsov61.html%5BAccessed 26 November 2011]
Kitsch combines my personal interests, sources of my inspirations. Below I will tell my projects biggest contributive motives, which are related to kitsch, manufacturing methods and folk tales and arts.
Fig 1. Finnish ceramic artist Pekka Paikkari
Spring 2009 I worked for Finnish ceramic artist, Pekka Paikkari (fig 1). I was his assistant and produced his designs. His studio was part of Finland’s biggest ceramic factory Iittala’s Arabia in Helsinki. Arabia produces by mechanical mass production of functional tableware and diners. However, they also have a small department ’Pro Arte’, where craftsmen make handmade unique designs by artists. In the Pro Arte department I made Pekka Paikkari’s small production designs for design companies and other unique art work for private customers. During this time I studied closely two different sides of ceramic production: specific handmade small production and mass production. These different methods have influenced the manner in which I design and construct my own ceramic art; I combine traditions of small series production and handmade techniques. Serial production is less costly and more efficient, but traditional handmade pieces are unique, hence they have an intrinsic artistic value.
During my time at Arabia, I met sculptor Maija Vainonen who was familiar with Slavic folk story Vasilisa the Beautiful. We shared thoughts how we imagined the tales characters, meanings and atmosphere. I was attracted to the idea of making figurines from that tale; small series production with handmade decoration surface. I built my first model of the witches ‘Chicken Leg House’ (fig 2) when I worked in Arabia’s artist department.
Fig 2. Clay model of chicken leg house
Fig 3. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Much of my art garners some inspiration from anime, and the ‘Chicken Leg House was no different; Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ influenced my design. It is a magical story of a young lady called Sophie, and her chance encounter with the mysterious wizard Howl, who takes a liking to her. This arouses the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who has been seeking Howl’s heart for herself. Later that night, she curses Sophie, transforming her into an old woman. As the curse prevents her from telling anyone of her condition, Sophie decides to run away. Along the way, she befriends a sentient scarecrow that she names Turnip Head, who eventually leads her to Howl’s castle. Howl’s castle (fig 3).
Fig 4. Firebird nesting dolls. Hand painted.
Slavic culture is renowned for its craftwork and handmade decorative pieces. In the spring of 2011 I traveled Tallinn, Estonia and had the opportunity to witness their traditional craftsman culture. Souvenirs were a great example of how mass production and handmade can combine; numerous pieces made in local factories, but decorations were hand painted. ‘Matrjosjka’, traditional nesting dolls, were one such example; the more unique, detailed painting doll had, the more expensive a doll was (fig 4). There is a certain design used in the correct painting of a traditional nesting doll, but throughout the generations this style has been virtually lost. Now the paintings are made more suitable for customers’ expectations of decorativeness; more complicated and richer designs.
In the autumn of 2011 I went to see Grayson Perry’s exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery. In his art, traditional pottery confronts the brutal decorative kitsch; he builds the traditional shapes with handmade techniques and designs surfaces richly textured from patterns marked into the clay, followed by intricately complicated glazing and photo-transfer techniques. Perry makes outrageous dress designs, creating a cosmopolitan folk-art (fig 5). I find this kind of decoration fascinating. It raises the art to a different level; it startles. The artist in himself is quite a persona too so I would not expect anything less. He combines all kinds of layers, with an element of kitsch, but without the tackiness. Although Perry mercilessly exploits kitsch throughout his art, his work is original.
Fig 5. Greyson Perry(2009) Detail of Jane Austen in E1.
Dr. Gregory’s lecture of the postmodern period continued to feed my interest in kitsch. His lecture convincingly described the influence of kitsch and drew me to consider how it might be applied to my own art. Kitsch generally is known for its tackiness and being of bad taste, but I think it is not the same as bad art. Kitsch involves trying to achieve ‘beauty’ instead of ‘truth’ and that any attempt to make something beautiful would lead to kitsch.
Gillo (1969) mentions industrialization to be one of the main causes of the rise of the kitsch (p 30). The industry is not necessarily to blame. Dr. Gregory also considered this issue, and I was able to draw comparisons with Gillo’s argument. Another aspect is the lack of an authentic ‘lived’ experiences obtained through the new media; the phenomenon that anyone can observe by themselves. The sight of reproduced images is not capable of transmitting a truly ‘lived’ experience, although it allows us to store up ideas promptly and rapidly. We experience more or less the same as what we would, if we visited a foreign country and then saw it reproduced in film: images, sounds, tastes, smells and atmosphere. It can even offer a more attractive and beautiful experience than actually visiting the said country.
However the lecture was about the postmodern era, not kitsch. Nevertheless exactly the same issues and elements were explores: falseness, imitations, industrialization and institutionalization. Though kitsch originally was born as a part of Romanticism (utopia, eternal beauty and desire to keep old values alive eternally), but the kitsch revolution has evolved from reproducing works of artistic beauty to mass producing tackiness.
Researching kitsch has caused me to question my own taste and how I define beauty; if I consider a kitsch piece to be beautiful, am I mistaken? The more I read about kitsch the more it appears that everything is covered by shallow emptiness; there is no grand artistic ‘truth’ behind any art or design. However, I refuse to believe that kitsch is entirely negative, and only for commercial use.
Abit Sketchy- Alternative Life Drawing. September 26th and November 7th and December 5th 2011.
Iittala Factory; Arabia ceramic factory& Pro Arte. Worked March to August 2009.
BBC iPlayer, Grayson Perry and the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Seen November 14th 2011.
Channel 4, Derren Brown: The Experiments Seen November 12th 2011.
Christie Brown’s lecture of her own work. Lecture October 14th 2011.
Dr. Matt Gregory’s lecture of postmodern art and culture. Lecture October 28th 2011.
Empirical trip to Estonia, Tallin Visited April 30th 2011.
Grayson Perry’s exhibition in Manchester Art Gallery. Seen September 16th 2011.
Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki 1941 Seen multiple times since October 31st 2005.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield. Seen November 11th 2011.
- ArtArabia (2011).Pekka Paikkari. Available at: http://www.artarabia.fi/?cat=14&lang=fi [Accessed 26 November 2011]
- Lisa Svensk (2009). Clay model of chicken leg house from Vasilisa the Beautiful folk story.
- Howl’s Moving Castle animation (2004). The castle. Available at: http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/2010/06/howls-moving-castle-hayao-miyazaki-dir.html [Accessed 26 November 2011]
- Russian Nesting doll (2009) ‘Princess Frog’ Fairy Tale. Available at: http://2ols.com/item_6273_453521022-Princess-Frog-Fairy-Tale.htm [Accessed 26 November 2011]
- Greyson Perry (2011) Detail of Jane Austen in E17 at Manchester Art Gallery. Available at: http://www.manchestergalleries.org/whats-on/exhibitions/index.php?itemID=79 [Accessed 26 November 2011]