After a conversation with the awesome @magpielibrarian on Twitter yesterday, I decided it was time to try my hand at discussing the role of kitsch and the banal in contemporary art. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination. My training as an art and architectural historian is mainly in European, North African, and Middle Eastern Medieval, Byzantine, and Early Modern periods. Though there are tremendous similarities between Medieval and Modern and Contemporary art practices – the body, the self, the Self, religion, the image, iconography, etc – there is not as much cross over between the two fields as there should be, could be. Recent museum exhibitions, most notably a show on Joseph Beuys and the Middle Ages at the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne explored the question of materiality between Medieval reliquaries and Beuys’ art practice in the 20th century. What are things made of? How are materials used? These are important questions, ones that were essential to Medieval artisans and craftsmen, and equally important to Modern and Contemporary artists and theorists.
So what is meant by kitsch? Let’s start there.
Kitsch (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. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of ascultural iconswhile 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 sentimentalityand melodrama, hence, kitsch art is closely associated with sentimental art.
But we can use kitsch in a non-derogatory way as well. True, kitsch is pure commercialism, a way of distilling elements of culture down into an easily digestible souvenir or totem; take for instance the ever popular “I love NY” shirts and keychains. But there is more to it than that, it can be a polyvalent exploration of the distillation of culture in mass-media or consumerism. Often those who embrace kitsch do so as a way of subverting critique, using “low-art” to poke holes in “high art.” Blending the high and the low of the art world of visual culture is nothing new in art or in culture. Court jesters were the kitsch equivalent in the Middle Ages, playing the fool, essentializing their personhood in order to state truths without wounding those in power. This has become a key role of Modern and Contemporary Art, periods of art that utilized critique and theory in ways never before seen.
Banal is often used in quite the same way as kitsch is used. Banal, meaning literally as being devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed, trite, or commonplace. What is enticing about contemporary artists playing with the banal is their insistence on finding beauty in the commonplace. Every period of art has their artist who explores the banal in one way shape or form.
For many, when they hear “modern” they think today or at least 20th century. In reality, the foundations of Modern Art are in the late 19th century with the Impressionist movement. By rethinking time, emphasizing the moment as opposed to the narrative, and by highlighting instead of concealing the presence of the artist, the Impressionist movement ushered in a new concept of art practice and of the artist. In its wake, Post-Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, etc etc altered the form, the color, the shape, the dimension in which the natural and the created world were conceptualized, depicted, and most importantly theorized. Once Picasso and Braque shattered the image with Cubism (see the Picasso example at right), theory became central to art. How the artist thought about the image became as central to art as the image itself.
Then came Dada. As former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director, Thomas Hoving writes:
“As an art movement, Dada emerged full-blown – and totally crazed – from the blissfully anarchic minds of the art crowd gathered around the Cabaret Voltaire founded in Zurich in 1916. Dadaism swept on to Berlin, Paris, and New York. It was less a new style or technique than a purposefully giddy state of mind, according to its high priest, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara. Tzara onse appeared on stage in a “serious” Dada was selected by opening a dictionary and pointing – blindfolded – a pencil to a word that happened to be the French diminutive for “hobbyhorse.” “
The most gifted practitioner of Dada was the seminal artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp, a French artist, influenced the important post-WWI Western Art scene. In addition to being an important artist, Duchamp was also an important art advisor to prominent Western collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim. In this capacity, he was able to influence prominent Western collections and the tastes of Western collectors.
New York Dada had a less serious tone than that of European Dadaism, and was not a particularly organized venture. Duchamp’s friendPicabia connected with the Dada group in Zürich, bringing to New York the Dadaist ideas of absurdity and “anti-art.” A group met almost nightly at the Arensberg home, or caroused in Greenwich Village. Together with Man Ray, Duchamp contributed his ideas and humor to the New York activities, many of which ran concurrent with the development of his “ready-mades” and The Large Glass. They also worked on the concept of “found art.”
The most prominent example of Duchamp’s association with Dada was his submission of Fountain, a urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Artworks in the Independent Artists shows were not selected by jury, and all pieces submitted were displayed. However, the show committee insisted that Fountain was not art, and rejected it from the show. This caused an uproar amongst the Dadaists, and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists.
