If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kitsch, Camp, & Cliché

The last lesson spoke about Bad taste. bad taste was defined as anything:

1. Of poor quality, and/or cheap materials. Imagine using plastic forks and knives at your wedding reception.

2. Stupid, or silly ideas - poorly thought out nonsense.

I was once asked to draw character concept designs for a film in which a young penguin and his animal friends were able to stop the Chinese army from invading America. The idea was brought to people at Disney, who of course, rejected it.

3. Anything extreme.
4. Anything vulgar or obscene - toilet humour, sexual jokes, etc.
5. Anything that is insensitive or offensive - racist jokes are in extremely bad taste.

The following joke is in bad taste, even though it makes a valid point:

It's in bad taste because it turns a photo of human suffering into the punchline of a joke. Whether it's justified is up to you.

6. Showing off. The following video is a good example of this. This girl is very talented, but seems more interested in showing off her talent than in playing a good, meaningful song. She could also wear some longer shorts:
Kitsch (or schlock, fluff, adj. tacky) is another form of bad taste. It includes many of the qualities listed above, but what really defines Kitsch is the quality of being overly sentimental - cutesy, cheesy, corny, like kittens in a basket, flowers in a basket, kittens and flowers in a basket, etc.

A Bold Bluff, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, an example of kitsch

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments are kitsch

Think of kitsch as "heightened cheese content", like a tortilla chip. Imagine some office where businessmen are discussing making more money on their chips.
     "What if we add even more cheese? We can advertise it!"
Repeat this over time, and the cheese flavour becomes so strong it hurts your tongue. Meanwhile, it's not even real cheese - it's some orange powder that looks toxic and stains your fingers.

The original Doritos tortilla chip

Doritos now. Notice how the color of the chip has changed - it's supersaturated with spicy cheese flavour.
Does it really taste better? No.
Does it earn more money? Probably.
The same idea can be applied to other things, including art. Illustrator Norman Rockwell once said:
"If a picture wasn't going very well I'd put a puppy dog in it, always a mongrel, you know, never one of the full bred puppies. And then I'd put a bandage on its foot... I liked it when I did it, but now I'm sick of it."
Sick as a Dog, by Norman Rockwell
What things are Kitsch?

Kitsch mostly refers to decoration - furniture, souvenirs - things that are cheap, mass produced, and made to sell. Kitsch looks tackiest (worst) when many cheap things are placed together, with no thought for color, style, or taste:

Amy Sedaris, posing for House & Garden Magazine

Kitcsh is a form of Cliché - words and phrases often repeated in films, for example:

"All in a day's work."
"You ain't seen nothin' yet."
"It's my way or the highway."

Kitsch is a cliché in the form of an object - a repeated icon, sold and resold. Kitsch reduces religion to a gift shop:

Kitsch is the business approach to aesthetics. It makes no distinction between Mary, the mother of God, and Mickey Mouse.

"Whatever sells, baby!"

Kitsch is often a form of lying - it's an obvious fake. It's a historical, wooden, African mask that isn't really wooden, historical, nor made in Africa. It's a cheap ceramic knick-knack that's been painted up to look like porcelain, or a cheap plastic souvenir, made to seem ceramic. It's a tin candlestick, gilded to look like gold, a plaster copy of David meant to look like marble, but with skewed proportions, and none of the handmade feel of the original.

Kitsch is rarely handmade. It's produced in a factory - meant for mass production and consumption.

Despite all its faults, kitsch can be appealing for its charm:

"Charm is the one quality that will redeem a painting bearing any other fault." - Stapleton Kearns

Many people enjoy kitsch. It's the Mona Lisa made out of legos.

It's Big Bird made out of breakfast cereal.

Big Bird, by Jason Mecier (do-it-yourself kitsch)

It replaces beauty with a juvenile sense of humour. 90% of pop music uses this same idea, mixing comedy with melody. Love it or hate it, it's a large part of today's post-modern world.

CAMP (also called cult classics)

Normally, when you hear the word camp, you think of tents, scouts and camping:

This is a camp.
But, camp can be used as an adjective for films and TV shows that are, well, kitsch. Most camp TV took place in the 50's and 60's - shows like:
The Munsters
 The Adams Family
Batman and Robin
Wonder Woman
and The Brady Bunch.
Many old horror films are also considered campy, like Nightmare on Elm St., Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Blob:
Camp has often been used to describe exxagerated acting, that is overly theatrical, and effeminate (girlish). The stories to these films and shows are one dimensional - they show a version of reality that's naive, superficial, black and white.
Some people still enjoy watching these shows. The idea is they're so bad, they're good. Camp TV and film is like popcorn, or gummy bears. They taste good, but they're not good for you. When these stories are remade into new films, a lot of the humour comes from how times have changed.


  1. Thanks. I never think "camp" mean "camera", but "camping tent".

  2. Your blog is terrific!
    As an English speaking artist, I find many of your succinct descriptions very well described - Great job!
    One small note: I believe you could perhaps clarify your description (of the very complex subject) of Kitsch - I highly recommend "Kitsch and Art" by Tomáš Kulka (Penn State University Press (1996))

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll look it up. :)