Kitsch

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The word “kitsch” originated in the 19th century to criticize art seen as being in poor taste, or which hopelessly copied “high art” but remained mediocre or lacking in refinement. In the 20th century, with the rise of industrial manufacturing, the term has become more generally associated with mass commodities or cheap entertainment, considered decorative or evocative of lowbrow taste. Kitsch suffered its most serious intellectual blow in art circles when Clement Greenberg railed against it in a famous 1939 essay, in which he claimed it anathema to progressive, avant-garde art since it pandered to the masses. The rise of consumerism in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and '60s generated an artistic interest in popular culture, however, often with an eye towards dismantling the divide between ostensibly “fine art” and mass appeal; nowhere was this more notable than with the rise of Pop Art in the United States. Today, the idea that something can be “so bad it’s good” is so common that the term “kitsch” no longer retains the negative associations it once did, and artists today often create works that embrace bad taste and question the high- and lowbrow division in art. Importantly, while kitsch is generally associated with European or American culture, it has parallels throughout the world. For example, the concept of kawaii—or cuteness—in Japanese culture is a quality opposed to the aesthetic ideal of refinement and plays a prominent role in popular culture and entertainment.

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