Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Philosophy of Kitsch: Kant, Kunst, and Modernity

I've received a lot of questions lately regarding the philosophy behind the Kitsch movement, founded by the controversial Norwegian master Odd Nerdrum. As much as I enjoy discussing, learning, and explaining the new terms of Kitsch to an American audience, I find myself repeating things that I've already said in some previous inquiry. So, in the interest of freeing myself (and everyone else) up for the important work of painting, and in the stead of Odd's new book Kitsch: Mer Enn Kunst (Kitsch: More than Art) now available in English, I'll share with you this unstructured overview.

My goal, which I've said before, is to foster a collaboration between the disparate contemporary humanist (figurative, classical, realist, etc...) movements. As I discuss below, the fundamental goal that I find among all of these movements; from Contemporary Classical Realism, to NovoRealism, to Kitsch, is that they are striving to offer an alternative to the contemporary definition of Art: something more akin to its original meaning. How they differ is their approach to achieving this goal. So, I'll begin with a short, and by no means complete history, of the term "kitsch" and try and cover some major points as I see them.

The Kitsch movement reasons that the contemporary idea of "Art" came about in the modern era (the enlightenment). Before then, the term "ars" or "techne" was synonymous with "skill and beauty" going all the way back to ancient Greece. The theory of Art as "form" became popularized in the modern era with Kant. Kant was not the first, but he was the most influential and his assertions form the basis for modern and postmodern philosophy and art theory. When he applied protestant morality to aesthetics, he set the groundwork for Hegel, defining Art as ONLY the idea, separate from its manifestation. Kant defined the "sublime" in a slightly different sense than we tend to think of it today. At that time, the sublime was not an absence of thought, but more and experience of the divine thought. Thus the aesthetic experience was the "Form" of God. Hegel took this further to say that the true artist shouldn't even dirty his hands with making it himself. He will pay others to do it for him. This is what made it possible to have Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Gilbert & George, (of course also money, power, and politics). As a side note: Greenberg was known to be a devout follower of Kant and disagreed with Hegel. Greenberg thought the art was the idea, but it must be made by the "true" man, in other words, a primal, primitive/modern man without skills.

As I said before, the term "ars" was traditionally used to refer to skill and beauty. Of course the "idea" or conceptual was an integral part of the whole, but it was not the entirety of it. This is closest to what the term "Kitsch" intends to mean.

Here is where we come to our choice of strategy. As we've seen demonstrated by politics time and again, the group that defines the language, makes the rules, and so always wins the game. And right now post-modernists and contemporary art are the ones who control the language and define what "Art" is. They will not let us co-exist in their world because we threaten them by our very nature. It gives one an immediate pleasure to look at a beautiful, skillful, and emotive painting. But with contemporary Art, you have to be taught to appreciate it. They will not allow us to label them "Anti-Art" or "Post-Art" (as Kuspit, Kaprow, and many others have tried) because they have the power to define Art. They have the money, politics, and the entire media machine behind them. It is much easier to change the definition of "Kitsch" than it is to change the contemporary meaning of "Art". Especially since they label us as kitsch to begin with. Thus, instead of being labeled low Art, a great figurative painter would be called high Kitsch. In the words of Broch :

"There are geniuses within Kitsch, like Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Ilya Repin."

At this point, we will not be able to return the definition of Art back to its original state. I wonder if we even should. But we might be able to offer an alternative to contemporary Art. We can re-establish humanism, beauty, and skill. We can re-establish rationality. This all depends on how many people agree with the positive re-definition of "Kitsch". If people agree, then the meaning changes and we succeed.

The kitsch movement does not want to eradicate abstract art and contemporary art. In fact, the goal is quite the opposite. If people want to continue putting sharks in formaldehyde and others want to buy it, that's their affair. But we want to limit their power to oppress our form of expression. This is why the tactic of the Kitsch movement is not to replace contemporary Art, but to offer an alternative. As Odd said in On Kitsch:

"Kitsch is passion's form of expression at all levels, and not the servant of truth. On the contrary, it keeps relative to religion and truth. A well painted Madonna therefore transcends its holiness. And truth, Kitsch leaves for Art. In Kitsch, skill is a decisive criteria of quality. The work of the hand is self-revealing in the light of long-established norms. In this way, Kitsch is without protection because the standards are the best ever created in history. To Picasso and Warhol, it was different. They were protected by contemporary values, and still are. Art is protected against the past, because it is something different."
A common response I hear to this is to say that another distinction is that if contemporary art is primarily conceptual, Kitsch and the old masters do not concern themselves with concept or content. Many people think this, but it is a misunderstanding to think that the Old Masters did not think of philosophy. Especially during the Renaissance, they were reading Plato and Aristotle, they were reading Pliny's Natural History. If you look closely, the very way they handle the idea of the human figure will tell you about their philosophy.

