Friday, December 26, 2014

History and Meaning of the Word "Kitsch"

Tim Burton's new movie Big Eyes explores "kitsch." To fully understand the movie Big Eyes, one must understand the meaning and nuances of kitsch.

The word kitsch originated in 19th century Germany and described cheap, popular, and marketable sketches and paintings. Today, kitsch has several connotations, some of which are direct and some layered with societal hierarchy.  Kitsch can mean low-brow mass production, crowd pleasing icons, and/or works that are calculated to have a mass appeal.  It can be used as a criticism to poor design as well as hipster ironic tacky or camp.

Critic Clement Greenberg used this word in his famous 1939 political essay Avant Garde and Kitsch. Although the ideas in this essay are complex, Clement explains art and culture from a Marxist political view. The avant garde stems from the educated enlightenment and is pure. On the other hand,  kitsch type of art is mass produced and stirs popular sentiment.  The essay was in part a response to the repression of modern art in Nazi Germany.

High art critics of the 1950's and 1960's, some of which were depicted in the film, were not just detached snobs criticizing Keane's work.  They were defending modern art from the perspective of free thinking.  The film explores other aspects and layers of kitsch including popular allure of Margaret Keane's work, original versus cheaply made copies, formulaic art void of contemplation, and the validity of sentimental subject matter.

Margaret Keane's Happy Mask, Unhappy Boy, 1963

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