That sounds pretty harsh. I don't mean it to be, exactly. So to start digging out of this rhetorical hole, what is kitsch? And is there a nicer term for it?
|Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl|
|1950's-style kitsch wunderkammer|
As it turns out, 20th century visual art critics had a lot to say about kitsch. Writing for the University of Chicago, Whitney Rugg sums up: "Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences ... presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction."
And further... "Milan Kundera calls this key quality of kitsch the 'second tear:' 'Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.'"
That's more like it. It's about the kitsch aesthetic, not about the kitsch object itself, which can be described as a mass-produced object that simulates opulence or sentiment through the easiest means. In the kitsch aesthetic, there are no defining features, because it necessarily piggybacks on an already achieved mode of culture, as Clement Greenberg remarked in 1939. There is not just kitsch, but cuteness kitsch, nostalgia kitsch, classical-music kitsch, military heroism kitsch, and so on.
Religious kitsch uses excessive realism to depict what should be more stylized (see the Mary plaques, above), but modernity kitsch uses excessive stylization to wink and elbow-nudge its way into the future (see the 50's Populuxe furniture, above.) The Chinese Girl makes most sense as kitsch of the avant-garde; a magazine-art depiction given a banal exoticized subject and an unusual color choice that passes for sophistication.
So, building on Kundera's definition, let's call a kitsch approach this: one that seeks to arouse the feelings most normal for its subject matter, by multiple straightforward and obvious means.
It's this overloading that gives the echo effect, the second tear, the feeling that you are not only seeing something awesome or magnificent or sad, but you are sure that anyone else like you who sees this would also feel that way, pushing you outward into the comfort of conformity rather than inward into the doubts of introspection. It's also this overloading that gives rise to the ironic enjoyment -- climbing down from sophistication to a simpler palate, understanding why it's manipulative and in the same moment refusing to reject it entirely because it is so raw and vivid.
Now, here's that less judgmental name for kitsch -- overload -- although I may not always want to abandon the judgment entirely. And to my eye, Dungeon Overload, if you will, can be defined by its reaching for three A's: Antiquity, Awesomeness and Adversity. But that is a topic to continue next time.