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K is for Kitsch

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Appreciating Kitsch Art
K is for Kitsch

… is for Kitsch.

Kitsch, a German loanword originating in the art markets of Munich in the 1860s and 70s, is everything cheap, tasteless and tacky. Kitsch appeals to the popular, uncultivated taste over the refined palette. Think of a symphony that tries too hard to tug on your heartstrings, or an excessively ornamented porcelain set. Kitsch is the overly-saturated landscape painting on sale in the market, oozing with sentimentality and banal mass-appeal. 

Kitsch galore at an art market in Bali. Image source: Culture Trip
Kitsch galore at an art market in Bali. Image source: Culture Trip

Though kitsch is usually a pejorative, some art is renowned in part for being kitsch and exploring the implications that comes along with it. In the larger scope of art history, Andy Warhol’s Marilyns or Jeff KoonsBalloon Dogs come to mind. Despite the undoubtedly kitsch aesthetic – utilising popular imagery and icons like soup cans or celebrities printed repeatedly in garish colours – Warhol remains an accepted part of the fine art canon for breaking the boundaries between high and low art. Koons’ work is more polarising; critics remain divided on whether he was making a statement on consumer culture or simply cynically pandering to mainstream taste without regard for artistic substance.  

In 2013, Balloon Dog (Orange) was sold for a record-breaking $58.4 million over telephone. Image source: Telegraph.
Despite mixed critical reception, Koons work remains unquestioningly profitable. In 2013, Balloon Dog (Orange) was sold for a record-breaking $58.4 million over telephone. Image source: Telegraph

Utilising this relationship between kitsch art and consumerism, Filipino artist Kawayan de Guia incorporates popular imagery into his works. He uses a kitsch aesthetic that deploys a mix of irony and nostalgia, to comment on socioeconomic issues specific to the Philippines. Some symbols that he uses in his work, such as those of multinational corporations and brands, might be more familiar to a global audience. Others are more local, such as the Bulul (rice deity) figures scattered throughout his paintings. 

Nature of Currency (diptych). Image source: Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
An array of figurines and references to popular culture can be found in Kawayan de Guia’s two-panel painting, Nature of Currency (diptych). Image source: Sundaram Tagore Gallery

In Nature of Currency (diptych), de Guia explores Filipino identity and culture by reflecting it through kitsch. Though certain iconography from the Western world has been so ingrained into everyday Filipino life, they are also signifiers of ‘benevolent assimilation’ – indicators of the soft power that America still possesses in the Philippines. 

On the other hand, there is kitsch that is unaware of its status as kitsch. Some say that it can still be appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. 

Artist Yeo Kaa with her work at the 2019 edition of S.E.A. Focus in Singapore.
Artist Yeo Kaa with her work at the 2019 edition of S.E.A. Focus in Singapore.

But what differentiates the kitsch that we are ‘allowed’ to appreciate from those that we are not? 

I remember seeing the works of Filipino artist Yeo Kaa at SEA Focus 2019 and wondering whether I was ‘allowed’ to like her works. On a basic visual level, her colourful, manga-styled paintings appealed to me as someone who has an affinity for neon and aesthetically pleasing cartoons. On an emotional level, I was intrigued by the darker psychological underpinnings of her art. I was utterly hypnotised by her bursts of macabre energy, and the unhinged scrawls of paint on the wall from the rather violent performance that had occurred prior to my visit. 

Then I remembered my art teacher telling me, “Never draw manga! That isn’t real art,” and I felt a pang of regret. Am I supposed to or allowed to like art that draws from any vaguely mainstream aesthetic? 

A backdrop from the iconic Shoujo anime Sailor Moon. Image source: WallpaperAccess.
A backdrop from the iconic Shoujo anime Sailor Moon. The pastel anime style continues to skyrocket in popularity today. Image source: WallpaperAccess

I think we are conditioned to dismiss such art as shallow and pandering without observing it more closely, even if it has visual and conceptual originality. To me, my initial reaction to Yeo Kaa’s art is emblematic of how the fine art community treats kitsch that isn’t ‘ironic’. 

Kitsch can simultaneously satirise and celebrate popular taste – or it can do neither at all and merely be an earnest expression of the artist’s ideals of beauty. They say that just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good, but inversely, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. Let’s not deny ourselves the pleasure of appreciating art that looks kitsch for what it is. 

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Interested in learning more about art as it relates to kitsch? Curated by Louis Ho, The Foot Beneath the Flower at Nanyang Technology University (ongoing until 31 October 2020) features works by Southeast Asian artists that speak the language of kitsch and camp, and is well worth the journey to the west.

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