Along with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, Duchamp published a Dada magazine in New York, entitled The Blind Man, which included art, literature, humor and commentary.
When he returned to Paris after World War I, Duchamp did not participate in the Dada group.
Duchamp is most known for his self-styled “ready-mades,” a term he used to identify works – such as shovels, urinals, etc – that he presented as works of art. It’s this turn in art that marks the emergence of kitsch and the banal in art practice. Is a urinal art? What’s the difference between art and the banal? Or art and design, for that matter?
“Readymades” were found objects which Duchamp chose and presented as art. In 1913, Duchamp installed a Bicycle Wheel in his studio. However, the idea of Readymades did not fully develop until 1915. The idea was to question the very notion of Art, and the adoration of art, which Duchamp found “unneccessary.” Duchamp said:
“My idea was to chose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.”
Bottle Rack (1914), a bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp, is considered to be the first “pure” readymade. Prelude to a Broken Arm (1915), a snow shovel, also called In Advance of the Broken Arm, followed soon after. His Fountain, a urinal signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” shocked the art world in 1917. Fountain was selected in 2004 as “the most influential artwork of the 20th century” by 500 renowned artists and historians.
In 1919, Duchamp made a parody of the Mona Lisa by adorning a cheap reproduction of the painting with a mustache and goatee. To this he added the inscription L.H.O.O.Q., a phonetic game which, when read out loud in French quickly sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul”. This can be translated as “She has a hot ass,” implying that the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual excitement and availability. It may also have been intended as a Freudian joke, referring to Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged homosexuality. Duchamp gave a “loose” translation of L.H.O.O.Q. as “there is fire down below” in a late interview with Arturo Schwarz.
According to Rhonda Roland Shearer, the apparent Mona Lisa reproduction is in fact a copy modeled partly on Duchamp’s own face. Research published by Shearer also speculates that Duchamp himself may have created some of the objects which he claimed to have been “found.”
After Dada, the next powerful impetus for the role of the kitsch and banal in Modern Art was Pop Art. Pop Art is an art movement that emerged in the mid 1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art challenged tradition by asserting that an artist’s use of the mass-produced visual commodities of popular culture is contiguous with the perspective of fine art. Pop removes the material from its context and isolates the object, or combines it with other objects, for contemplation. The concept of pop art refers not as much to the art itself as to the attitudes that led to it.
Pop art employs aspects of mass culture, such as advertising, comic books and mundane cultural objects. It is widely interpreted as a reaction to the then-dominant ideas of abstract expressionism, as well as an expansion upon them. And due to its utilization of found objects and images it is similar to Dada. Pop art is aimed to employ images of popular as opposed to elitist culture in art, emphasizing the banal or kitschy elements of any given culture, most often through the use of irony. It is also associated with the artists’ use of mechanical means of reproduction or rendering techniques.
Much of pop art is considered incongruent, as the conceptual practices that are often used make it difficult for some to readily comprehend. Pop art and minimalism are considered to be art movements that precede postmodern art, or are some of the earliest examples of Postmodern Art themselves.
Pop art often takes as its imagery that which is currently in use in advertising. Product labeling and logos figure prominently in the imagery chosen by pop artists, like in the Campbell’s Soup Cans labels, by Andy Warhol. Even the labeling on the shipping carton containing retail items has been used as subject matter in pop art, for example in Warhol’s Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box1964, (pictured above), or his Brillo Soap Box sculptures.
Although the movement began in the late 1950s, Pop Art in America was given its greatest impetus during the 1960s. By this time, American advertising had adopted many elements and inflections of modern art and functioned at a very sophisticated level. Consequently, American artists had to search deeper for dramatic styles that would distance art from the well-designed and clever commercial materials. As the British viewed American popular culture imagery from a somewhat removed perspective, their views were often instilled with romantic, sentimental and humorous overtones. By contrast, American artists being bombarded daily with the diversity of mass produced imagery, produced work that was generally more bold and aggressive.
Two important painters in the establishment of America’s pop art vocabulary were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.While the paintings of Rauschenberg have relationships to the earlier work of Kurt Schwitters and other Dadaists, his concern was with social issues of the moment. His approach was to create art out of ephemeral materials and using topical events in the life of everyday America gave his work a unique quality. Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s work of the 1950s is classified as Neo-Dada, and is visually distinct from the classic American Pop Art which began in the early 1960s.