For example: the Mona Lisa. This is exactly Plato's "form". It is an idealization and not an actual person. Da Vinci based his scientific studies on Aristotle and said observing from nature was the first rule. So, Da Vinci was using both "form" and "matter". Look at much of Michelangelo's work - it is an idealized version of the human body, much like the Greeks, and seeks rhythm. Both of them are also Apollonian, they seek order.

Now, look at Rembrandt, or Velasquez. They are much more focused on observation. This is Aristotle's "matter". Rembrandt would be Dionysian (passion, emotion) as well. So you have two different philosophical dichotomies that they were thinking about and each painter had their own balance between these opposites. So, content is not a distinction between Kitsch and Art, it is only a matter of emphasis.

What is different is that now artists are thinking specifically of "critical philosophy" which does not build things or try to answer questions, it only takes things apart. But it strikes me that critical philosophy has never really been turned upon it's maker. Why not analyze Kant himself according to his own criteria? I won't go into this in depth, but let me just point out a little context. Kant's dichotomy is primarily based on the assumption that the "modern man" is somehow different from his predecessors, that the "modern era" beginning with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, created a new society which is fundamentally different from every society that has come before.

Understandably, Kant was a brilliant and insightful man. But he did not have the historical perspective that we now have, with our explorations of anthropology, among many other relevant sciences. He was not fully aware that the kinds of changes that occurred in the Enlightenment had occurred before (and after). Now we are in the midst of a computer revolution. The way we communicate and distribute knowledge is changing vastly and quickly. But, like the Enlightenment, which was spurred on by changes in the distribution of information, new political philosophies, transportation, among many others... this is not a new kind of revolution.

The Renaissance was made possible by technological advancements in the distribution of knowledge (the Gutenberg press), changes in political philosophy, the development of scientific inquiry, innovation in transportation (navigation, ship building), etc... If you look at ancient Greece and Rome, you find the same: advancements in technology which lead to news ways of distributing knowledge (the availability of paper made the ideas of Thales wide spread and spurred the birth of Greek Philosophy), revolutions in transportation, new political philosophies. We can find the same kinds of changes during the Agricultural revolution, arguably, a much more dramatic change for mankind than the Enlightenment. All of these are changes of degree, not of kind. Human nature has not changed, and as we see, society has not fundamentally changed.

So, what is Kitsch? It is akin to the original idea of ars, replete with skill and beauty: a continuous and seamless harmony between the concept and its manifestation. Kitsch is about humanism. According to Richard Wollheim, Kitsch would be "objectivist". Kitsch is about the universal human experience. Kitsch is Dionysian and follows Aristotle, but does not refute Plato. Odd Nerdrum did not set Kitsch up in opposition with Art. Kant, Hegel, and Clement Greenberg did. Odd and the Kitsch movement are merely offering an alternative to the contemporary definition of Art. And the great thing about the term is that it has it's own built in marketing. It's controversial, yet it enables us to focus on the positive, instead of negative campaigning against contemporary Art like Roger Scruton, Robert Hughes, and so many others do - to little effect. They deride Art, but they don't offer us an alternative, which is counter-productive.

Yes, maybe Kitsch will eventually be labeled as another movement within Art. But it is not post-modern. Post-modernism is dead. We now know that deconstruction is a tool of analysis, not a philosophical conclusion. Relativism is dying. This is because we now know that it just leads to meaninglessness, and humanity needs meaning.

Why foster such a dichotomy? Didn't that exact tactic start all this mess in the beginning with Kant's beauty and sublime? Where Kant went wrong (and I am not alone in this assertion) was where he formulated a hierarchy, where the sublime was inherently superior to beauty. But he could have, more objectively, (like Socrates before him) stated that they both exist simultaneously (much like the wave/particle nature of light), and interrelate with one another - arguably as they do. What I take away from the nature of dichotomies in science, philosophy, and aesthetics, is that they are excellent analytical tools, but cannot represent a state of "truth". For nothing really exists in an absolute state as far as we can tell.

