Archive for the 'art criticism' Category

Dunkin’ Donuts Kitsch

October 28, 2009

Thanks to Julia, Lauren and Jenn for the good discussion this morning.  With the unforeseeable demise of our coffee shop, we moved to the outdoor Dunkin’ Donuts populated with students, sunshine and the radio.  Hopefully next time we can secure a place with less distractions.

dunkindonutsI guess it makes sense in a way to be talking about deliciousness and kitsch in the Dunkin’ Donuts.  I am so glad to have Lauren and Jenn join in on the discussion because it brings multiple perspectives and I believe our text to be related to all of our artworks.  I am a little sad to have finished the discussion of Harris’ book.  I really love this text and I think that it is very influential to me.  I enjoyed our discussion of bathing today as related to Harris’ chapter on cleanness.  The sexuality of the bath as a preparation for sexual acts in old advertising transforms into the bath as a place of escape from the hectic world of the modern woman.  “You deserve it!”  “Calgon, Take me away!”

3952216088_cf257d6de0The trend in advertising to acknowledge the distrust of the consumer is something that we discussed through the example of the Dove commercials now circulating the claim of showcasing real beauty.  We talked about the dual ad for Dove and Wal-Mart that uses the “Ears hang low”song which lead into the interesting topic of the real or authentic.  From there we got into a discussion of modernism versus relational aesthetics.  All in all I think it was a good ending for our discussion of Harris’ book.  I think that the ideas and aesthetics in this book will stick with me.  I know that I will return to it and relate it to future readings.  We have decided to take a break next week and then return to discuss texts by Adorno and Greenberg.


Rembrandt/Saturday Evening Post

October 24, 2009

“An increasingly dominant market system, fueled by the irrepressible fecundity of mass production, generates its own characteristic cultural forms (advertising, mass media), which threaten to usurp art’s role entirely, even as they erode the public’s ability to distinguish a Rembrandt from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  Far from overcoming our narcissistic isolation, consumer culture feeds on it, transforming the redemptive power of an aesthetic communion into the banal transactions of the shopping mall and the Ebay auction.  We are reduced to an atomized pseudocommunity of consumers, our sensibilities dulled by spectacle and repetition.  The relationship between art, advertising and propaganda constitutes a central point of tension in modern art theory.  Art’s function as a form of emancipatory communication is almost always presented in opposition to a malevolent other (kitsch, mass culture, etc.) that threatens to destroy or compromise it in some way.  As a result, the “universal freedom” that art promises “to everyone” must be deferred as art struggles simply to survive against the encroaching flood of billboards, glossy magazines, and Hollywood movies.  By the mid- to late nineteenth century, techniques of mass production and the consolidation of advertising as a cultural form designed to both incite and regularize consumer demand were making it increasingly difficult to establish a firm ontological boundary between the “work of art” and the commodity.”

—Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, pg 29-30.

CP3 copy

I am in the process of re-reading Conversation Pieces for my sculpture seminar course with Celeste Roberge.  I am totally in love with this book.  I really like Kester’s voice and the way that he lays out his argument is really refreshing.  I like the premise of this book as well–he is proposing that the work that is becoming more and more prevalent that focuses on conversation at its core (which he calls dialogical) is both in response against and following the tradition of modernism.  Instead of just jumping into the work that he wants to discuss, he builds a strong foundation by discussing the avant-garde and its place within its own history.  I especially like the above paragraph in relation to our discussion of kitsch and Harris’ book.  I think it is very well stated.

Martin Parr/Kitsch Culture

September 20, 2009

Ran across this blog about Martin Parr…

The post is about an exhibit in Paris that shows the photography of Parr alongside objects he has collected.  Some of Parr’s work explores tourism so the link here between kitsch and tourism is strong.  I am very interested in his personal postcard collection, as I have one of those myself.  I think this idea is a great one.  Show source material along with work.  Especially when the source material is as fantastic as the Hussein watch of Parr’s.

J. Crew is so gross!

September 20, 2009

Okay.  So speaking of our low/high culture clash conversation, here is an all time low.  A couple of days ago, I received the newest J. Crew catalog in the mail.  I urge you to get a copy of this if you can!  I will bring my copy to the next discussion group.