Of equal importance to American pop art is Roy Lichtenstein. His work probably defines the basic premise of pop art better than any other through parody. Selecting the old-fashioned comic strip as subject matter, Lichtenstein produces a hard-edged, precise composition that documents while it parodies in a soft manner.
The paintings of Lichtenstein, like those of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann and others, share a direct attachment to the commonplace image of American popular culture, but also treat the subject in an impersonal manner clearly illustrating the idealization of mass production.Andy Warhol is probably the most famous figure in Pop Art. Warhol attempted to take Pop beyond an artistic style to a life style, and his work often displays a lack of human affectation that dispenses with the irony and parody of many of his peers.
After the Pop Art surge of the 1960s, the next major wave of kitsch and banal didn’t come till the 1980s and the rise of active artists Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, just to name a few.
Jeff Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animalsproduced in stainless steel with mirror finish surfaces. Koons’ work has sold for substantial sums of money including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. The largest sum known to be paid for a work by Koons is Balloon flower (Magenta) which was sold at Christie’s London, on Monday, June 30, 2008 (Lot 00012) in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, where it sold for £12,921,250 or $25,765,204.
Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch: crass and based on cynical self-merchandising. Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques.
Koons’s early work was in the form of conceptual sculpture, an example of which is The Equilibrium Series (1985), consisting of three basketballs floating in distilled water that half-fills a glass tank.
Arts journalist Arifa Akbar reported for The Independent that in “an era when artists were not regarded as ‘stars’, Koons went to great lengths to cultivate his public persona by employing an image consultant.” Featuring photographs by Matt Chedgey, Koons placed “advertisements in international art magazines of himself surrounded by the trappings of success” and gave interviews “referring to himself in the third person.”
This type of hyperactive self-promotion can be seen as a trademark of many modern artists, note for example the antics of Damien Hirst.
Koons then moved on to Statuary, the large stainless-steel blowups of toys, followed by the Banality series that culminated in 1988 withMichael Jackson and Bubbles, a series of three life-size gold-leaf plated porcelain statues of the sitting singer cuddling Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee. Three years later, one of these sold at Sotheby’s New York for $5.6 million. Two of these sculptures are now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The statue was included in a 2004 retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo which traveled a year later to the Helsinki City Art Museum. It also featured in his second retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 2008.
Koons has received extreme reactions to his work. Critic Amy Dempsey described his Balloon Dog as “an awesome presence… a massive durable monument.” Jerry Saltz atartnet.com enthused that it was possible to be “wowed by the technical virtuosity and eye-popping visual blast” of Koons’s art.
Mark Stevens of The New Republic dismissed him as a “decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works… He is another of those who serve the tacky rich.” Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times saw “one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s” and called Koons’s work “artificial,” “cheap” and “unabashedly cynical.”
In an article comparing the contemporary art scene with show business, renowned critic Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.” Hughes placed Koons’s work just above that of Seward Johnson and was quoted in a New York Times article as having stated that comparing their careers was “like debating the merits of dog excrement versus cat excrement”.
To the question – “Is it important that your work be famous?” – Koons replied: “There’s a difference between being famous and being significant. I’m interested in [my work’s] significance — anything that can enrich our lives and make them vaster — but I’m really not interested in the idea of fame for fame’s sake.”
He has influenced younger artists such as Damien Hirst (e.g. in Hirst’s Hymn, an eighteen-foot version of a fourteen-inch anatomical toy), and Mona Hatoum. One could even say that Koons’ Neo-Pop Art work influenced Ghada Amer’s erotic embroidered canvases, especially those utilizing Disney imagery. In turn, his extreme enlargement of mundane objects owes a debt to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Much of his work also was influenced by artists working in Chicago during his study at the Art Institute, including Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and H. C. Westermann.
Like Koons, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s style, called Superflat, is characterized by flat planes of color and graphic images involving a character style derived fromanime and manga. Superflat is an artistic style that comments on otaku lifestyle and subculture, as well as consumerism and sexual fetishism.
