American / Drawing / Illustration / Look Back: Art History / Other / Painting

Merry Kitschmas: A Brief Look at Taste and the Holiday Season

We’re in the holiday season now. Thanksgiving and Black Friday have passed and ahead is Christmas, New Years and the various other fixtures of wintertime merry making. And you know that all your big holiday dinners will be served with a healthy side of cheesy decorations. Whether it’s greeting cards, Christmas crackers, wrapping paper or oversized centerpieces, there are plenty of tacky decorations to choose from.

May I offer you some tacky? I mean, turkey?

It’s not just during the holidays that tack or “kitsch” shows up. Broadly defined, kitsch is art that, even though it might exhibit compositional skill, is generally considered tasteless. The various stigmas that the word invokes include ideas of overt sentimentality, shallowness of meaning, mass production and limited creativity.

Still it exists – and is celebrated – all the time.

One of my favorite recent examples is the work of Thierry Poncelet, whose series of “aristochiens” paintings are making a good haul at the auction houses. In July of 2012, for example, his painting A Distinguished Lady realized a $11,760 price at a Christie’s auction, against a maximum estimate of $1,240.

Thierry Poncelet, A distinguished lady, signed ‘Th Poncelet’ (lower left) , oil on canvas, 23½ x 19¾ in. (59.7 x 50.2 cm.)

What do you think? Do you like it? What other items of kitsch do you have lying around? And should we love it or hate it?

Some artists, perhaps Jeff Koons most famously, have embraced kitsch as their own aesthetic, partly to comment on contemporary society.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue), high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating, 307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm
5 unique versions (Blue, Magenta, Yellow, Orange, Red)

So how do we know when what we’re looking at is “imitation kitsch” – kitsch for kitsch sake – or an inadvertent or unconsidered trashy creation? And for that matter, does it even make a difference?

On the first day of my first ever art history class my teacher passed out this chart.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had one of these for everything? We all have our own rough version in our head. Perhaps you, like me, have found yourself in the office on a Monday morning saying “Oh yes I watched Homeland last night too. What a thrill!” when in fact the night before you caught bits of Tool Academy during the Pretty Little Liars commercial breaks.

If not, you know what I’m saying. Ultimately, the level of tackiness we enjoy in our lives every day is a personal decision. Go ahead, get a picture of dogs playing poker if you want. Or alternatively, practice phrases such as the following: “My goodness, how can you tolerate the hopelessly derivative and saccharine aesthetic of Thomas Kinkade – any compositional merit he might show is undercut by his hopelessly exuberant palette.”

Thomas Kinkade, Glory of Morning, 1999.

It’s up to you. Kitsch doesn’t necessarily equal bad, just like super serious, complicated and over-thought doesn’t necessarily equal good. It’s whatever makes you happy to look at, but you should know where people are coming from when they tell you that they either love or hate kitschy art.

So as usual I want to give you some background.

Let’s go back to holiday decorations: specifically the Christmas card.

When the first Christmas card was created and sent in 1843, “kitsch” wasn’t a common idea, and neither was Christmas. Christmas gathered a lot of steam as an important, richly traditional family holiday in part through the encouragement of Queen Victoria.

The first Christmas Card

Similarly, there wasn’t much opportunity for kitsch, a word that wasn’t adopted from German into English until the early 20th century. And this was because, until art became easily available through fast and easy reproduction, not that many people saw art.

Lithography was the first major medium that allowed art to be really widely distributed. Lithography is a form of printing using a rock (hence “litho-“). Since rocks take a long time to wear out, multiple copies could be made on them, and a single image could be spread out among a rapidly developing middle class.

Think about lithographs as the precursor to the poster on your college roommate’s wall: either a reproduction of well known work, or a sort of easy to look at, not-too-challenging yet moving image.

Then: “The American Fireman. Always Ready.” Hand-colored lithograph by German-born American printmaker Louis Maurer (1832-1932).

Now: ’nuff said.

In Massachusetts in the 1870’s, one lithographer started using his press to mass-produce Christmas cards. The lithographer, a Prussian immigrant named Louis Prang, saw wild success in this venture from the earliest years of publishing the cards.

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a delightful hat.

This is actually just a snapshot of my own early Christmasses.

Looking at a Prang Christmas card today, it checks the kitschy boxes: mass produced and impersonal, yet also cheerily sentimental.

But Prang’s work didn’t stop there. It was all part of a larger schedule to spread artistic instruction and knowledge in America. Beyond his work on the Christmas greeting card, Prang also invented a new color wheel, invented a form of non-toxic watercolours for children, wrote several books on basic art education and produced thousands of reproductions of famous paintings so that they would be available to all members of the public.

So he holds a key position in the history of art: on the one had, he’s the man who injected America (and the UK, where his cards also made booming profits) with holiday sentimentality, weakening public taste. And at the same time, he made art a conceivable and accessible pastime and pleasure for the growing Victorian middle class, setting a tradition that would carry on to the present day.

So take another minute to think about kitsch: what are you going to do? Embrace it for it’s relationship to modern society? Or reject it in favor of a deeper personal response to art? As always the choice is yours, just remember to look first and put yourself before the art.


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