Kitsch and SL, a first try

(This is an essay I started some while ago, assumed that I published on this site when I didn’t – doh! – and have updated a bit to reflect the current conversation. I will keep on working on it and adding to it… consider this Part One of at least three parts.)

I think that in many ways, the various voices that seek to critique and historicize SL art have (for the most part) ignored or misunderstood the role that kitsch plays not only the constructing of those works, but the entire architecture of SL as a medium.

Tomas Kulka, in his phenomenal book Kitsch and Art, does something that I haven’t seen any other author do: He sets out to give an actual definition of kitsch, rather than assume that he and his audience are all thinking of the same thing. I hope you’ll excuse my rather lengthy quoting from his book, but I think that the examples he gives will help ground this discussion. In offering advice to a painter seeking to create a kitsch painting, he writes:

“Let us take for example, the theme of the crying child that figures so prominently in kitsch depictions. Our painter should be advised to choose a nice and cute little child rather than a wicked or ugly-looking one. The cry shouldn’t be irritating or hysterical, but rather a sob of the soft and quiet variety; the child should elicit a sympathetic response. The painter should avoid all unpleasant or disturbing features of reality, leaving us only with those we can easily cope with and identify with. Kitsch comes to support our basic sentiments and beliefs, not to disturb or question them. It works best when our attitude toward its object is patronizing. Puppies work better than dogs, kittens better than cats. The success of kitsch also depends upon the universality of the emotions it elicits. Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding in the right kind of way. This psychological aspect of kitsch was also stressed by Milan Kundera: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (Unbearable Lightness 251).” The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones. Kitsch does not work on individual idiosyncrasies. It breeds on universal images, the emotional charge of which appeals to everyone.” (Kulka 26-7; emphasis mine)

To take this apart a bit and relate it to the subject of Second Life:

The painter should avoid all unpleasant or disturbing features of reality…
Ok, well – this one is almost too easy. SL, as a corporate environment, is set up so that any kind of truly transgressive activity is grounds for banning – whether it’s choosing a child avatar, doing anything that could be construed as attacking another avatar, or just generally behaving in such a way that is against the rather arbitrary “community standard.” But even if this weren’t the case, the environment of SL inherently denies everything unpleasant or disturbing about being alive. Your avatar never dies, gets sick, or even has to take a shit; one of the most hilarious things I think I’ve seen in SL is the the specter of SL “birth” – in which a “pregnant” avatar “gives birth” to an object resembling a baby, and the whole thing is handled without any trace of pain, blood, or fear.

This leads me to my first contention about SL and kitsch, which is that: Second Life is inherently a kitsch environment.

“Kitsch comes to support our basic sentiments and beliefs, not to disturb or question them.”
SL is primarily an environment policed by the community with occupies it. If I created an unbelievably offensive avatar and interacted with absolutely no one willing to turn me in, chances are Linden Lab would never find out and I could go about my business with my avatar intact. However, all it would take for me to be banned for some length of time is for someone to make an official complaint to LL, which undoubtably would happen sooner or later. LL would most likely err on the side of banning me rather than risk offending the person filing the report.

“Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding in the right kind of way.”

This sort of knee-jerk reaction to banning “offensive” avatars (or actions, speech or artwork) reinforces the idea that there is some sort of consensus of ethics within SL, which has been arbitrarily chosen by LL but pretty much adopted in a wholescale way by the SL community.

So, contention #2: SL is inherently a kitsch environment because the majority of its community members accept and reinforce this.

“The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones.”
One of the most stunning things about SL to a new user is how much a world in which “anything” (more or less) can be created looks so much like the world that we currently occupy. Add to that the numerous avatars you can buy which replicate RL celebrities, not to mention “bling” in countless iterations, cars/houses/clothes that are duplicates of RL cars, and so on, and it becomes clear that SL functions for a majority of its community members as a kind of wish fulfiller, satisfying the desire of its players to consume more things than they have the ability to in RL.

Contention #3: SL is an inherently a kitsch environment because the majority of its users accept and reinforce this, because it’s what they believe they really want.