Like Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami takes low culture and repackages it, and sells it to the highest bidder in the “high-art” market. Also like Warhol, Murakami makes his repacked low culture available to all other markets in the form of paintings, sculptures, videos, T-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, plush dolls, cell phone caddies, and $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags. This is comparable to Claes Oldenburg, who sold his own low-art, high-art pieces in his own store front in the 1960s. What makes Murakami different is his methods of production, and his work is not in one store front but many, ranging from toy stores, candy aisles, comic book stores, and the French design house of Louis Vuitton. Murakami’s style is an amalgam of his Western predecessors, Warhol, Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as Japanese predecessors and contemporaries of anime and manga. He has successfully marketed himself to Western culture and to Japan in the form of Kaikai Kiki and GEISAI.
Interviewer Magdalene Perez asked him about straddling the line between art and commercial products, and mixing art with branding and merchandising. Murakami said,
“I don’t think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I’ve been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the post-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art.’ In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay—I’m ready with my hard hat.”
“Smooth Nightmare” is an example of a popular Murakami painting in the Superflat style. It exhibits one of his recurring motifs of the mushroom. The mushroom repetition is a good example of Murakami’s work’s connection with themes of the underground and alternative cultures.
In November, 2003, ArtNews reported Murakami’s work as being among the most desired in the world. Chicago collector Stefan Edis reportedly paid a record $567,500 for Murakami’s 1996 “Miss ko2”, a life-size fiberglass cartoon figure, at Christie’s last May. Christie’s owner, François Pinault, reportedly paid around $1.5 million in June to acquire “Tongari Kun” (2003), a 28-foot-tall (8.5 m) fiberglass sculpture, and four accompanying fiberglass mushroom figures, that were part of an installation at Rockefeller Center. In May 2008, “My Lonesome Cowboy” (1998), a sculpture of a masturbating boy, sold for $15.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
The last artist I’m going to discuss is Richard Prince, recently made even more infamous through the inclusion of several of his works in the popular television show Gossip Girl. Richard Prince (born 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone) is an American painter and photographer. Prince began appropriating photographs in 1975. His image, Untitled (Cowboy), a “rephotograph” of a photograph taken originally by Sam Abell and appropriated from a cigaretteadvertisement, was the first “rephotograph” to raise more than $1 million at auction when it was sold at Christie’s New York in 2005.
Starting in 1977, Prince photographed four photographs which previously appeared in the New York Times. This process of re-photographing continued into 1983, when his work Spiritual America featured Garry Gross’s photo of Brooke Shields at the age of ten, standing in a bathtub, as an allusion to precocious sexuality and to the Alfred Stieglitz photograph by the same name. His Jokes series (beginning 1986) concerns the sexual fantasies and sexual frustrations of middle-class America, using stand-up comedy and burlesque humor.
Re-photography uses appropriation as its own focus: artists pull from the works of others and the worlds they depict to create their own work. Appropriation art became popular in the late 1970s. Other appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Vikky Alexander, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Mike Bidlo also became prominent in the East Village in the 1980s.
During the early period of his career, Prince worked in Time magazine’s tear sheets department. At the end of each work day, he would be left with nothing but the torn out advertising images from the eight or so magazines owned by Time-Life.
Prince had very little experience with photography, but he has said in interviews that all he needed was a subject, the medium would follow, whether it be paint and brush or camera and film. He compared his new method of searching out interesting advertisements to “beachcombing.” His first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewelry. Pop culture became the focus of his work.
Prince’s series known as the Cowboys, produced from 1980 to 1992, and ongoing, is his most famous group of rephotographs. Taken from Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the Marlboro Man, they represent an idealized figure of American masculinity. The Marlboro Man was the iconic equivalent of later brands like Ralph Lauren, which used the polo pony image to identify and associate its brand. “Every week. I’d see one and be like, Oh that’s mine, Thank you,” Prince stated in an interview.
Prince’s Cowboys displayed men in boots and ten-gallon hats, with horses, lassos, spurs and all the fixings that make up the stereotypical image of a cowboy. They were set in the Western U.S., in arid landscapes with stone outcrops flanked by cacti and tumbleweeds, with backdrops of sunsets. The advertisements were staged with the utmost attention to detail.
It has been suggested that his works raise the question of what is real, what is a real cowboy, and what makes it so. Prince’s photographs of these advertisements attempt to prompt one to decide how real are media images.
