Herman Broch, an Austrian/America modernist author, wrote a 1933 essay that exposed in detail “the element of evil in the value system of art.” He called that evil element: Kitsch.
What makes something Kitsch, can be readily recognized in objects of popular culture, and at other times it can be elusive experiences or trends that are hard to isolate. Kitsch has been frequently defended as simply personal taste, even if that taste tends to be banal. But what quality could Kitsch have that would lead Herman Broch to call something so seemingly innocuous: evil?
The German word Kitsch was first used by Munich Art dealers in the 1860’s and 1870’s to dismiss cheap or fake artistic objects. Broch suggested that the concept of Kitsch began earlier in the 19th Century with Romanticism with it’s emphasis on dramatic effects, pathos, and extreme sentimentality. While not Kitsch itself, Romanticism, according to Broch, was “the mother of Kitsch.” His historical view of the birth of Kitsch is a fascinating tale of a middle class struggle to create an identity free from both the control of religion and the cultural tastes of the aristocratic class. Broch wrote that while the Calvinistic/Puritan bourgeoisie longed for “libertinage” a type of secular freedom, they still felt a strong pull toward the theological safety of some religious order in their lives. And while this middle class had a sense of pride in their ascetic lifestyle that set them apart from the aristocracy, they still had desire for the finer things in life that the aristocratic class owned.
Broch believed that this class struggle, involving these desires and needs, led to a “confusion of the ethical category (of art) with the aesthetic category.” Romantic Art became a means to express a particular religious cosmology of longing and desire. Kitsch was a specific product of Romanticism that dictated a specific idea of romantic beauty. “The kitsch system requires it’s followers to ‘work beautifully’ while the art system requires its followers to ‘work well’, concluded Broch. In other words, there became a distinction between art, which was about working with new aesthetic forms, and that of Kitsch, which became about working in a product oriented mode, with the goal being a specific principle of what beauty should be. Kitsch, became a aesthetic product.
In 1939 the young art critic Clement Greenberg also labeled Kitsch a product. In his essay Avant- Garde and Kitsch he defined Kitsch as a commodity of the industrial revolution. He saw kitsch as the opposite of the avant-garde and believed that Kitsch was a specifically designed product for those who were too lazy or uneducated to appreciate authentic art.
“Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough — simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch:…Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. 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.”
To Greenberg the avant guard in art, as represented by young, radical movements like Dadism and Futurism, was a cultural force that pushed society forward. Kitsch was an aesthetics that mimicked the avant guard and provided products and entertainment for the bourgeoise who were hungry for diversion and escape from their work filled lives.
Both Broch and Greenberg saw the existence of Kitsch dependent on what Broch called the Kitsch-man. A Kitsch-person was someone who was easily led to appreciate a secondary imitation of something, rather than the original, primary power of the thing or experience. For the Kitsch-person, Kitsch involves a type of escape from any of the responsibilities and difficulties of experiencing genuine art, a type of self-deception.
The actual making of something Kitsch also involves a type of deception. The scholar Matei Calinescu author of The Five Faces of Modernity called kitsch a bewildering and elusive aesthetic commodity that originated with and was subject to the “essential market law of supply and demand.” He defined kitsch as a product “incapable of taking the risk involved in true avant gardism” and called it a “specifically aesthetic form of lying.”
Essential to this deception is the intentional obstruction of distinctions. Dr. Roann Barris. Assoc. Prof. of Art History at Radfod University says that kitsch erases distinctions by placing “technique above value and erases the distinctions that exist between values which can be found in art and those which are found elsewhere. In other words, kitsch merges art and life because it gives the viewer the answers, it gives the conclusion to a story which does not have to be guessed at and no effort has to be expended in order to understand the ending.”
Both Broch and Greenberg might have considered Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, as an example, of contemporary Kitsch. Lincoln is a prefabricated Hollywood movie with all the imposition of political reality removed for the viewer. We know the conclusion of the story and the distinction between historical fact and theatrical fiction is blurred. A Lady Gaga Mp3 or ACC music file, downloaded to your playing device, is another example of a mass market product where distinctions in quality have been ignored. Regardless of the type of music, Mp3 and ACC files are a markedly inferior system of sound reproduction compared to the record album technology of 30 years ago, yet they are sold to us as a technological advancement. These examples are infused into our culture, supported by a kitsch economy that has sold consumers a secondary experience, a experience where the distinction between art and non-art is obliterated.
But are any of these examples cited really evil in the cultural sense that Broch suggests?
Dwight MacDonald’s 1960 book, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, includes Kitsch in a broad category called Masscult, the equivalent to popular culture. MacDonald dreaded Masscult’s inherent dangers which masked at times a “phoney avant-gardism” that he coined Midcult. Popular culture, according to MacDonald, had too much of a middle-brow tolerance for mediocrity in art. An ambiguity that tended to be expressed as a “beauty in the mind of the beholder” belief system, a status quo that impaired the underlying function of vital critical thinking: discrimination.
What MacDonald shared with Broch was the concern that if individuals were to lose their collective ability to distinguish genuine art experience from a ersatz commodity, what else would be at stake? Without critical thinking and discernment we become a society solely pursuing economic goals at the expense of resistance.
Which brings us back around to what it was that Broch found evil about kitsch in 1933 and which is still relevant today. Kitsch wasn’t simply something that just happened. Kitsch is manufactured by a political and economic system engineered to imitate the authentic. Kitsch is an aesthetic manipulation that mimics and forges and fakes for economic exploitation. Broch called Kitsch evil because he realized Kitsch’s potential to misappropriate from humanity, to rob us of what is rich, and bona fide, and rewarding in our lives.
I would like to thank Melanie Parke for her great assistance and contributions in editing this piece.