What’s so strange about a J. Crew catalog, you may ask?

Well.  Generally not much, but this time is a different story.  J. Crew is currently trying to re-vamp their image as boring basics peddler and become truly high class mass-produced sweat-shop-made couture.  With Michelle Obama wearing their duds and a slew of news stories surrounding their new look, they are on their way to changing their image.

I happened to notice in the last catalog that came my way, a photo of the artist Alex Katz decked out a la J. Crew.  I thought it was some sort of strange anomaly, but no.  The current issue of the J. Crew catalog is filled with artists wearing J. Crew clothes.  Okay, this is a little weird, no?  But it goes further.  The women’s section remains the same as ever.  The women’s clothes are all being sold by models. Flip to the men’s section and it is a completely different catalog.  The men’s section has NO models.  Artists in their studios are photographed wearing J. Crew clothes.  This is completely sick to me.

This catalog is telling me that

1. there are no female artists,

2. or, the only artists worth mentioning are men

3. that it is important to look good as an artist

4. j. crew = looking good

There are so many things wrong with this catalog.  I am seriously outraged over this.  I mean, what is avant-garde about J. Crew?  Why would anyone seriously do this?

The list of artists appearing in this catalog are:

Vito Acconci, Ryan McGinness, Chris Dorland, Glenn Ligon, Lucien Smith, Billy Sullivan and Stephen Shore

Why these artists?  What is so marketable about them, J. Crew?

Here is a link to some of the photos:

I want Jerry Saltz to write about this.  I want to write a letter to J. Crew and tell them how gross they are to me.  I want to NEVER shop at J. Crew again.

Since when did a catalog become a faux-magazine?

I was talking to Charlie about this and his thoughts comforted me somewhat.   He said that…

1. The women’s and men’s sides of the catalog probably have different photo editors and creators and that they probably had no idea that what they put together would be read as so offensive to me.

2. Vito Acconci is wearing a lot of make-up in his photos.

3. When I asked Charlie why they didn’t have architects (or writers or actors, etc.) he said that he  thought artists were probably cheaper.

P.S>>>Here is a link to a blog talking about Alex Katz appearing in the previous issue of the J. Crew catalog..

Self Storage

September 20, 2009

Here is the link for the article Julia told us about in crit.

The article appeared in the New York Times Magazine on 9/6/09.  It is titled, The Self Storage Self.  Author Jon Mooallem begins by giving the history of the self storage unit which seems to be quintessentially American.  The article is pretty depressing.  I find storage units fascinating and the article still depressed me.  How could it not?  It gives an account of an older man who is a veteran and lives in his truck, keeping all of his possessions in a storage unit because he is in deep credit card debt.

Why are storage units so American?  This accumulation of uselessness is heartbreaking.  What is it that we think these broken toaster ovens, boxes of books that aren’t that great, Tupperware containers without lids and old clothes will bring us?  Why do we have such a hard time letting go?

This makes me think of the Beijing artist Song Dong’s exhibit, Projects 90 at MoMA that I saw this summer.

Here is a link to MoMA’s site about the show:

I spent a long time looking at this accumulation of materials.  And I took a lot of pictures which I will add below.  The story of the exhibit is sad and amazing, but nothing can compare with seeing it in person.  The materials are categorized so beautifully.  I like the mingling of sadness and beauty that I felt while experiencing this piece.  I guess that is the same way I feel about storage units.

empty plastic bottles

empty plastic bottles

toothepaste tubes

toothepaste tubes



Part of why Song Dong’s piece resonates so much with me is that the objects themselves are so colorful and beautiful and seeing them collected together strengthens each individual object.  But the objects are inherently sad.  There is a lingering stillness and death about each one.  They are dead objects whose purpose is no longer useful, but they were kept and there was an unwillingness to let them go.

Daniel Harris talks about objects in the Quaintness chapter and the anthropomorphism that we put onto those objects.  We think that old homes retain the essence of their former owners, and we feel the same way about furniture and everyday objects.  I must say that I am someone that fully subscribes to this idea however irrational it may be.  But usually this anthropomorphism happens to expensive Victorian chairs, and old pianos, and drafty houses, and not everyday mass produced items.  We don’t think of new computers as having this quality, or empty tubes of toothpaste.  Which is why the Song Dong exhibit really floored me.  Here is all this stuff, trash really, and I was feeling some essence off of it.  I was feeling the artist and his mother.  I was feeling the sorting and the collecting and the refusal to throw away.

