The word ‘kitsch’ has been defined in a plethora of ways. A word borrowed from the Germans, it is derived from the word kitschen, which means ‘to sweep up dirt from the street’. Often used to describe things determined as cheesy or tacky, it has been defined as a lower class style of mass-produced art and design, or things that are of low quality; in a more cheerful usage, however, it has also been used to describe objects that evoke a sense of pure and utter enjoyment!
Whether the word is assigned to plastic pink flamingos, Hello Kitty paraphernalia, or porcelain collectables, the concept of kitsch is subjective. What classifies an object as kitsch is based on personal taste, cultural origins, and social context. Do you love it? Is it customary? Is it the latest fad? Some would consider the ornate interiors of 17th century Europe over-the-top, bizarre, and without rules, as kitsch is wont to be. Others may perceive items such as the colourful Mexican nichos (wall hung altars) to be tacky and tasteless. However, these designs are directly connected to the customs of their respective times; the over-the-top décor of the Rococo movement is the combination of the sensual delight and extravagance of the era, while the ethnic memorabilia of the nichos are a symbol of Mexican spiritual beliefs.
What constitutes kitsch has always been questionable and understandably caused frequent debates amongst the art critics of the world. But who are we to judge the personal likes and dislikes of art and design? What one considers kitsch may be deemed treasure by another. Today the line between kitsch and art is perhaps more ambiguous than ever, largely because of kitsch pioneers like artist Jeff Koons and writer/artist Douglas Coupland, and even designer Philippe Starck. Their notoriety, craft, and audaciousness have made kitsch a little more mainstream, a little more profitable, and a little more acceptable. The very idea of kitsch is not what it once was, and today we see its influence in the world of art, décor, and design.
Nicknamed the ‘king of kitsch’, artist Jeff Koons is perhaps the world’s most celebrated modern day kitsch artist. He is infamous for a series aptly named “Celebration” (1995-2004), which the artist created as a token of love for his son. The collection consists of a series of large-scale, childlike imagery such as balloon animals, colorful Easter eggs, and Valentine’s hearts. These larger-than-life sculptures are finished in a mirror-polished stainless steel, subjecting us to gaze upon our own reflections, perhaps as a reminder of the sweeter things in life and the importance of tradition…a true testament to artwork that evokes feelings of delight!
Douglas Coupland is one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists, writers, and visionaries. His work dabbles in the art of kitsch, notably exploring issues such as identity, popular culture, and technology. Through various materials that range from Lego pieces to found objects, Coupland manages to incorporate his own upbringing, traditions, and point-of-view into his work. With pop-culture as his muse, he delights us with nostalgia, often incorporating everyday items such as children’s toys and detergent bottles. “Digital Orca” (2009), Coupland’s first piece of public art in Vancouver, is a symbol of Vancouver’s harbour culture. The sculpture has been considered simultaneously beautiful and bizarre, but as Coupland inscribed on a plaque near the sculpture, he was “making a familiar symbol of the West Coast become something new and unexpected.” The same could be said for his collection of huge detergent bottles, in which Coupland, struck by the beauty of these ordinary household objects, enlarged them in a series entitled “Spike” (2001); consider also his oversized army green soldiers, sculptures that capture the zeitgeist of his family’s military background.
One specific item we tend to most often consider kitsch is the humble garden gnome. For centuries, these little pointy-hatted imps have protected gardens all the way from Europe to North America. Popular mostly amongst the working class of the 1800s, they served as good luck charms for watching over crops and gardens, helping them thrive and protecting them from thieves and pests. In 2000, Philippe Starck, a French designer known for his countless luxury hotels and fabulous furniture lines, designed “Attila”, a thermoplastic technopolymer garden gnome stool. Starck consciously provokes and challenges social awareness with many of his creations; perhaps this stool was his response to the Y2K bug, or perhaps it was meant to protect our homes. Or maybe it was meant to serve as a simple reminder to stop and smell the roses. In any case, this quirky gnome made his mark in the design world not as a piece of kitsch, but as fun, functional furniture. On the flip-side, in 2005, Starck designed the “Gun Lamp”, which was a direct response to the chaotic, trigger-happy world we live in. Considered kitschy or in poor taste by some critics, Starck’s view was that design was his only weapon; as such, he sought to express his views through his craft. This lamp is his metaphor for gun violence and crime – rather, not kitschy, but risky.
Whether kitsch is a source of sheer entertainment or a product of low quality is subjective. Kitsch-averse snobs would perhaps agree that kitsch is suddenly becoming a contemporary attraction; Koons, Coupland, and Starck are far from being labeled as tacky artists, but rather brave, bold, and beloved. Items we deem ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ have found their way back into our homes; we giggle at the site of adorable doe-eyed dolls or find solace in grandma’s Hummel figurines. A teeter totter of love and hate, kitsch embraces a sentimentality that ultimately makes us feel good. Design is beyond favoritism; if you want to be uplifted, if you want to smile, consider leaving your prejudice behind.
This is Bambushka. She makes me smile every day.