Kitsch is a term shunned by many in the art world. Originally, this German word was used to describe the inexpensive and sentimental works of art and craft that first arose in Europe during the mid-19th century. These mass-produced pieces, the tack in that other related word, 'tacky', represented a particular response to the aesthetic movement that dominated art at the time. Drawing inspiration from history but through very modern eyes, looking back at past traditions through a fantastical and simplified lens and combining this reimagining with the new industrial processes that were redefining the manufacture of commodities, and applying these processes, in both thought and production, to art. It is a term Warhol would embrace a century later, with a thick dab of irony, in creating some of the most iconic images of pop art - each a powerful statement on how our understanding of art was changing. To my mind, and contrary to the accepted cannon, Warhol's mono-prints did not make kitsch art; he made art from kitsch and thus helped redefine the way we approach both.
Today we may lazily refer to kitsch as merely lowbrow mass-produced art. It is the cheap statues of Mao or the Virgin Mary sold at market stalls, and the tourist souvenir that says nothing more than that you have been there. Kitsch has no value in itself. It does not help us understand ourselves or grow as a person. It provides us with no new insight as to who we are. Though it may represent the inspiration, it is in itself uninspiring. It may be cute, suggestive or sexy, but never beautiful.
To understand kitsch, as with to understand art, we must forget the price tag. It is not the material that counts, but the way it attempts to engage us. It is more properly understood by its relation to us. Whilst art attempts to engage us with a reality, a real emotion or feeling that is central to who we are, kitsch presents us with a fantasy, and feelings and emotions that we may wish to have but are not central to our actual experience of self. It trades in models and stereotypes, that at best we may aspire to or wish to believe, but nevertheless tell us nothing about ourselves.
The philosopher and art critic Roger Scruton is correct in asserting that the core element of kitsch is that it is fake. It is not just that that which is kitsch is trying to be something that it is not, but that it engages us too with a conscious dishonesty, and plays on our own dishonesty in the form of the superficial personae we all create.
When we buy kitsch it is in the knowledge, whether we wish to admit it or not, that it isn't real. In kitsch we are sold and eagerly buy into a fantasy; it distracts rather than engage us from both the complexity of reality, as an honest account of reality must embrace those insecurity and fears. Unlike art, kitsch is created not to explore ourselves but to present us with a superficiality; to re-confirm rather than challenge a delusion. Rather than confronting us with who we are, it is a tool by which we construct or reinforce the fantasy of who we want to be. Like a badge or label it reinforces a message of our own construction: that, for example, I am a good Catholic as this image of Mary testifies.
Where once the artist dealt in the divine, whether in a theist or humanist framework, to explore the vulnerabilities of being human directly or indirectly through an ideal and material representation, today art is defined less by the piece than by intention and the mind of those who engage it. Warhol was right, and there is little wrong viewing art in this more expansive setting. But we must also be clear to distinguish between that which is by intention art and that which is kitsch. Here the honesty of a piece, not only in why and how it was created, but as crucially in how it is viewed, is critical in making this distinction.
To confront Titian's Venus of Urbino is to unmistakably view a work of art. It engages even the most cynical viewer on it's own terms, imposing a framework of ideas through which our mind views and understands what we see. If it does not dictate to us our thoughts, it forces us to explore these thoughts in the context of the image; the strokes on the canvas coalescing as paths of self-exploration which we as the viewer must take. Art can never be a mere copy. It cannot be reproduced without it losing that which makes it a work of art. To inspire in others it must itself be inspired.
Yet as artists have broadened their spectrums, from sources of inspiration and influence to how they understand and go about creating art, the line between what is art and kitsch, between what is honest and inspiring rather than falsified and reinforcing, has become less clear-cut. Without the sure-footed footprints of a clearly defined context (placement), craft and medium that had in previous ages framed our understanding of art, we are more reliant than ever on the audience in defining what is art.
It is similar to how the imposition of a consciously created culture affects both our understanding of what culture is and the way in which we engage it at a time when cultural items themselves are being redefined. If kitsch is the fake antique Maoist book sold to tourists on street markets, art is the old factory workers booklet passed down through the generations. It has a meaning in itself that cannot be replicated. It need not be an antique, but a cultural object, as with a piece of art, must be genuine in how it engages with us. It must have meaning in the context of who we are, not who we imagine we are. Art, like culture, must compel us to engage it with honesty.