Yet, it is necessary to offer an alternative to contemporary Art, whether it is an older definition of art/ars which involves skill, beauty, emotion, or a redefinition of Kitsch to encompass the same meaning. Kitsch will succeed as being an alternative if enough people accept the positive definition. Language is constantly evolving. So, that will be the key. If they don't, it will be labeled as another influential movement within Art. But, there are many thousands of people who have already accepted Odd's definition of Kitsch, and many more who respect the position, so it will certainly make an impact... in fact, already has. If the definition of Art returns to its original meaning or "ars", then Kitsch has succeeded as well. Either way, Kitsch is a brilliant strategy for returning to rationalism, humanism, and beauty. It creates a superstructure within which beauty, skill, and passion can be rewarded. A place where one can have actual freedom, based on one's talent and hard work. A place where we can again be human.


David Dalla Venezia said...

Thank you very much Richard for this essential and clear summary!

Anonymous said...

Very good summary indeed.
I was asking myself, is there any further reading on the topic of false dichotomies in art that you would recommend? Some sort of overview?

Anonymous said...

awwwwww...funny words. I had to type the word 'quast' under word verification to even poste this message...

New York City said...

Erling Steen made a comment on Facebook, which I thought was usefull to include here. He said

"Fine writing Richard! I appreciate it! But what happened to "good or bad" Hirst and people like him are merely con-artists, do they really deserve all that philosophy?"

My response:
There is absolutely a scale from good to bad with many degrees of quality in between, which is inherent in both the Kitsch movement and the other movements of contemporary figurative/classical painting. I think the thing that distinguishes the Kitsch movement from the others, however, is their emphasis on emotional expression.

But, I felt that many, many others had covered the good/bad issue pretty thoroughly and I decided to just write about the things that haven't been discussed much.

New York City said...

Anonymous 1,

I'm not aware of an overview of false dichotomies in art. Upon searching, I was not able to find anything comprehensive. If anyone would care to share such an article, please do!

I think, however, that dichotomies in general are essentially false. It is the nature of dichotomies (they are a conceptual framework) that they are extreme idealisations of something and none of them exist in an absolutely pure state: light/dark, abstract/illusionist, Democrat/Republican, etc... Reality exists in shades of grey between the black and white.

Dichotomies are incredibly useful and necessary if we keep in mind that they are analytical tools and not a system of defining truth.

Phillip K. Dick suggested that a healthy way to look at things is on a scale from 1 - 10. If you categorize something, keep in mind that it's pretty much never a 1 or a 10, but might sometimes be a 2 or a 9.

New York City said...

A related topic for discussion:

I just thought of another important factor to consider regarding the idea of perceived "originality"....

Take "The Polish Rider" for instance. Seeing it in person at the Frick, I realize just how masterful a painting it is. Many people have disputed whether or not it was painted by Rembrandt, I believe that it was. But does it really matter who painted it? Does that effect the quality of the painting itself? If it was a student of Rembrandt, is it not still a masterpiece?

Whether or not Rembrandt painted it, the only thing that changes about the painting is its price.

Anonymous said...

why does art or kitsch or whatever you term it, only have to be one thing? why can't there be room for differing aesthetics and differing experiences? It's like everyone is so territorial and possessive of their truth, but there isn't only one truth....

New York City said...

The Kitsch movment doesn't propose to have one single truth for the whole Art world.

This is why Odd proposed that Kitsch is separate from Art and the two cannot be compared.

"In Kitsch, skill is a decisive criteria of quality. The work of the hand is self-revealing in the light of long established norms. In this way, Kitsch is without protection because the standards are the best ever created in history. To Picasso and Warhol, it was different. They were protected by contemporary values, and still are. You do not compare Warhol with Rembrandt, unless ironically. Art is protected against the past, because it is something different. For Kitsch, there is no such mercy."

Perhaps I should revise the article to include this.

Unknown said...

Hi Richard
I'm from Portugal :).I liked very much of your comment about kitsch. I study Contemporary Art and now i make a search for my master these just about 'kitsch and tourism' :). So, like you can imagine, this kind of comments and studies are very important to me now.
I saw your paintings and i loved it. I'm paint too but my work is different and not so perfect.
(excuse me my bad english :) )


corydixon said...

Hi Richard, I know I'm posting on an old comment, but I've just recently come across the babel as a new student to NYAA starting next September.

In regards to a search for writing about false dichotomies, what immediately came to mind was that in the field of Gender studies, this topic has been discussed in depth for a while, with similar conclusions. Judith Butler would be the one to look for I think.

I also wanted to let you know that I'm finding you writing to be very helpful, and hugely influential, in gearing up for my graduate studies.So thank you and please keep writing.

Cory Dixon,