Art and Kitsch – Where Do We Draw the Line?


Art has a way of always reinventing itself by constantly challenging the key values of a certain movement and replacing them with other, more innovative ones. Throughout history, this dynamic has fueled artists’ desire to create art that gradually got not only more physically realistic, but also deeper in meaning. But how does this explain kitsch?

The distinction between art and kitsch

The Widow, by Frederick Dielman

While there must certainly be a distinction between real art and kitsch, putting your finger on it is pretty hard. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece, but what if you saw an exact replica of it in one of friends’ home? You’d most likely scoff at him and condescendingly say “Brandon, that’s so kitsch. Why on Earth would you hang that on your wall?” So apparently, it’s not only the actual content of an art object that plays a part in determining its value, but also the context in which you see it. It’s also true that what used to be kitsch a few decades ago can nowadays be regarded as top-quality content. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if pop music – which we all love, in a way – is just a generally accepted form kitsch musical art?

How kitsch was born

Let’s get one thing straight. No one comes up with idea for something – be it a painting, a drawing or even an outfit – with the sole purpose of creating something that would be labelled as ‘kitsch’. That’s just not how things work. In fact, the sentimentalism associated with this type of art is nothing more than a consequence of the wish to create art for all pockets. Back in the day, Germans started painting simple landscapes with watercolors and selling them at flea markets – everyone could afford buying one of those, and this marked the dawn of mass-produced art. Art becoming more popular was certainly a good thing, especially in those times, but a drop in prices also meant a drop in quality. And when industrial mass production became more widespread, “kitsch art” became the very opposite of “high art”. The former, which used to be possessed by the poor, was manufactured through mass production techniques. The latter, on the other side, was made the good old way – with a canvas, brushes, oil colors and dozens of hours of work – all of which gave it immeasurable value.

Everything’s kitsch in the 21st century

kitsch Battiston

If you look closely, almost everything’s been kitsch since the explosion of pop art. We just got used to it all and stopped noticing it altogether. Like it or not, we live in a world dominated by kitsch art created by people who’ve been working really hard to turn it into high-level art. How did this come about? Through education. When grants became available to the children of working-class families, they went to Uni in droves. That includes art schools, and obviously, the ones who went there gave the art they grew up with a new lease of life.

Bottom line is…

We’re slowly but surely transitioning to a society where kitsch is no longer viewed as a bad thing. And that’s an interesting phenomenon. After all, kitsch is just one of the great many strokes on the infinite canvas that we call art.