What is kitsch? Everything in the last town I lived in which was Las Vegas.
I know it when I see it.
I’ll leave a better definition to dictionaries and the great book KITSCH: The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles.
I’ve reprinted the start of two fascinating chapters from that book.
The background for this first selection is that author Gillo Dorfles in 1969 said Ludwig Giesz of the University of Heidelberg was the world’s greatest kitsch theorist.
Wow. My poor public school education. I didn’t know there were kitsch theorists.
Giesz describes kitsch-man. He describes me. “-)
Kitsch-man as Tourist by Ludwig Giesz
The term Kitschmensch (kitsch-man) which Hermann Broch uses, and which has cultural and philosophical overtones, as well as sociological and aesthetic ones, is considered by many critics to be too generic, too universal, to be used concretely in an analysis of kitsch objects. It is infinitely simple to list mass-produced articles in bad taste and without any artistic value, and to criticize their faults either kindly or mercilessly. There are countless albums and anthologies which serve this purpose.
Criticism – given that we are not prepared to limit ourselves merely to facetious remarks – is generally focused on the kitsch object. On the aesthetic level, people try to contrast kitsch and art, with the following results: kitsch is bad taste; kitsch is dilettantism; it is moreover without any originality, or else totally conventional; and it Is overloaded with rather primitive, affected and superficial attractions. Given that the conclusion of all these collections of comments is the same – that kitsch is not art – it would be superfluous to quote any specific titles.
Academic art-historians often supplement this type of documentation and commentary – ‘some of which is arch and euphoric, while some is witty and pedagogic, and therefore culturally depressive’ (‘serious’?) – with erudite information on the history of kitsch: e.g. notes on kitsch in the ancient world (Hellenic miniatures perhaps, or medieval devotional pictures, etc.).
All this reveals that the variation in taste over the centuries and from one cultural circle to another has been a serious handicap: when and where does kitsch begin? Let us quote the two extreme positions: a) kitsch has always existed or: b) kitsch was born in the second half of the nineteenth century (vulgarized Romanticism plus the emancipation of the petite bourgeoisie). At this juncture we reach point b): sociological considerations, and the following problem – isn’t kitsch perhaps a characteristic of every mass age, beginning with the age of Alexander and Roman Hellenism in the ancient world, down to the one-dimensional man of the mid-twentieth century?
What is the relationship between industrialization, capitalism, and the kitsch and the transformation of the individual into a total consumer on the one hand, and the kitsch boom on the other? (The mass-production of kitsch articles involves limitless possibilities; the ‘revolt of the masses’ after the manner of Ortega y Gasset unleashes the phenomenon of ‘mass-taste’; the civilizing and cultural elites have lost contact with the public, hence the more or less unbridgeable gulf. [continues . . . ]
The tourist often ‘sees’ the landscape, and himself in the landscape, through the eye of the camera or cine-camera.
Tourism and Nature by Gillo Dorfles
Kitsch and tourism; two words which go nicely together. Why is every monument, every landscape, every object from folk lore instantly made kitsch by tourism? Why were travellers’ descriptions of the pre-tourist era never kitsch, even when they were inaccurate, absurd and incoherent?
Perhaps the explanation of the Verkitschung brought about by tourism is linked with this phenomenon’s ability to falsify and with its position as one of the most singular and degrading aspects of our age.
People who go to foreign countries knowing that they will not have to speak the language because the organization supplies them with interpreters who are sufficiently versed in the local tongue; people who travel through these countries with the sole intention of seeing the Famous Places; people who have prefabricated their (borrowed) feelings, their indignation, compassion and admiration in advance; people who take every feeling, myth, legend, piece of folklore for granted – such people come prepared.
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 ritual (the garlands of Honolulu, the gondolas on the Grand Canal, the Redskins of the Grand Canyon, Scotsmen wearing the kilt).
We have to ask ourselves how the tourist can possibly believe that the Indians, with their tidy, clean feathers, are authentic? How can he delude himself that he is hearing the gondolier’s song or the Neapolitan boatman’s song? How is it that he doesn’t realize that the painter painting the Sacre Coeur in Paris is anything but a ‘genuine modern painter’; that the kilted Scotsman playing his bagpipes is simply advertising’s complement to the landscape?
Tourism has not spread everywhere, of course; not all the Navajos are shams, not all the gondoliers sing, and not all Scotsmen wear their kilts day and night. But we must point out that even when or if the tourist comes across authentic objects, people or events, he can, as if by magic, transform them ipso facto into a substitute for reality.
The charm of the carnival nights of Rio and their contagious frenzy are certainly irresistible attractions for the kitsch-man as tourist.
[continues . . .]
Editor’s note. As a discerning kitsch-man I recognize this drawing as modeled after Bridgett Bardot. Even I woud not expect to see a light skinned and pretend ingénue dancing on the streets of Rio. Folies Bergère perhaps if she wasn’t so short.