Friday, January 29, 2010

Kitsch (and so, so sorry for the delay)

It's funny that I pulled the word "kitsch" out of the hat instead of one of its scribbled fellows because I have a really weird relationship with the whole---what? genre? medium? category? stereotype? Kitsch is described by wikipedia as "a German word denoting art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value," often associated with widespread icons of culture, like santa and apple pie and g.i. joe. Since I was a little kid (and I do mean little--maybe 5 or 6) I followed my dad from neighborhood housesale to housesale avidly searching for little figurines that exemplified kitsch.
At first I was attracted to anything at all that was small and representational-- ceramic ballet dancers, chicken salt and pepper shakers, entire farms-ful of animals in a dozen different aesthetics. As I got older my tastes narrowed a lot, until I was looking more and more for things straight out of foreign cultures, or very old things, or stylizations that seemed to make more sense to me than other kinds. I was incredibly proud of the collection through my elementary school years, identifying it as a signifier of my interest in art.
But by the time I reached middle school, I began to realize how contrived and artificial and mass-produced many of the shiny ceramic items on my shelves were. I began to notice the off-center airbrushed glaze on some of the gnomes' rosy cheeks, and the badly cut edges at the bases of victorian ladies' dresses and bunnies' feet. Out of something like habit, though, I kept seeking, finding fewer and fewer things that fit nicely on the three-inch cherry wood shelves. But I was finding more and more things I was interested in that no longer fit into the generic concepts of nostalgia and self-indulgent sweetness invested in the word "kitsch." And all of these new things had one thing in common--they were not representations of things the makers knew nothing of, they were not created to exploit nostalgia, they were real.
So now, at home, I still have all those nice little figurines packed away somewhere in the basement. But they're not going back up on my wall anytime soon. In their stead I have japanese lucky cats, and thai hand-embroidered purses, and indian hand-carved wooden figures, and way too many graphic novels to fit pretty much anywhere, and a lot of artbooks and some prints.
I think there's a lot of cool things you could make art about, to do with kitsch. I keep thinking of Jenie's frequent references to what she termed "excess." The hugeness of our excess in daily life, just as regular human beings, is more than real enough to make a whole lifetime's body of work. But I figured out it's not for me, even if I'll always sort of half smile when I see a garden gnome are a plaque with a cheesy saying curling in cursive on its surface. It's something I could comment on, but not something I would ever emulate.

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