Maybe I am sensitive to this coming from recently cleaning out my grandmother’s home when she passed away in 2007?  Or maybe I am just a sentimental person?  But I have to question how our feelings towards objects have changed now that we own almost nothing that is not mass-produced.  I think that this idea is really relevant to our discussion and questioning of kitsch.  What do we value?  And why?

First Discussion: Ironic Mustaches, Teenage Angst and “What is the historic meaning of Quaint?!”

September 20, 2009

I think the first discussion was great, despite our cramped quarters on Julia’s office floor.  Thanks Julia for letting us invade your space.  The idea was suggested to move our discussion to the new coffee shop on University Avenue.  Caffeine does go well with conversation and I love coffee!

Thanks Jenn, Julia, Andrew and Charlie for discussing the readings with me.  Your feedback is greatly appreciated!

This week we discussed Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and the introduction and first three chapters of Harris’ book.  We didn’t get around to talking about the Cuteness chapter of Harris, but we did delve into the ideas of Quaintness and Coolness.  I think it is a challenging exercise to think of artists that fit each of these aesthetics.  Jenn suggested that Karen Kilimnik’s work fits into the camp category and I agree.  I also think that Hernan Bas is another contender for the camp aesthetic.  We talked about the similarities of Kilmnik and Bas in our Painting/Drawing Seminar with Ron.  It is hard for me to think of any other artists that I would put into the aesthetic of camp.  It has to be someone that looks to the past, favors the extravagant and is sincere in what they do.  Andrew suggested the CoBrA artists fit into the camp category.  I will have to do more research on their ideas, but I think aesthetically that they do.

I think that our discussion of coolness was the most exciting to me.  Andrew questioned how the hipster culture fits into the idea of cool, and we discussed poverty chic, goth culture, and the ironic mustache.

Oh Harris, you have proved to us that we are all united in consumerism and it is useless to struggle against it!  (I’m really kidding, but also totally serious!)

I think the Harris book is so important for us to read in conjunction with this discussion because it gets to the essence of kitsch.  When we get to our other book, it will be more revolving around the history of kitsch, but with Harris we are in the right now.  Why do we do what we do?  Why are some images and aesthetics powerful to us?  What is the real urban cultural mythology that is embedded in everything around us?  As artists we can not pretend that we are not surrounded and influenced by consumer culture.  We can no longer believe the myth that it is separate from us.

The discussion involving quaintness seemed to be the most disturbing to all of us.  This is the lowest of the lows in the aesthetics hierarchy.  This is Cracker Barrel.  Julia brought up the fact that she questions the usage of the word quaint and looked up its many meanings.  It is derived from a very ancient term for female genitals.  What?!!!?  I wonder if Daniel Harris knows about this?  I agree that the term quaint is not exactly what I would call this aesthetic.  I never really thought of quaintness as being a bad thing…just of it being reminiscent and nostalgic.  I think that we will have to unpack this idea of quaintness further.  This is truly confounding.

According to Harris…Quaintness is…Cracker Barrel, Renaissance Fairs, new appliances made to look old, clutter, country coziness…

There are many levels to quaintness.

We were unsure over whether Civil War re-enactments were quaint.  We will have to come back to that.  I look forward to our further discussions.

Civil War Re-Enactment Meets Ironic Mustache

Civil War Re-Enactment Meets Ironic Mustache

First Film Screening

September 15, 2009

Thanks to Julia, Charlie and Scott for attending the first Kitsch Camp film screening last Wednesday afternoon!  I think the first screening was a success and that everyone enjoyed the film very much.


There was lots of laughter whenever the monster appeared on the screen.  The first appearance of the monster’s menacing hand coming out of the water elicited several chuckles.  As the crescendo of the music and the action built, we were quietly watching and then unitedly giggling.



We will discuss the film tomorrow (Wednesday Sept 16) at 4pm in Julia’s office.  All are welcome!

