The Kitsch Alternative

The Kitsch Alternative

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The influential art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) often cited the derisive term kitsch to critique artwork that, in his mind, failed to live up to the tenets of the modernist movement. His theories privileged formalist nonobjective abstraction and greatly influenced the type of art that was exhibited and critiqued in Americas post-war heyday. The fallout, particularly for oil painters, is well known: representational work that referenced the figure, offered narrative content, or had sensual appeal was sidelined.

The Kitsch Biennale in Venice, Italy, in 2010 featured
oil painting works by Odd Nerdrum among others.

Greenbergs clever adoption of the term kitsch exploited deeply rooted associations with the European art market and German aesthetic theory. Back in the 19th-century, German fine-art dealers, competing in a mercantile market flooded with mass-produced decorative objects, were keen to distinguish those objects from the one-of-a-kind works they represented. The dealers labeled mass-market items kitsch–roughly translated to mean thrown together, derivative, or shoddily made.

The tactic worked; discreet one-of-a kind objects ascended to the status of high-culture icons. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose writing on aesthetic judgment remains the centric critique defining high art, expanded upon the definition of kitsch to include art he believed to be inferior. In brief, Kant applied the kitsch label to artwork that referenced a preceding school (which he dismissed as unoriginal and lacking individual genius) or works that were overtly emotional or sensual. Greenbergs theory on kitsch is a logical progression from Kantian thought and squares perfectly with the modernist aesthetic. To be modern was to be new. In one fell swoop, the modern art world nailed the coffin shut on centuries of art practice, oil painting techniques, and tradition.

Reappropriating the term kitsch allowed Odd Nerdrum to
distinguish his work and philosophy in a time when there was
great opposition to his approach in the art world.

But cultures shift, and artists by nature are a terribly unruly lot. Greenbergs modernist lockdown on art-making lost ground in the post-modern epoch where the informing do-it-again trope holds forth. And yet there remains a considerable institutionalized prejudice against artwork that seriously departs from the modernist party line. Painting figures, work that is sensual, or artworks that aim to be beautiful remain highly suspect.

Odd Nerdrums work is all of the above. One-upping Greenberg by usurping the term kitsch, Nerdrum turned the tables on his celebrated critic by applying this same term to his own work. Defining ones own minority or outsider group using an oppressors vocabulary is a powerfully subversive ploy that has noted precedents: for example, gay-identified university academics currently offer ***-studies courses.

Beginning in 2002, Nerdrum and a group of his students began a series of kitsch exhibitions culminating in 2010 with the Kitsch Biennale in Venice, Italy. Richard Thomas Scott and Adam Miller, both former Nerdrum students, are planning a Kitsch Biennale in New York City in the fall of 2013, continuing to champion the emotive and eternal qualities of art above the contemporary whims of fashion or the dictates of critics.

For further information about the 2013 Kitsch Biennale or to inquire about sponsorship opportunities, contact Richard T. Scott (richardtscottart @gmail.com) and Adam Miller ([email protected]).


Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist.

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