If you can’t stand the art, get out of the kitsch
A piece we admire in a gallery might not look so good at home, and vice versa. How do we decide what we like, and what does it say about us?
Here’s a confession: I have a set of white coffee cups with gold rims and friezes of shamrock. I got them in Killarney, and I love them. But I don’t love them in the witty, ironic way that some people do so they can like what would otherwise be classed as kitsch. I think they’re attractive, and they remind me of a particularly lovely weekend in the west.
The tricky question of what is and isn’t kitsch encompasses taste, aspiration, art and class. It’s also one of the reasons we may be so uncomfortable with getting behind the Gathering. Is it just one big promotion of Ireland as kitsch to lure back the diaspora?
It’s said there is no class system in Ireland, but there is. At the very least, it’s a class system of taste. Look out as you’re passing homes in central Dublin and you’ll probably see what has been dubbed Dublin’s Venus de Milo , also known as The Lady on the Rock . This small white model of a woman half lounging on a rock, draped in a sculpted waft of fabric, appears in windows across the city centre – often, repeated in every window of a house or flat. She’s Dublin born and bred, designed by Harold Gardiner in 1993 and cast at Dublin Mouldings Company, on Parnell Street.
Stories have sprung up about her appearance: she signifies that the house is a brothel, that heroin is for sale, that a child is in prison. In fact, she has no deeper meaning save that the occupants like the look of her. And, although it’s telling that we try to imbue an object like this with almost mythological significance, it all boils down to a question of taste.
In March this year an icon of kitsch, Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl , sold at Bonham’s auction house for almost €1 million, twice its original estimate. The image divides opinion. It sold in millions as a print in the 1950s, making Tretchikoff the second-wealthiest artist in the world (after Picasso), though the art critic William Feaver, in a 1974 BBC documentary, called it the most unpleasant work to be published in the 20th century.
So what was it that Feaver missed, that so appealed to the millions who wanted the green-hued woman with bright red lips over their mantelpieces or on the walls of their bedsits? Is it something similar that attracts one group to The Lady on the Rock but not others?
Going around people’s houses for the property pages of this newspaper, I get an insight into how different people live. The houses are presented at what the owners evidently feel is their best, done up for sale; and part of the task of writing about them is to give potential buyers a sense of what’s on offer. So my own feelings on porthole windows, kitchen islands with extravagant taps, chintz swagging, black leatherette and French provincial are immaterial.
But occasionally I wonder whether the owners did their house up in a particular way because they liked it or because they thought they ought to like it. Do people really enjoy living in a style that is best described as boutique-hotel lite or do the occasional touches of kitsch hint at where their genuine tastes might lie?
You can catch more of these hints of a difference between public and private taste in bedrooms. Although the living rooms and drawing rooms of those who lay a claim to cutting-edge taste often include art that looks like what you may see in contemporary galleries – dark, angular, monochrome, geometric or otherwise “difficult” – what hangs in the bedroom is usually softer.
The Germans, who gave us the word kitsch, also have a word for the type of art we hang in our bedrooms: Schlafzimmer bilder – literally “bedroom pictures”. They include images of kittens, saucy cherubs, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (a painting that is definitely not kitsch in its original form, in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, but is completely kitsch as a print beside your wardrobe).
So what exactly is kitsch? In 1932 the American art critic Clement Greenberg defined kitsch as a product of the postindustrial revolution. Universal literacy and urbanisation meant there was a new market for culture among a class that had discovered the time, and money, for boredom.
“To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide,” he wrote. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.”
This was heady stuff, and over time it drove the elevation of abstract expressionism to be the art form of the United States as it became a postwar contemporary-art powerhouse. Many liked it because, faced with a diatribe like Greenberg’s, they felt they ought to like it, and few were brave enough to own up to a love of kitsch.
Except there’s another way of looking at kitsch that goes beyond the idea of cheap sentimentality and ersatz emotionalism, and that’s the idea of kitsch as concentrated memory and feeling: “congealed meaning”, in the words of the Irish-studies professor David Lloyd. As second- and third-generation emigrants grow more distant from the authenticity of their roots, symbols acquire greater significance, and become almost overloaded with meaning.
In Irish culture this ranges from the shamrocks on my coffee cups through Waterford Crystal harps to the murkier regions of leprechauns and bog-oak wishing wells.
The difference between good taste and bad often depends on who owns the idea of taste, although there are some objects, as listed in 1909 by Gustav Pazaurek, when he set up the Museum of Art Indiscretions in Stuttgart, that seem irretrievably in the bad-taste category. These include “china flower vases in the form of hollowed out tree trunks, thermometers fashioned like riding whips, and liver sausages decorated with images of Bismarck”.
Stephen Bayley quoted that remark in his 1991 book, Taste . Bayley puts kitsch directly in opposition to the avant garde of art, but contemporary artists flirt with and use kitsch in their work, often blurring the boundaries to the point of total confusion. Is Jeff Koons’s magenta and gold Hanging Heart , which sold for $23.6 million in 2007, kitsch or a comment on kitsch? What about Andy Warhol’s highly coloured portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Diptych, 1962 ?
John Kindness has made a series of works, including his Ninja Turtle Harp (1991), exploring the emotional meaning of souvenir and kitsch objects; while Jim Ricks (who showed his Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen at the Royal Hibernian Academy last year) and Fergal McCarthy have both been dreaming up ways to explore the phenomenon of T he Lady on the Rock .
The artist Cleá van der Grijnn comes back to the idea of it being a question of context. “What interests me is that if someone is perceived to have good taste, then their bad-taste kitsch piece becomes a celebration, an entertainment, a brave off-centre bit of whimsy. But if this same object were in a different type of home it would become a testament to the poor taste, and possibly different class origins, of its owners.”
Anxiety about kitsch in art and interiors betrays these as the areas in which we are most culturally insecure. We find it fine to dance along to pop songs and get maudlin to Robbie Williams’s Angels , or confess to having read Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code .
Perhaps this is because music and literature are more private pleasures while the art we display on our walls functions more as a statement about who we are. “I know what I like” becomes “I know what other people think I ought to like”.
Too much contemporary art is judged and valued in this way. By giving kitsch a little more love, it’s just possible that we could help contemporary art become a whole lot more fun – and more rewarding – for us all.
You can watch The Lady on the Rock, a documentary by Jessie Ward that won a Darklight Film Festival award, at iti.ms/17xeZnZ
Knockout or knockoff?: Questions to ask yourself
Is the Taj Mahal kitsch? What if it had been built in Dublin?
If you pay a lot of money for a piece of kitsch does it become a work of art?
If a gallery pays a lot of money for a piece of kitsch does it become art?
Are Rubens’s paintings of women high art, kitsch or pornography?
Does the quality of the paintwork save Millais’s Ophelia from being kitsch?
What about Renoir’s Girls at the Piano? If a great artist produces a bit of kitsch, is it guaranteed unkitsch?
Does an appearance on a chocolate box render a decent painting kitsch?