For all their abuses, aristocracies made some beautiful things. Since nobility was interested in purchasing only objects of the finest craftsmanship, artisans toiled as long as it took to produce their best possible work. They left us ornate buildings, furniture and jewelry that are still seen as the ultimate of human achievement. Then with the rise of democracies and industrialization, the age of kitsch fell upon us.
Kitsch is low art, something made to be cute, cheap or sentimental, puffery mass-produced for the widest possible audience at the lowest possible price. Think velvet Elvis paintings. Think lava lamps. Think virtually anything sold at truck stop gift shops. Kitsch defines our age of quantity over quality better than any Warhol or Jasper Johns. Which is what makes the "Kitsch as Kitsch Can" exhibit so intriguing. Here we see the art form drawn out to its tacky, horrifying conclusions.
Most of the pieces are selected from curator Wallace Saage's own personal collection of knickknacks and bric-a-brac made during the height of cheesy inanity, otherwise known as the 1950s. We have TV trays with paintings of bathing Hawaiian beauties, faux crystal coasters and fake art-deco porcelain dishes (both actually plastic). There are figurines that conform to the widely held racial stereotypes of the day. At the hands of the prophets of kitsch, an important historical monument like the Alamo becomes an aluminum Davy Crockett playset.
On the other hand, a treasured Victorian painting of a gentleman and lady can be viewed as kitsch today thanks to its docile and unreflective subject matter. Yet the worst example of abstract art will never meet the qualifications, because the public automatically assumes it has some artistic value. Which leads us to the exhibit's core paradox: If kitsch is something that lacks artistic value, once you put it on display in a museum, does it cease to be kitschy?
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