I really enjoyed the film.  I especially loved the beautiful underwater scenes of the blissfully unaware beauty swimming at the surface of the water and the monster swimming below.  The water changed scene to scene from being murky to inky but the monster was unchanged.  His face portrayed no emotion whether he was killing, drugged or on the hunt.  There is a real sincerity in this film.  That simple sincerity was charming.  I loved the plastic monster, the beautiful shots of the springs of North Florida, the pseudo-science of the plot, and the settings of both boat and grotto.

There is no safe place in this film.  The monster is not safe in his grotto as he is invaded by the scientists.  The boat is not safe for the scientists from the monster.  And the lagoon is anything but a neutral space.  The scientists drug the water and use it as their spear-hunting grounds.

Just as there is no safe place, there is no safe character in this film.  Everyone participates in the hunt or be hunted mentality.  While watching the film, I wanted to feel a softness for the monster, but it was not there.  Maybe it was the unyielding mask that was his face, but I felt nothing for him.

I felt less for the human characters.  I liked listening to the easy ways they spoke and argued with one another, but they were virtually indistinguishable from one another; a crew bent on capture or murder.  I think that the real subject of the film, for me, was the landscape.  These beautiful trees and waterways that are so much a part of my personal landscape.  In the film they represented something far away for the desired viewer–the mysterious Amazon.  But for me they represented a closeness…something I know to be true.

Somehow everything about this film makes sense to me.  Maybe it is embedded in my consciousness?  Even though I had never seen it before, something about it was in my memory.

Karen Kilimnik

September 5, 2009

Julia gave me an article on our first meeting to look over and think about.  The article was, “Karen Kilimnik: Fearless Diller” by Matthew Debord.  It appeared in Art/Text in the fall issue of 1999.

I have been familiar with Kilimnik and a fan of her work for a while.  I like her work the best when it appears in an installation setting.  Her ability to pair her work with ornate interiors and hanging crystal chandeliers is really exciting to me.  I think that would be the ideal situation to view her paintings; in a space that she had created for them.

My favorite piece by her is the “Red Room” installation she created for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.  Read a review of that exhibition by Roberta Smith here:


I want to think about Kilimnik’s work in reference to our topic of “contemporary kitsch”.  This is something that will probably come up in future blog posts again and in relation to our discussions of other artists.  I’m not sure if I think her work is kitsch, probably I think it would fall into the realm of camp more (or at least Susan Sontag’s idea of camp (which I will discuss further in my next blog post.))  (But then again, I am completely at a loss at this time of what I think kitsch actually means right this moment.)

The reason I want to classify it as camp rather than kitsch comes down to two factors.  As I have been reading more about both aesthetic ideas, I think that Kilimnik’s work references more high culture than low.  The links to royalty and the leisure pursuits of the upper class are hard to ignore although they are often coupled with influences of past and contemporary popular culture.  The source materials of her paintings is vast, but a lot of it points towards a nostalgic view of both the 1970s and the Romantic period.  The nostalgia of the past echoes into her vision of the present and it clouds the paintings and installations with more than a bit of campiness.

I know that these paintings are problematic for a lot of people in the art world.  Even in my experience of graduate school, I have found people either love her work or are completely opposed to it.  I loved it from the moment that I first saw it.  I didn’t question her style of painting or the content of it.  It just made sense to me. Coming from this viewpoint, I found Debord’s writing on Kilimnik to be completely insulting.  His reading of her work was all over the place and I felt that the majority of the time it was a personal attack on Kilimnik and had nothing at all to do with her work.

The most problematic part of the article was when he talked about a top 10 list that she created for the September 1998 issue of Artforum.  It was like he was expecting her top 10 list to just contain references to high art, but she wrote about all sorts of things that were of influence to her including the cinema.  He even went so far as to criticize her grammar in the list.  What’s the matter Debord?  Feeling a little threatened?  Is that why you had to be so mean?  I can’t help but think that if another (perhaps male) artist had written a top 10 list that included references to cinema, theater, and popular culture he would probably be praised for being so multi-faceted.  I think there is something about this work that brings out the meanness of people that don’t get it.  And it is strange.  I don’t understand how people could hate this work.

For me there are many layers to this work.  It is not shallow or unintelligent.  In the end, Debord calls Kilimnik’s work an “art drug.”  Despite all Debord’s protests, he couldn’t help but be a little bit enchanted by it.