Notes on Kitsch by Ulya Soley
The following notes are excerpts from Ulya Soley's essay, "A Question of Taste", published by Pera Museum as part of the exhibition, "A Question of Taste" (2021)
A snow globe filled with glitter instead of snow. Transparent and plastic. The glitter falls on a single rose. A well-bloomed rose, with beautiful leaves. It stands on a transparent plastic plate situated right at the center of the globe, and is thus visible in exactly the same way from all sides of the globe. When the globe is shaken, the glitter begins to float around the rose, glowing in tones of vivid pink and green. If the internet was an object, it could have been this globe. Produced in China, transported to San Francisco to be sold, and sent to Turkey as a gift, this object reflects contemporary visual culture in every sense: its material, aesthetic, falsehood, and its reconciliation with its falsehood; the manner in which it transports the GIFs we are accustomed to encountering on the computer screen to our physical world; how it reminds us of the symbolic burden long-carried by the red rose while feeding off of the fact that it has been considered cool enough to be recently printed on sports socks; its transportability to geographies far away from its place of production and its capacity to appeal to a global "taste" that allows it to be received with the same enthusiasm wherever it goes. This globe is a great starting point for addressing the concepts we will be using to examine contemporary visual culture such as taste, aesthetics, class dispositions, mass culture and art, kitsch and camp, real and fake, physical and digital, "good" and "bad" taste.
In his 1962 essay titled, The Structure of Bad Taste, writer Umberto Eco evaluates Greenberg's essay [Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939]. Eco states, "[...] not only does the avant-garde emerge as a reaction to the diffusion of Kitsch, but Kitsch keeps renewing itself and thriving on the very discoveries of the avant-garde."* Eco finds the dialectic of kitsch and the avant-garde useful. Kitsch is not the only party that borrows in this relationship; avant-garde also frequently borrows from kitsch. Eco does not refrain from differentiating bad taste from good taste, but confirms that taste is not definable. On the other hand, Susan Sontag seeks to define the concept of camp -- a concept that has become an ally of kitsch and that has also settled itself in Turkish with the same name -- in her essay titled, "Notes on Camp" published in 1964. She defines camp as the urban, apolitical, playful taste for the unnatural, that is, artificial and exaggerated.
By the 1970s, Jean Baudrillard identifies kitsch as a cultural category with the unreal, simulation and imitation. He positions it as an element of consumer society, in opposition to the beautiful and aesthetic.** Around the same time, Matei Calinescu links the recent emergence of kitsch in the context of high art to the close relationship it establishes with irony.*** Similar to Eco, Calinescu asserts that avant-garde and kitsch feed off each other, which he argues is proof of the complexity of kitsch as a concept. For him, kitsch is the result of romanticism's desire to escape reality, and is "one of the most bewildering and elusive categories of modern aesthetics."**** Calinescu also delineates the concepts of upper class and working-class kitsch. he describes kitsch as an internationally accepted "aesthetic lie"***** that provides comfort to the viewer, as he continuously underscores how indescribable it is.
*Umberto Eco, "The Structure of Bad Taste," translated by Anna Cancogni and David Robey. The Open Work. (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), p. 187
**Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 17
***Ibid, p. 25-30
****Ibid, p. 33
*****Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage, 1998). pp. 110-111
Ulya Soley is a curator, writer, and translator based in Istanbul.