What we decide is cheesy, contrasted to what we call profound, says a lot about what we ultimately value.
Vivid, consuming, at least a little bit claustrophobic — Campbell’s Soup Cans are among the most famous pieces of 20th-century American painting. There are thirty-six of them in total, each one corresponding to the thirty-six flavors of Campbell soup being sold at the time. Thirty-six flavors! What a wondrous buffet. Or should it rather be, what a capitalistic nightmare of abundance and indecision?
Situated in the broad category of Pop art, artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist depicted the most mundane, everyday objects and “elevated” them into the realm of art. It’s still a hot topic of debate whether their art was an endorsement or a rejection of consumerism, a phenomenon which these artists increasingly saw in their lifetimes. But one thing was clear: that the “elevation” of everyday commodities into art caused great distress in the art world. Pop art made people question why they even considered certain things beautiful in the first place and other things plain, cheap, or ugly. Where did this “hierarchy of culture” come from, and did any of it reflect objective beauty?
Pop art was a big part of what art academics had regarded “kitsch” — in other words, low-brow art. Clement Greenberg, a prominent American art critic who first popularized the term kitsch in 1939, theorized it to be a byproduct of industrialization. As more and more people crowded into factories and other trappings of urban life, they had less free time and space to enjoy themselves. The working and middle classes were so strung out from labor, they couldn’t possibly involve themselves in any “advanced” cultural consumption which would require mental effort to make meaning. They were thus pushed back into mindless, dumb forms of entertainment — what Greenberg termed kitsch.
In day-to-day English, kitsch is possibly closest to the words, “cliché” or “cheesy.” But what we decide is cheesy, contrasted to what we call profound, says a lot about what we ultimately value. This is reflected in the 20th-century debate on whether to accept pop art as a valid artistic form — in other words, should we preserve pop art in the same world occupied by the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo?
Connotations of classism then become apparent. “Kitsch” is a convenient way to group all cultural products that are less than “mature art” into one. That includes all pop music, Broadway shows, Hollywood movies, manga, and commercial art and design. Everything that is produced for the masses, instead of for the educated few, can be considered kitsch one way or another.
Nowadays, “kitsch” has more or less let go of classist meanings, but it’s still cheekily looked down upon. The Oxford art dictionary considers kitsch to be “art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” I like to think of kitsch as it’s represented in my grandmother’s house: brimming of clutter and dust, little trinkets from all over the country, Japanese festival lanterns, and incomprehensible decorative scrolls of calligraphy. None of it means anything to me or even to my grandparents themselves. But collectively, when all of them cram themselves corner-to-corner in the tearoom, it suddenly sets off a pungent smell of nostalgia.
Similarly, if I had to choose, I’d rather have a poster of Warhol’s soup cans hanging in my bedroom than a replica of the Mona Lisa. Soup cans look approachable and fun; something I can understand. I can relate them to the time I went camping back in school and had gross canned food sitting around the fire. The Mona Lisa, on the other hand…Well, she is famous for looking mysterious and rather uninvolved.