So… SL is kitsch, before the artist even sits down to do anything in its environment. A good comparison would be if you could imagine an artist creating a serious work of art in the midst of Disneyland – how on earth would one do such a thing and not have the surrounding environment/context inform their work?

Bear with my example for the moment, because it raises some interesting issues I think are relevant to this discussion:

If the artist in question uses imagery within the work they’re creating that is kitschy, or heavily loaded with symbolism, or cute, or pretty, how does the environment it’s in (aka Disneyland, which is saturated by kitschy, pretty, cute, “meaningful” things) inform those images?

How would an artist, creating work in the midst of Disneyland, come up with something that makes his/her audience forget their surroundings and view the work as if it were in a gallery? (Is such a thing even possible, reasonable, and desirable?)

Given that the majority of the artist’s audience will be in Disneyland because they want to be surrounded by kitsch, what are kinds of expectations should the artist build into the piece to assure that it is interpreted as the artist wants it to be?

How does the artist’s complicity of working in such an environment fuel the interpretation of the piece? If they’ve agreed to be there and to play by the rules, how does the artist create something that isn’t kitsch?

More soon.

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~ by amyfreelunch on December 24, 2008.

14 Responses to “Kitsch and SL, a first try”

  1. This is great, Amy. I know you started this piece a while back, but it works as a nice expansion of the discussion about kitsch that arose in the comments a couple of posts ago (under “The raw and the cooked”). I also love the way you’ve structured it, as if it’s following the sort of root text/commentary design that’s often found in the more scholastic corners of late Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (I’m a sucker for that sort of thing). I’m looking forward to part 2.

  2. […] other thing is amy’s essay Kitsch and SL which you can guess the topic of. I eagerly await what amy has to say more about Camp. […]

  3. Excellent article Amy, it touches on areas rarely explored in Second Life and reveals some of the mediums’ strengths and weaknesses. It is very true that SL is “inherently a kitsch environment”, this conclusion explains so much about how the place and how its residents function, it is also perhaps a key reason why SL is struggling to be accepted as a serious platform for art. Take for example the enormous popularity and proliferation of photography, evident on Flickr, and in galleries like Avatrait, all of which speak directly to those seeking wish fulfilment or avoiding reality. Many of those images are undoubtedly kitsch, they work on that level and appeal to the lost and the lonely.

    I am loath to use an example of my own work but it might help add something to the debate. My recent collaboration, ‘Beyond Human’ with Ichibot Nishi actually started out as a solo commentary by myself, ridiculing SL photography. However, once we got together it then evolved into something else entirely, but the kitsch elements were utilised as a device to transmit the more abstruse themes.

    It is important to acknowledge that the predilection for kitsch in Second Life is unavoidable, but it can get really interesting for artists when we exploit that sensibility and use it to our advantage, revelling in the challenge of subverting “Disneyland”.

  4. I’ve read all the posts and comments on this subject and I’d love to say something interesting, but most of that has been done by others and much more adequately than I can.

    However, I cannot agree that “SL is kitsch, therefore all art showed there is kitsch”, as the guide to how kitsch is categorized in the real world applies to all the real world (it wasn’t noted as being specific to Disneyland and I love Disneyland, had great sex there once) so on that basis one could just as well easily state that all real world art is kitsch, couldn’t one?

    I also struggle with the ‘outsider’ tag. What immediately came to mind when I first read this was how art history is quickly changed, it was only within the last 10 to 12 years that video has been accepted as a serious art form, so lack of knowledge here for me is about what was ‘outsider’ about it, I don’t believe it was the artist, so can the art itself be outsider although the artists themselves are not?

    Also art critics and experts now discuss video made prior to this date has now being serious art, how can this be so, if it wasn’t good art then, what has made it good art now (of course I use the term ‘good’ loosely here), is it an acceptable part of the system to allow outsiders to become insiders, and if so when does that transition occur?

    I also did some minimal research on this too, I was lucky enough to be eating Christmas Dinner with Gillian Wearing, so I ask her to confirm my observations, which she did.

    So my main response to this will be as a piece I am presently putting together, although I’m afraid my visual reply will be somewhat late as it isn’t due to be exhibited until late Jan, early Feb.

  5. In my platform piece, one was called Idyll platform, so called after a female comic book character Idyl. In one story she is scavenging for food, she comes across two barrels and looks in one and finds nothing and leaves, without looking in the second, because it makes sense to her that if one barrel is empty, then the other must be too, right!

    It was an analogy for more than one aspect of SL, but one of them was that the first barrel represented 2-Dimensional thought and the second barrel represented 3-Dimensional thought. Both aspects should be considered in SL art, but it appears to me that only one or the other is usually considered and that’s why on one level SL art fails. I would agree that is a generalized observation, and my frustration is trying to understand that myself and ultimately how to solve that problem (which may or may not exist)

  6. Dekka – I by no means mean to say that because SL is a kitsch environment that all art that is shown there is kitsch (Jeff may have made the point that this is what Greenberg would have said, but I think I can speak for both of us when we say that we don’t agree with this assessment). What I’m talking about in this essay is the environment in which SL artists work… part two has to do with distinguishing builds that are “pure” kitsch versus ones that are more successful as something else, and part three has to do with SL artists appropriating the kitsch of their environment, but doing it in such as way as it gets turned all around.

    Anyway, your work is really, really interesting and I hope you’ll keep me posted with SLURLS, etc., so we can talk about them more here…

  7. Yes Amy, I did understand that, it was a response to that thought in general.

  8. Ohh, kitschy sex! LOL

  9. Fascinating article, Amy; some great comments here, too. That definition of ‘kitsch’ is right on — it’s a concept that has been floating around in my head for some time, since I tend to loathe most kitsch (kitsch usually equals mainstream popularity, which I can’t fucking stand, with a few notable exceptions) but was never able to put into words quite as precisely as what you and Kulka have written.

    The reason I personally hate kitsch is because of its widespread, universal (or nearly so) appeal; it is easily taken and digested, there is no thinking involved, nothing to challenge anyone, it’s lazy and appeals to herd mentality; it appeals to people who can’t think for themselves. Of course, this is a generalization. But that’s what kitsch represents to me.

    My loathing of kitsch is also why I’ve created art using Bunnyken as subject matter — it’s probably obvious to anyone who would read this blog, but Bunnyken is directly and specifically an anti-kitsch statement. At first glance he seems adorable and harmless, is made up of bright, sunny colors; yet on closer inspection, one can’t decide if he’s creepy or cute or what. I have used him as a symbol to lure the viewer into this false sense of security, then twisted him in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle, in the case of XXX PRIVATE SHOW) ways to make the viewer uneasy and hopefully disturbed.

    To go off on another tangent, something occurred to me as I’ve read all this. What about art that was once subversive, but became kitsch due to the shift, or “evolution,” of culture? Here is a very simple example — think about the Impressionist movement. When it first arose, it was highly controversial simply because it broke the rules of (then) conventional painting. But to regard someone like Monet as controversial today is unthinkable. His work is so mainstream, recognizable, and non-upsetting that it has, in my opinion, de-volved into the realm of kitsch. The same could be said, I think, of quite a few historically prominent artists whose work somehow became the subject of merchandising — notecards, calendars, posters, mugs, etc., etc. — Dali, Escher, Van Gogh, and on and on and on…

  10. Neb, I think your question about things that are once Avant-Garde but become Kitsch is a really important one, and the fact that these things change very fluidly, and the same work could be lulling people to sleep in one context and waking them up in another is why Greenburg with his rigid categories seemed super-dated to me when i first read him back in kansas in art school at KU.(maybe i should go back and read it again to see if i still think that but i haven’t yet). I wrote some stuff about art that might be Kitsch and not at the same time over on a conversation on BIW about the same topic just now and i’m curious what you think about it. Also while I’m spewing opinions here, I just wanted to say that I LOVE Bunnykin and I think that you, Nebulosus have everything you need to become an artist who’s work will be remembered – honesty, intelligence, industriousness and fearlessness, and I hope to be able to keep watching your work for years to come.

  11. Dekka, I don’t follow the statement in the first of your posts about the fallacy of applying the kitsch label to art made in a completely kitsch environment (i.e. SL). Here’s the problem: you reject such an idea on the grounds that the same judgment would then apply to all RL art. This doesn’t follow, specifically because the real world as a whole is not a kitsch environment. I think that Amy chose to use Disneyland as an example because it represents a relatively self-contained bubble of RL kitsch that is large enough for people to move around in (much like SL). However, the rest of the world is definitely not kitsch, by definition, since kitsch is a reaction to the ugliness and shabbiness of everyday life. You therefore can’t make the counterargument that all RL art is kitsch Amy’s terms, because RL is not kitsch as a whole, as SL is.

    It’s true, as you’ve said, that “the guide to how kitsch is categorized in the real world applies to all the real world,” but only as a way of categorizing RL art and artifacts into categories of kitsch and non-kitsch, with “not kitsch” as the baseline designation and kitsch the pejorative term. Amy’s argument is that such categorization becomes tricky when all art is made within a realm that is 100 percent kitsch to begin with. I don’t think she’s saying that non-kitsch art is impossible in SL, but rather that the nature of art made in SL is different by virtue of the world in which it is embedded. In fact, the situation of SL art that aims to escape kitsch seems to be an inverse of kitsch in the real world: if RL kitsch exists as a reaction to the grittiness of the non-kitsch world in which it arose, then any non-kitsch expression in SL can only exist in opposition to its completely kitsch matrix. As with all art, SL art is not freestanding, but is instead shaped, defined, and limited by its environment.

    For an illustration of anti-kitsch art operating in a kitsch environment, one can return to Amy’s example of Disneyland and consider the sculpture that Banksy smuggled in and set up there in 2006: a life-sized Guantanamo bay inmate, including orange jumpsuit and black hood, standing inside the fence of the Rocky Mountain Railroad ride. It only lasted for 90 minutes or so before Disneyland’s private army of well-groomed rent-a-cops took it down. That’s a prime case of a powerful non-kitsch response to a place that is trying to be as kitsch as the real world allows. (Littering, belching, farting, and public vomiting also work, as does sex, but only if it’s taking place where someone can see it and be offended). Amy’s analysis implies that given the self-policing bias toward inoffensiveness within SL, a truly effective open protest against its sanitary blandness probably doesn’t stand any better chance than Banksy’s piece did. I’d bet it’s even more vulnerable than potentially offensive RL art, which at least generally gets a pass if it is safely tucked away in a gallery, where only “sophisticated” viewers are supposed to see it.

    Museums are of course less sheltered and play host to public controversies more often, as in the flap over the Chris Ofili piece in the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago. Ironically enough, some of those flaps have involved Banksy smuggling fake paintings into places like the British Museum. The comparison that this begs between Disneyland and major museums is interesting. Maybe there is no distinction between art and kitsch if one is just looking for a big enough target in a world crammed with prepackaged spectacles. Or maybe museums are also kitsch by nature. I’ve suspected for a while that the latter is true.

    On that note, has anyone got a sense of whether SL galleries are similarly considered “safe” and out-of-the-way by the general populace of SL?

  12. Nebulosus: You’ve stated the problems with kitsch perfectly. It’s lazy, unchallenging, and always aims for the lowest common denominator. (It’s also a very devious force for keeping people from demanding anything more of culture, commerce, society, or life.) This will remain true no matter how often the “populist” idea is resurrected that critics of kitsch are just intellectual snobs. Such an argument against critical thinking is insulting to people in general—not just intellectuals—and is therefore not populist at all. Still, I’ll admit that I wouldn’t do away with kitsch; there’s a lot of it I genuinely and unironically like. Yet I think it’s important to be clear on what it is and how it functions in our society, if only so that we understand what we’re agreeing to when we buy it on the open market.

  13. Jeff I except that reasoning completely and it confirms what I thought I understood where Amy was coming from, I will still ponder about the kitschiness of SL though, it’s an interesting thought.

    Re galleries, I rarely enter a gallery that looks like a RL gallery and when I have I have been largely disappointed, often it is SL photographs and/or uploaded RL art, but then again, who’s to say that SL can’t be used to promote someones RL work, but it’s just not part of the conversation we are having here.

  14. […] writing in response to Amy Wilson’s excellent essay “Kitsch and SL, a first try” most of which I agree with but there’s one thing I want to argue with and that is the […]

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