Kitsch or not too kitsch?

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“The Offering,” by Luke Hillestad (oil on linen)

The question of kitsch has arisen often in discussions of architecture. A house whose classical portico is not backed up by the orders in the rest of its makeup might be kitsch. Or a house whose classical portico is backed up appropriately may be kitsch if it is in an inappropriate neighborhood, thus overstated in its context. But is the above painting, “The Offering,” by Luke Hillestad, kitsch? I don’t think so, and yet Hillestad describes himself as a “kitschpainter.” He seeks to raise the reputation of kitsch.

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Dogs playing poker: classic kitsch.

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Painting by Thomas Kincaid. (bloggernews.net)

So I may not understand what he means by kitsch. It has always been one of those words that arrives protected by a battalion of nuance. A painting of dogs playing poker seems to define kitsch, but if so why do people argue about the word? A village scene by Kincaid might be a better definition of kitsch. But “The Offering” hardly falls into either category.

It showed up on Reddit – a social media platform used mainly by young men – and won a lot of praise. One commenter described himself as “pretty uneducated” about art, and then proceeded to describe the symbolism of the three women in the painting. One was holding a phallic symbol. Another had antlers on her head. Did that make it kitsch? The artist replied:

I like this. The offering is met with innocence and intrigue and the expressions are a mixing of the spiritual and sensual. You may be naïve about Art, but it does not seem to hinder your interpretation of the picture.

It seems to me that a lot of the art world entertains itself by counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Criticism of criticism of criticism is what makes the world of art (and architecture) go round. Steve Dombek saw the painting on Reddit, sent it to me, and writes:

[Hillestad] refers to himself in one comment as not an artist but a “kitschpainter,” and refers to a movement to reclaim the word “kitsch” as non-pejorative. Hillestad says “the heart of kitsch is its earnest sentiment. Kitsch is a category that ranges in quality up to the greatest masterpieces.”

As filmgoer, I always cringe when a reviewer criticizes a movie’s director for “manipulating his audience.” Hey, that’s what I want him to do. I want him to make use of all the tools that filmmaking puts at his disposal. Yes, do tug at my heartstrings! Do scare the bejesus out of me! Similarly, I want a painting to toy with my emotions, not just my intellect. “The Offering” does that. In addition, it is just plain beautiful. If that makes it kitsch, maybe the world of art is as topsy-turvy as the world of architecture.

An interesting topic! Here is Worldwide Kitsch, a website that goes into it more deeply.

[This post was first published on Saturday but many recipients missed out because my email server (Gmail) is persuaded that my posts are spam. I am seeking a resolution to this confusion, but dare not post further, for now, as a new post, sent with my usual bulk email distribution list, seems to violate a daily quota of sent emails – another bafflement, which, if triggered, bars my sending out any emails at all.]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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