The Kitsch Debate: Murals, Kitsch Art, and Street Art and All the Complexities In-Between
Kitsch art has long been condemned as an art without meaning. Conceived in 1939 by Clement Greenberg, ‘Kitsch’ itself was created as a dismissive term for all of popular culture. Therefore, the growth of a kitsch street art has been a topic of controversial debate, one that points towards the issue of categorization and the rise of a different art within Street Art. Kitsch is described by the writer, curator, and artist, Cedar Lewisohn as an art that is “sentimental [and] lacks criticality…” Greenberg’s equation of kitsch art to popular culture was, for him at least, an eternal definition, “Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.” This negative view of kitsch as something lesser than - a lesser than art, a lesser than culture, has indeed prevailed throughout the years. An issue spanning all cultures and times periods that has perplexed scholars for centuries, Kitsch today has taken on new meanings and new controversies. Banksy is a perfect example of this, as his work often borders on kitsch while also conveying important and often harsh messages. Dan Brooks, in an article on Banksy’s Dismaland, proclaims, “Sarcasm is our kitsch.” So was Greenberg right? As kitsch finds its way into Street Art and becomes a topic of heated debate once more, how are we to determine the kitsch from the art and the art from the sarcasm?
Often done in large murals, kitsch art typically dominates its surroundings while Street Art coalesces and assimilates with its environment and participates in a dialogue rather than overtake the conversation. Lewisohn addresses this as an area of frustration for him, stating, “Artists now, perhaps more than ever, should fight to make work that has meaning.” Similarly, Brooks states, “how awful to see society embrace art that makes you feel nothing…” A reference to Banksy’s Dismaland, an installation that many would argue made them feel something – if only despair, this begs the question, is sentimental art an art without meaning? Who determines what art has meaning and what art does not? If a person looks at a piece of art and smiles, smirks, or ponders the cruelty of the world, is that not art with merit? Kitsch art may be sentimental and lack criticality but does that mean that it cannot hold meaning? Scholar Ulrich Blanché is an academic who illustrates the idea that even if kitsch art holds meaning for some it is nonetheless separate from Street Art, “actually most works labeled as Street Art are repetitive and kitschy…I prefer smaller, illegal works to murals.” Dividing one from the other he effectively categorizes them as two different types of art. It is, however, ironic that an art form famous for muddying the waters between high and low now finds itself reinforcing such boundaries as kitsch art invades Street Art and forces debate. While some argue for a strict distinction, others argue that it may not be so easily definable as the complexities of categorization become more and more intricate.
In 2008 the Tate Modern held a Street Art exhibition curated by Lewisohn and co-curated by Dr. Rafael Schacter. Schacter, however, refers to the show as a “key boundary marker” in Street Art that led to the popularity of immense, colorful murals and the spread of what many would consider kitsch. The show, therefore, equated kitschy murals with Street Art in the eyes of popular culture. While Lewisohn speaks out against kitsch art, Schacter cites the Tate exhibition as a gateway of sorts for its popularity, suggesting that the line between kitsch art and Street Art may not be so easily defined. He cites the international prominence of the Tate show as navigating perceptions on Street Art in a particular direction, that of large-scale, colorful murals and an “edgy’ form of popular muralism.” He also refers to the exhibition as the root of the international infatuation with Street Art festivals. The result of this is the spread of sizable, vibrantly colored wall paintings that came to be synonymous with Street Art and an escalation in kitsch art that utilized repetition, “colorful caricatures and saccharine sentiments.” In a 2016 article for the “Street Art & Urban Creativity Scientific Journal,” researcher Javier Abarca touches on festivals as well as a culprit for the rise of a kitschy mural Street Art. Because festivals do not give their artists ample time to live in the city in which they are working, the artists do not have time to develop a relationship with the city, its people, and its environment. Their murals, therefore, lack context and cannot connect with the people who reside there in a deeply thoughtful way. As a result, the murals are superficial, meaningless, and kitschy. They overshadow the city instead of connecting with and working in tandem with it. Abarca, however, concedes that there are always exceptions to the rule. An example of this is the Bien Urbain festival in Besançon, France. Bien Urbain allows its artists to reside in the city for an ample amount of time, engendering a thoughtful understanding of the city. For Abarca, it is this intimate connection with the locale that defines Street Art. A connection made through temporality, a dialogue where others are encouraged to participate and respond by destruction, addition, creation, or comment as the work shifts in time and space. While Abarca seeks to separate mural art from Street Art and to therefore sift the kitsch out of Street Art, he must concede some exceptions and in doing so proves the difficulty of such strict categorization.
While scholars seek to draw a line between kitsch art and Street Art, one has to wonder whether it’s entirely necessary or even possible. Greenberg only believed in high culture and popular culture, serious art versus popular art. In separating kitsch art or mural art from Street Art are we not upholding a dated demarcation of high and low culture that Street Art successfully disrupted in the first place? In fact, many artists defy categorization as one or the other as they continuously fuse styles with one another, draw off of one another, and meld the kitsch into an art that defies simple definition. An artist from Valencia, Spain, Escif, has managed to marry thoughtful concepts with mural art, which many deem kitschy or superficial. Abarca admits that Escif has “come up with several tactics that allow him to play with the content in meaningful ways even within the meager time frame usually allowed for a mural piece.” And indeed, Escif’s murals are thought provoking and original. But an artist who can seemingly fuse the two calls into question the debate between Street Art versus murals, which conversely calls into question murals as kitsch art and the definition of kitsch art in general. It is difficult to know where the line is drawn, and perhaps this is precisely the point. Art is never really meant to be easily defined or to fit into neat boundaries, and who is to say what holds meaning and what doesn’t when all audiences are looking through a different lens? Mural, kitsch, or Street Art, it is the unexpected that flourishes.
Author: Baylee McKeel
Baylee McKeel graduated magna cum laude from New York University with art history honors. She holds a BA in art history with minors in Italian studies and social and cultural analysis. She completed an honors thesis on Jusepe de Ribera’s early paintings and the dilemma of Caravaggism in early seventeenth-century European painting. She has previously worked in the curatorial department at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and with the collection manager at NYU’s Villa la Pietra in Florence, Italy. She has extensive research and writing experience, having written and published various articles for Musée Magazine. She recently held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum of Art performing comprehensive research and assisting in funding and special events.