The subjects of Prince’s rephotographs are the photos of others. He is photographing the works of other photographers, who in the case of the cowboys, had been hired by Marlboro to create images depicting cowboys. Prince described his process in a 2003 interview by Steve Lafreiniere in Artforum. “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.”
Prince’s re-photographs led to his series known as the Gangs, which followed the same technique of appropriating images from magazines as the Cowboys did, but now the subjects moved from advertisements and mass media toward niches in American society. Prince in this series paid homage to “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” in American niches, seen through magazines. He depicted the bizarre in subcultures such as the motorcycle-obsessed, hot rod enthusiasts, surfers, and heavy metal music fans.
These Gangs are recognized in his series Girlfriends, featuring biker girls. A motorcycle magazine he used featured photographs of motorcyclists’ girlfriends, were sprawled on their boyfriends’ bikes.
Prince’s Gangs works are single sheets of white paper covered with a grouping or “ganging” of 9×12, 35 mm photographs. Prince did not intend any distinct relationship between the “ganged” photographs. An example can be seen in such works as his 1984 Velvet Beach, twelve Ektacolor-printed photographs of massive waves, clearly from a surf magazine. Another example is his 1986 Live Free or Die, gathering nine images of loosely dressed women on motorcycles.
Prince has said numerous times that he would like to be a biker chick.
Prince’s first Joke piece came about in 1985, in New York, when he was living in the back room of the 303 Gallery, located on Park Avenue South. His first Joke was about psychiatrists, a subject he later worked with often. Prince described the discovery of the idea for the Jokes beginning when he posted up a small 11 x 14 inch handwritten joke on paper. He realized that if he had walked into a gallery and had seen it hanging from the wall, he would have been envious. Prince’s Jokes come in several forms. His first Jokes were hand written, taken from joke books. His jokes grew into more substantial works as he began to incorporate them with images, often pairing jokes with images that had no relevance with one another, creating an obscure relationship. An example of one of these peculiar combinations can be seen in his 1991 Good Revolution, which depicted black and white images of a male torso in boxing shorts set amongst doodles of a kitchen stove. These were set above the text “Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman that will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong home, that’s what it means.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Prince, like his contemporaries Lorna Simpsonand Barbara Kruger, played with image and text in a style that was becoming increasingly popular. Prince put jokes among cartoons, often from The New Yorker. Prince described his early discovery of jokes and his sense of humor, as “I never really started telling, I started telling them over. Back in 1985, in Venice, California, I was drawing my favorite cartoons in pencil on paper. After this I dropped the illustration or image part of the cartoon and concentrated on the punch line.” Prince’s jokes were primarily satirical one-liners, poking fun at topics such as religion, the relationship between husband and wife, his relations with women. The jokes are simple, often relying on a punch line: “I took my wife to a wife-swapping party, I had to throw in some cash” or “I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name.” Prince commonly repeats his jokes.
Jokes became the complete subject of his prints, set atop monochromatic backgrounds red, orange, blue, yellow, etc. These works range in size from 56 x 48 inches as seen in his 1994 Untitled, to 112 x 203.5 inches, as seen in his 2000 work Nuts. His early jokes were modestly sized, but as they caught on he executed larger pieces. These Monochromatic Jokes question the importance of the unique, in high art. What is it that set these jokes apart from one another, the background color, the color of the text, the jokes themselves? Compared to other Appropriation Artists working in the same time period, Prince has a distinct quality between works and series. Works are distinguishable from one another or identifiable as a particular artist, but with Prince’s Monochromatic Jokes, we are presented with yellow text upon a blue background as in his 1989 Are You Kidding? Differing from Jeff Koons, for example, are not only technique and style, but also the significance given to making the artwork identifiable. In 1988 Koons was working with porcelain sculptures like his Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Pink Panther. These are two works produced in this year that are distinguishable. In the same year, 1988, are Prince’s Fireman and the Drunk and his Untitled (Joke), which raise the serious question of what sets these two works apart.
By exploring these three artists after a discussion of the role of Dada and Pop in art, the goal is to show that there is a way, perhaps not always critically accepted, of using the perpetually derided into the coveted. There is a role for kitsch and the banal beyond mere punchline.