PRINT September 1990

Norbert Messler

Don’t turn around!
Kitschman’s going around!
Anyone who turns and laughs
Gets hit on the back!

KITSCHMAN LOVES VENICE; he has always felt joyously uninhibited wending through the knickknacks and the sentimental souvenir junk. Normally he gets no farther than the Basilica of San Marco, but in this year’s Biennale he enlarged his territory, striking gushers in other parts of the city as well. In the “Aperto 90” section of the exhibition, for example, he lingered with obvious delight over Jeff Koons’ nude painted-wood statue of himself with Cicciolina, in which Barbie-doll culture seemed to have taken on the dimensions of sculpture. And in their respective national pavilions in the Giardini di Castello, the Spanish action artist Antoni Miralda and the Dutch appropriation painter Rob Scholte broke Kitschman’s sentimental heart—though they lacked Koons’ sticky-soft pornographism, the most insidious form of kitsch in art.

Kitschman loved the marvelously artificial rose tree, in full blossom, outside the Spanish Pavilion, and he was absolutely thrilled by the interior, an amusing but saccharine revue that defies all description. Scattered fake roses and fluttering particolored kerchiefs, glitter, gauze, velvet, and plastic, combine in a shrill stage magic of gigantic cushions and gargantuan feminine underwear, a colorful potpourri of erotic paraphernalia designed to outfit a female Goliath in sexy lingerie. In fact the garments have been made in various parts of the world to dress a certain Ms. Liberty, of the Statue of Liberty, who for more than a century has been greeting her admirers in a long, rather boring Doric chiton. Miralda’s excessive, rainbow-hued post-Dadaist Honeymoon Miralda Project 1986–1992 is a conceptual unio mystica, a marriage, planned for 1992, between the lady in New York Harbor and Barcelona’s Christopher Columbus monument. Is this art or county-fair spectacle? Isn’t this trivial brew of a stale esthetic culture actually high kitsch?

The same verdict has also been pronounced repeatedly upon Scholte’s Dutch Pavilion, which is decked out like a baroque gallery with some 20 large canvases, playful pictorial contaminations that travesty both the production of paintings and the art of painting itself. Kitsch-man’s interest was especially drawn to Venezia, 1990, a picture of a scraggy-boned artist with beret, brush, and easel. Both the painter and the hackneyed motifs he paints—Venetian backdrop, doge’s palace, Piazza San Marco, gondola—are executed in the natural spirit of kitsch: loving, gushingly soulful, bombastic. This is a painterly tearjerker. The atmosphere of the image is utterly stilted, but cheery.

One shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself, however, in assessing Miralda’s lingerie and Scholte’s quotational art, for neither is accurately described by the word “kitsch.” These artists may not be trying to sabotage or to attack the kitsch clichés they work with, yet their art isn’t spun from kitsch’s tacky threads of yearning either. Instead, their works use kitsch as an epiphenomenon of art per se: this is a conceptual kitsch. Miralda’s disco tinsel and gaudy glitter create an oversaturated mood in which deteriorated cultural goods, icons reduced to souvenir status, supply the contents of possible future collective myths. Kitsch is deployed toward popular education and involvement: at the end of the visit the pavilion viewer is asked to okay or to veto the intended marriage by entering a vote in a computer; while the artist himself wishes that Columbus had stayed home and left America undiscovered. And all of Scholte’s paintings, conceptually close to the conceptismo of Baroque Spanish literature, make suggestive links between widely divergent contexts—between the whole commercial array of Venetian kitsch, for instance, and the Biennale’s more “altruistic” presentation of art (a display of considerable significance for the art business). The inspiration for Scholte’s painted painter was the romantic notion of the artist expressed in a kitsch figurine from a Venetian trinket shop. This little souvenir has become the basis for a loftily staged pictorial world, teeming with quotations—a world that seems to derive from a kind of world experience until viewers realize that Scholte has actually unmasked painting as a deceptive, transitory form.

Both these projects, however, and contemporary conceptual kitsch in general (for it has been a genre of a kind at least since Pop), live in an esthetic danger zone—the zone of the Neue Heiterkeit (New joyfulness) in art. These visual mind games and enigmas are intended as a means of entertaining the masses. Miralda aims at them partly by resorting to Spanish Catholic piousness—with a Columbus Day procession in New York on October 12, 1989, for example, which showed the nuptial bedspread of the metallic bride and groom—and Scholte by talking about the two million tourists in Venice, an army of kitschpeople arrayed in the foreground of any summertime view of the city’s historic decor. Also, of course, kitsch remains kitsch, despite all pseudophilosophical allegories (Scholte) and any pseudoprofound discography (Miralda). And an attack on the condition of art or culture launched on the level of kitsch is likely to be too light, pleasurable, playful, and kitschy to be of consequence. Everyone turns to see, but no one gets hit on the back.

Norbert Messler is a writer who lives in Cologne and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.



1. I owe the name “Kitschman” to Ludwig Giesz’s “Der Kitsch-Mensch,” in Phänomenologie des Kitsches, Munich: Fink Verlag, 1971. This rhyme, with a different villain, is sung in an old German nursery game.