Kitsch is an art movement that took root around the 1930s, a symbol of defiance against the Avant-Garde. It involves art pieces that take other iconic artworks as subjects, twisting and distorting them into new images with humorous qualities. Innocent enough, yet it is debated whether or not kitsch is a type of lowbrow or “bad” art. And several critics and artists have certainly had their say.
Clement Greenberg, Matei Calinescu, Tomas Kulka and some notable others have all argued the point, proffering their personal positions on kitsch. Some are adamant that kitsch is made in poor taste, is lacking in quality and is too appealing to the lowest common denominator of the masses by virtue of its gaudy sentimentality. However, in today’s contemporary art world, in which it’s sometimes hard to tell if there’s anything truly new under the sun, many art objects, if not all, are accepted for being what they are, products of influential common heritages. Kitsch should be viewed no differently, especially in our modern context. Perhaps kitsch imparts a strain of humour more accessible than some, but it can be quite ironic, and is no less pedigreed as a genre than the likes of cunning conceptual art.
The invention of the camera changed art forever by making it quite easy to reproduce images copiously and quickly. Like its friend the printing press, the film camera quickly brought rarer sorts of media to a greater number of the public. As a result, the authenticity and originality of art came under question more often.
Critics have concluded that the reproduction of an image destroys the original’s authority by corrupting its novel meaning. Nevertheless, many artists practice reproduction in their own work, not as a means to destroy or change any aspect of art history, but to prove their literacy of art history and style themselves within it. Meaning can be preserved, although it is subjective and not at all static. Significance can remain intact after mutation through several different minds. And so I say the act of reproduction has only flashed a new light on ways of thinking about all art and how it is acquired.
Marcel Duchamp makes an excellent example of an artist who used an iconic art piece, in this case the Mona Lisa, and tinkered with its meaning. In 1919, Duchamp conceived an assisted readymade work entitled L.H.O.O.Q.; Duchamp took a postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew her a fuzzy moustache and beard. He then wrote out the title in French, which is a saucy pun when translated. The letters pronounced in French sound like “Elle a chaud au cul“, or as Duchamp himself once put it slightly more politely, “There’s a fire down below.” Contemporary reception of the piece accused the artist of savaging Leonardo da Vinci’s fabled original, but in retrospect the piece was an homage to Dear Mona, and just another punchline of the type Duchamp is so applauded for.
Notions of “good art” or what is even considered to be art will continue to be shaken through the ages. Debate about the adored and detested kitsch style will drag on, too. But talk hasn’t stopped the movement from branching off into other fields, like music and literature. Artworks have always, and rightly should, act as visual references to what came before and who was there before. A kitschy piece that has tampered with something sacred brings forth new layers of meaning while stimulating the viewer to search their mental index for knowledge of the original. And so is the case for much art on today’s contemporary scene; artists challenge viewers to reach for just a bit more, to not only spectate, but also partake of their creations on multiple levels.