KITSCH TRANSFORMATIONS, OR THE TASTE WHICH TASTES BAD
Up until now we have discussed the main formats of reproduction in terms of sustainable quality, with only the hint of the potentially dubious content inherent in such an aesthetic construct; the unclosed ‘matrix’ as offered by Katharina Fritsch; or the potential increase offered by the Disposables of Les Levine. Yet no sooner is this increase made available, than the potential of failure of absolute decrease appears to dash all hopes of sculpture as a free art form. The immediate description would be that reproduction beyond a certain level is automatically axiomatic of bad taste or Kitsch. This simplistic and convenient compression of the issues of mass production and mass art is however destroyed by Herman Broch’s definitive lecture ‘Notes on the problem of Kitsch’ where Kitsch is directly related to the rise of Romanticism and the cult of the unique.
Broch begins by correcting a major misunderstanding upon the nature of Kitsch, which is generally understood to be a property of objects rather than an issue of perception: ‘I shall not talk strictly about art but, about a fixed form of behaviour with regard to life. Kitsch could not, in fact emerge or prosper without the existence of Kitsch-man, the lover of Kitsch; as a producer of art he produces Kitsch and as a consumer of art is prepared to acquire it and pay quite handsomely for it.’
Kitsch is irredeemably linked to the idea of reproduction because Kitsch is an anti structure and as such is always parasitic. This is the important issue; Kitsch is a finite system. It is closed. Reproduction in art, does usually, sadly, equate with Kitsch. But this is not because reproduction is a closed or finite system, it is not. Herman Broch’s main point is worth quoting in full:
‘…we can illustrate why Kitsch resulted from Romanticism, and why it must be considered a specific product of Romanticism. And in fact if knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, can be defined as an infinitely developing logical system, the same can be said of art in its totality: in the first case, the Telos of the system (a goal suspended in infinity and at an infinite distance) is truth; in the second it is beauty. In both cases the final objective is the platonic idea. It seems regrettable that love is also a platonic idea, an idea that cannot be attached by means of the many unions to which man is constrained (this, incidentally, explains why love songs are all so sad); but as love can scarcely be considered as a system, there may be some hope left for it. But wherever the goal is unquestionably unattainable, i.e. in structures which, in the manner of science and art, move relentlessly forward according to some inner logic from one discovery to the next, which meant the goal remains outside the system, then the system may and should be called open. Romanticism is inclined in exactly the opposite direction. It wishes to make the platonic idea of art – beauty – the immediate and tangible goal for any work of art. Yet, in so far as art remains a system, the system becomes closed; the infinite system becomes a finite system. Academic art, which involves a continual search for rules of beauty, with which all works of art must comply, makes things finite in a similar manner. We cannot, of course, identify Romanticism with academic art, not are Kitsch and academic art identical (although the latter is one of the most fruitful areas for the influence of Kitsch); but nor should we overlook the common denominator underlying all these phenomena, which consists of their tendency to render the system finite.’
As Broch so clearly states, the real issue is one of open or closed generative systems. Reproduction is obviously not a closed concept. Which is why sculpture, being inherently reproductive, has moved beyond its original monumental confines into a completely open indefinable system, into the expanded field. It would seem that we are left with the conclusion, infinitely debatable though it is, that Romanticism, a movement essential to the advent of modernism and a movement which leaves a long and complex legacy in relation to the unique and the reproduced, has somehow been closed off. Are we now moving on to an era beyond the historically brief notion of the Romantic and hence beyond the notion of Kitsch? One thing is sure, that period of art from the end of the 1950s until the beginning of the 1970s where the end of art was so often stated, probably marked no less than the death of Romanticism and a return to instability; to an open system.