Kitsch (loanword from German) is a form of art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value.
What's Kitsch? Kitsch is a black velvet painting. Garden gnomes, lava lamps, troll dolls, flamingo lawn ornaments, dogs playing poker - all are classic kitsch.
The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal.
Kitsch also refers to the types of art that are aesthetically deficient (whether or not being sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative) and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art through repeated conventions and formulae. Excessive sentimentality often is associated with the term.
The contemporary definition of kitsch is considered derogatory, denoting works executed to pander to popular demand alone and purely for commercial purposes rather than works created as self-expression by an artist. The term is generally reserved for unsubstantial and gaudy works that are calculated to have popular appeal and are considered pretentious and shallow rather than genuine artistic efforts.
The concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art.
As a descriptive term, kitsch originated in the art markets of Munich in the 1860s and the 1870s, describing cheap, popular, and marketable pictures and sketches. In Das Buch vom Kitsch (The Book of Kitsch), Hans Reimann defines it as a professional expression “born in a painter's studio”. Writer Edward Koelwel rejects the suggestion that kitsch derives from the English word sketch, noting how the sketch was not then in vogue, and saying that kitsch art pictures were well-executed, finished paintings rather than sketches.
Art and kitsch defined as opposites
The word, kitsch, was popularized in the 1930s by the art theorists Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, who each sought to define avant-garde and kitsch as opposites. The art world of the time perceived the immense popularity of kitsch as a threat to culture. The arguments of all three theorists relied on an implicit definition of kitsch as a type of false consciousness, a Marxist term meaning a mindset present within the structures of capitalism that is misguided as to its own desires and wants. Marxists believe there to be a disjunction between the real state of affairs and the way that they phenomenally appear.
Puppy, a gigantic kitsch sculpture by Jeff Koons displayed at Bilbao Museum has appeal described by Adorno and Broch.
Adorno perceived this in terms of what he called the "culture industry", where the art is controlled and formulated by the needs of the market and given to a passive population which accepts it—what is marketed is art that is non-challenging and formally incoherent, but which serves its purpose of giving the audience leisure and something to watch or observe. It helps serve the oppression of the population by capitalism by distracting them from their social alienation. Contrarily for Adorno, art is supposed to be subjective, challenging, and oriented against the oppressiveness of the power structure. He claimed that kitsch is parody of catharsis and a parody of aesthetic experience.
Broch called kitsch "the evil within the value-system of art"—that is, if true art is "good", kitsch is "evil". While art was creative, Broch held that kitsch depended solely on plundering creative art by adopting formulas that seek to imitate it, limiting itself to conventions and demanding a totalitarianism of those recognizable conventions. Broch accuses kitsch of not participating in the development of art, having its focus directed at the past, as Greenberg speaks of its concern with previous cultures. To Broch, kitsch was not the same as bad art; it formed a system of its own. He argued that kitsch involved trying to achieve "beauty" instead of "truth" and that any attempt to make something beautiful would lead to kitsch. Consequently, he opposed the Renaissance to Protestantism.
Greenberg held similar views to Broch concerning the beauty and truth dichotomy, believing that the avant-garde style arose in order to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer society and that kitsch and art were opposites, which he outlined in his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch".