The Internet Can’t Kill ‘High Kitsch’
“I’m a bad b*tch you can’t kill me”
In 2014, The Whitney Museum of American Art marked the final days in their uptown location with a retrospective of Jeff Koons. Given the proliferation of selfies in reflective works like Kangaroo (Red), 1999 it was a show well-suited to the social media epoch. But it was also symbolic of the allure of High Kitsch, rather than the minimalism that is so often identified as the calling card of digital culture.
As we have been wringing our hands over groutfits by Yeezus and coffee shops that look like boutiques (one garment rack and a succulent), High Kitsch has been gathering strength.
And bad news for the haters: the Internet can’t kill it.
Kitsch was originally a German concept. The dictionary defines kitsch as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality… a tacky or lowbrow quality or condition.”
Walter Benjamin wrote about the political implications of kitsch in his unfinished work The Arcades Project, and in doing so established his own definition for the term based on aesthetic trends that characterized the turn of the century.
“Kitsch, according to Benjamin, undermines the distinction between art and utilitarian object… Kitsch offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation,” writes Winfried Menninghaus in On the ‘Vital Significance’ of Kitsch: Walter Benjamin’s Politics of ‘Bad Taste’.
In contemporary criticism, Thorsten Botz-Bornstein links the spread of kitsch to religious fundamentalism, deculturation and narcissistic impulses. In his book The New Aesthetics of Deculturation: Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism, Kitsch (Forthcoming Bloomsbury, 2018) he argues that “Kitsch is aesthetic fundamentalism” that arises because of the neoliberal obsession with excellence. “Kitsch abounds when concrete truths rooted in concrete cultural environments are not available. Then self-enjoyment becomes the major aesthetic reference,” he writes.
Unlike Botz-Bornstein, Benjamin was not sounding the alarm about kitsch, but the failure of kitsch to “[integrate] the advancing state of technology into the ‘expression’ of social dreams has two grave consequences,” according to Menninghaus, who lists these two consequences in summary of The Arcades Project: “Art no longer enjoys a position of superiority… [dooming] it to an escapist limbo” and “at the same time technology, having outrun the pace and reach of artistic development and control, likewise eludes social and political control and can thus wreak its destructive effects unhindered.”
However, there is still space for dreams, space for play.
Botz-Bornstein’s argument is much more pessimistic and culturally alarmist. Although, without his book in full, it’s hard to make a full judgment:
“In kitsch, aesthetic ‘truths’ are derived from immediate experiences of enjoyment that lack cultural depth. The person who enjoys art in a fundamentalist kitsch way will usually not have those cultural references. The result is the creation of alternative truths or — if the mechanism persists — of alternative realities.”
My definition of High Kitsch falls closer to that of Benjamin, in which supposedly lowbrow taste is capable of evolution within a self-contained cycle of theory and belief. Let me back up.
Multiple writers have observed the homogenizing effect of technology and social media on the prevailing aesthetic of public spaces. Kyle Chayka calls this phenomenon Airspace. Adam Platt observes it in restaurants, where even the menus looks the same– except for where Instagram bait has forced an arms race of individualization, as observed by Amanda Mull.
The arc of digital aesthetics trend toward minimalism because of its photographability. By this standard, beauty is what lends itself to the social media stream. Ugliness comes to mean unphotographable– and kitsch is the clear beneficiary of this visual shift. (It’s times like these I wonder how American Apparel went bankrupt.)
Not everything mass produced is unphotogenic. So the integration of ‘lowbrow’ art and design into branding serves a dual purpose: separating the individual/brand/experience from the minimalist fray, while still allowing them to gain status in the social media world. The oxymoronic nature of High Kitsch establishes a cycle.
- Consumers tire of the prevailing aesthetic and flock to kitsch as a way to signify their countercultural taste, but due to the accelerated pace of social media sharing, the documentation of this alternative taste is quickly legitimized by luxury tastemakers as High Kitsch.
- New forms of kitsch are mined as a backlash to the prevailing taste, but quickly achieve High Kitsch status again– forever toggling between lowercase kitsch and High Kitsch.
While the Internet might banish certain minimalist accoutrements such as cacti, neon signs and kilim carpeting for a time, they will eventually be recycled as kitsch after a period of unpopularity. Thus, High Kitsch is the only aesthetic the Internet truly can’t kill.
What $38 Will Get You
The Arcades Project is so named for the literal arcades (closed colonnades) that were an element of Parisian architecture at the time Benjamin was writing. Aside from falling outside the classic materiality of the historic city, these spaces attracted a parade of kitsch attractions and advertisements. Benjamin termed these arcades para-architecture.
“It is Benjamin’s non-expert para-architecture that “rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly’”… It is not the construction of the entrances to pubs, railroad stations or arcades that interests Benjamin, but the para-objects in the space of this ‘threshold magic’,” Menninghaus writes.
According to Menninghaus, an earlier version of Benjamin’s work was just a list of curiosities, stuff like fortune-telling devices and slot machines, many of which fell under the category of kitsch.
Para, a prefix meaning resembling, is the calling card of High Kitsch.
In his 2017 series State of the Culture, Artnet critic Ben Davis parses the phenomenon of para-art experiences including Museum of Ice Cream and Color Factory, both social media-oriented spaces that charge $38 for entry.
Davis quotes a Culture Track study which asserts, “For today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized, nearly to the point of extinction. It’s no longer about high versus low or culture versus entertainment; it’s about relevance or irrelevance. Activities that have traditionally been considered culture and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field.”
For para-art, a para-museum.
Color Factory, which began in San Francisco, opens in New York City this week. Its Spring Street entrance is marked by door handles like giant Necco Wafers. The question of ‘push’ or ‘pull’ was solved by the security guard at the entrance who swung open the portal between the hot sidewalk and the ‘social dream’ (Menninghaus) within. Let it be known: Willy Wonka’s Factory surely had air conditioning.
“The paint in Color Factory provided by Sherwin Williams,” reads the wall adjacent to the entry, setting up the experience as one of unconcealed sponsorship. In fact, in most of the wall text, corporate sponsors and artists are treated indistinguishably– both equally important collaborators on the playground of High Kitsch.
Experience Specialists guide attendees through the various rooms of Color Factory, each in a monochrome jumpsuit, the color of which they were able to choose themselves. This was a refreshing bit of decision-making in an atmosphere based around guided joy. Although attendees move through at their own pace, they aren’t able to go back once they enter the next installation.
Alongside the flow of rooms is a succession of treats: mochi, macarons, Sockerbit candy, gelato. “This place is so sweet,” a fellow preview-goer remarked to the Experience Specialist doling out Scandinavian gummies.
For a celebration of color, it’s surprisingly uniform.
Kettle of Bees
“To be clear: The Museum of Ice Cream and its ilk aren’t the End of Culture,” writes Davis, “Fun things aren’t bad. Everyone likes a good milkshake once in a while.”
I agree, and like Davis I believe that the para-museum reveals fundamental truths about the traditional museum. At Color Factory, cool person Molly Young created a choose-your-adventure floor maze which leads to your ‘secret color’ and a selection of cards based on this color which contain instructions for the next room.
The front of the cards include whimsical phrases like “Emo Rap” (pink) and “Sensitive Pond” (green). But one yellow card in particular caught my attention for the phrase “Kettle of Bees”. It reminded me of a recent conversation with an executive at a high-end art storage facility.
In touting the level of privacy accorded to incoming shipments from their wealthy clients, he told me, “We don’t check the crates, so they might as well be a crate of bees.”
The biggest criticisms of para-museums like Color Factory are their naked corporate sponsorship, the orientation toward shallow digital thinking, and the consumerism of their gift shops and satellite brands (Museum of Ice Cream now sells ice cream at Target).
However, the traditional art world grapples with the same issues, they’re just less transparent about it. In other words, the para-museum is the swarm of bees to the museum’s unopened crate.
Consider this: according to a new book by Andrea Fraser, “[at] New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, a full 73% of board members made political contributions.” The wealth that funds the art world and lands its stewards advisory positions comes from opioid pushing, arms dealing and tax dodging. In the words of Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, “Philanthropy is the gateway to power.”
Knowing this, is a Color Factory room sponsored by Maybelline really so offensive? As a potential ploy to snatch up Soho real estate, where does Color Factory rank between a mid-sized art gallery and Mansur Gavriel, morally speaking?
In his State of the Culture, Davis brings up the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s decision to rebrand itself in line with the para-museum: “The refreshed identity promotes the institution less as an arc of timeless culture and more as a hub for experiences, focusing on attractions like artist-designed mini-golf, a beer garden, Christmas light shows, and its outdoor nature park,” he writes. This decision was not without backlash.
Ironically, the Indianapolis Museum of Art was a key partner in a 2005 project called Steve, which sought to archive art based on a user-generated descriptive tags. This project was instrumental in getting museums to think more digitally across their organization. (I’ve previously written about the results on Hyperallergic.) Sebastian Chan, who launched ‘the Pen’ at Cooper Hewitt was part of this initiative. The Pen is now a tool in the hands of Cooper Hewitt goers, who touch the tip of this large stylus to different displays in order to have the information emailed to them later.
At Color Factory, every attendee receives a card with the organization’s smiley face branding to touch on a scanner in each room. That way, important information about their visit can be emailed to them later: photos of them amid the installations.
At last, museums are thinking digitally. Can we help it if High Kitsch is the conclusion?
The Experience Archive
“Hold onto your phone, cherish it,” an Experience Specialist told me as I pondered the final installation of Color Factory. The pièce de résistance. The (blue) ball pit.
The recent history of adult play pits is full of color. There’s the clear balls of Snarkitecture’s The Beach at DC’s National Building Museum, the pink eye that at least one person caught from it, and the sprinkle pool at Museum of Ice Cream (not technically a ball pit, but essentially a ball pit).
Here is another problem that the museum and the para-museum share: preservation. An experimental artwork on the scale of Color Factory would require a large team of specialists in order to authenticate a future display or move it across the country intact. But I would argue that Color Factory is digital art, which comes with a whole other set of requirements.
The biggest problem with digital art is that eventually it will decay. “It needs to be displayable and sometimes usable decades after its creation. But the technology it depends on changes quickly. The original hardware might no longer exist, or the software might run on an operating system that no one has touched since the first Bush administration,” says a Boston Globe article about digital decay.
Color Factory neatly sidesteps some responsibility for preservation by outsourcing documentation to Instagram. Sure, they are surveilling attendees in service of hands-free selfies (or so they say) but that’s not where the project actually lives. This gives the para-museum an advantage over other types of digital art.
“We’re building an ambient computer that contributes to your environment even if you don’t interact with it,” said Jake Levine, the founder of digital art frame startup Electric Objects, in 2014. The aim, much like experience marketing, was to be everywhere.
Digital art frames are TV monitors meant to display an infinite number of artworks– but they haven’t caught on. In three years Electric Objects was defunct, and although both versions of their hardware were supposed to keep working, Amazon reviews tell a different story.
The acceleration of High Kitsch at the hands of the Internet has also hastened the need to archive or die. Para-art relies on the narcissistic impulses of participants for its own preservation, while the creators of these experiences, however mass market their work, adopt the traditional art world pretension.
“My art is human experience,” says Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn, “Before [attendees] go, they’re curating a group of friends they want to go with. They curate their own outfits because they want their outfits to be part of it, so that’s where the creative process starts to flow.”
It’s like Marcel Duchamp taking credit for the next piss someone took after viewing his readymade urinal. Or Snarkitecture throwing themselves a retrospective… after only 8 years in business.
Attending the Color Factory press preview unaccompanied posed a particular problem in the Complementary Compliments room, where one sits across from another attendee and draws something you like about them.
“Are you alone?” one of the Experience Specialists asked me, before describing how it’s supposed to work.
“Are you solo?” asked another specialist overseeing the Maybelline-sponsored dance floor where Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ was playing. “I can take your picture,” she offered.
In the ouroboros of the para-museum one must archive themselves. Not having someone to take a picture of you in Color Factory is a minor tragedy, despite the fact it’s set up for automatic documentation.
Apercu (And Also With You)
The first Experience Specialist I see at Color Factory is wearing a pale pink jumpsuit. It’s practically identical to those of the Glossier showroom employees just up the street. The success of Glossier’s marketing has been a confluence of millennial branding. A clean-looking font (Apercu), like the Marc Jacobs typography– but slightly more delicate. Millennial pink, of course. And a certain aesthetic minimalism with just the right hint of imperfection.
As Alyssa Bereznak notes in The Ringer, this style of branding is virtually indistinguishable from a startup like hims– which sells erectile dysfunction medication to millennials– or Casper, which sells mattresses. This same style of branding is even selling diet lollipops in Times Square. Cooool.
Leaving Color Factory I encountered an advertisement for sofa startup Burrow on the train. “Good for nothing,” it said. Aligning itself with the self-care rhetoric so often interspersed with Apercu on social media.
Blame it on AirSpace. Blame it on Silicon Valley. But we know who these images are for: women. Women like macarons. Women take selfies. Women don’t know how to hold on to $38.
Para-museums have been marketed like Glossier, but to indict them feels like punishing women for having the wrong values in art. Maybe it’s a good thing that Color Factory didn’t stop at millennial pink. There are too many colors involved to make a credible claim on minimalism. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s High Kitsch, because the market has imbued balloon dogs with a certain level of seriousness– at least when a man makes them.
I’m a woman, so I feel like I have to preface this with an apology but here’s the truth: Color Factory is kind of ugly. The wall text reads like Rupi Kaur. I was excited about the first two snacks, but by the end I felt infantilized. (When I got home I ate a can of beans.)
“‘Art for the masses’ already achieved a consumerist fulfillment in the museum gift shop,” Davis writes. I liked that the Color Factory gift shop included the books The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer and Little Labours by Rivka Galchen. I didn’t like that they were obviously selected for their colorful covers.
I looked around for Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
I liked that some of the merchandise benefitted charities like Housing Works and God’s Love We Deliver, and that the maps Color Factory gives out direct attendees to arcade-like experiences (Temporary tattoos! Aura readings!) at local businesses.
I did not like that a child’s wish to ‘Stop Global Warming’ was printed on a mylar balloon. The ocean is clogged with such wishes.
The Theory of Fashion Simultaneity
Everything old is new again, so the saying goes. Color Factory includes an installation from Mmuseumm, which catalogs the shape of corn flakes and displays fake vomit from around the country, among other things.
Of course, there are already museums that display quotidien objects. Cooper Hewitt, Cooperstown, scores of local folk museums. But no matter– after the mochi, the fake vomit felt revolutionary.
“The aesthetic imperfection of the dusty and outdated has the advantage of entailing less sublimation and self-sufficiency, and hence of allowing greater scope for everyday ‘dream energies’. Benjamin always had a great interest in nascent and dying forms that did not appear bearing the seal of perfect,” writes Menninghaus.
The acceleration of High Kitsch means everything is trending at the same time. The cycle between bell bottoms being in or out has flattened, compressed by our need for something that looks ‘different’ from the other clothing trends saturating our feeds. Constantly reaching for the next kitsch enforces the High Kitsch cycle.
As fellow writer Angella D’Avignon observes, Instagram is full of ‘vintage’ purveyors upselling Macy’s scrunchies from 2003. In the throes of High Kitsch, the digital fashion landscape begins to resemble a thrift store: every decade from 1940 forward represented concurrently. Every trend readily available, even as some gain more visibility for a short time.
I call this The Theory of Fashion Simultaneity.
The concept of kitsch often draws comparisons to the concept of camp (see Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”) but a better signifier of the wet, hot ‘dream energies’ Benjamin wrote of is probably literal camp.
Adult summer camps are the High Kitsch answer to the mainstream music festival (female coworking space The Wing and Glossier both recently organized summer camps for their insiders) and offer little more than participation in an aesthetic. Meanwhile, nostalgic wares are hawked online.
High Kitsch is the $28 ringer tee to Gildan’s $5 one.
Para-museums like Color Factory are a useful study in High Kitsch, which is already accepted in the upper echelons of the art world. The repackaging of lowbrow objects into unique experiences is distinct from other social media marketing in that it produces a certain amount of ‘ugly design’ in service of High Kitsch.
All this time we thought beauty was the bait by which technology incepted each of our life experiences. But kitsch is the gremlin you can’t kill in the blender.
You’ll hate it until you love it– and by then you can’t afford it.