A bitch about rich kitsch

Avant-garde and kitsch“, an early essay by the once almighty US art critic Clement Greenberg, defined kitsch as “ersatz culture” manufactured for the urban masses

… who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

But for this definition to make sense there must also be this thing called high culture,

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.

In other words, kitsch is high culture (or at least its mannerisms) adaptively reused to profitably entertain rather than enlighten the unwashed masses.


(Nymph by J H Lynch)

To qualify as high culture a work must embody self referential values to be found only in art, values lost on the vulgar masses but universally recognisable by the educated and the perceptive … and it’s here that Greenberg, at this point in his life ostensibly a marxist, gives the game away. Suddenly the holy trinity of wealth, power and art are brought together into an eternal truth, proof that the ruling class really is superior, while kitsch is a sign that the inferior masses deserve crap…..

There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful — and therefore the cultivated — and on the other the great mass of the exploited and poor — and therefore the ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.

Well, what a topsy turvy old world we now live in. This eternal truth of ruling class ideology has been shattered once and for all by the esteemed bagmaker Louis Vuitton who have just produced a masterpiece of kitsch surpassing all others, and they’ve done it by the exact process that Greenberg describes. They have taken the make do bricollage and adaptive reuse that has been the hallmark of working class street fashion and outsider fashion for a century or more, codified it, rendered it meaningless and exploited it. As Greenberg put it, they have borrowed street culture’s “devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, convert[ed] them into a system, and discard[ed] the rest. ”

Yes, it’s the Louis Vuitton Tribute Patchwork bag, the most expensive handbag in the world (US$42,000 in a limited edition of 24)

made in two different versions by sewing together twenty or more of the other most expensive handbags in the world

in a bizarre parody of the now familiar adaptive reuse patchwork style. Who said you can’t carry more than one handbag at a time? Even the hilarious fashion victim site Bagsnob was agog with horror at its sheer vulgarity. And of course it was almost immediately faked!

Greenberg has been debunked for thirty years or more and his ravings generally recognised as little more than ideology dressed up as art criticism (although many in the art world still identify with his sense of self appointed superiority and even occasionally try to revive the mummified corpse of his sociopathic formalist aesthetics). The release of this handbag may be a monumentally trivial event but it is just one more small proof of how often he was wrong. Class condescension is essential to the concept of kitsch and if kitsch is universal then it’s a meaningless term.

This may seem an irrelevant thing to be commenting on until you think of the implications. Ruling class ideology in every era aims to emphasise and legitimise the the power of those at the top while undermining the power and initiative and creativity of those at the bottom – the concept of kitsch is an illustration of how items that could best be described as simply derivative in design and shoddy in manufacture,


(Crying boy by Bragolin)

and that should reflect badly on their manufacturer instead become markers and enforcers of low status in the viewer.

Repeatedly in our world we see that great ideas in fact come from everywhere but more of them come from below because there are more people down there, writing open source software, rehearsing their bands in their garage, making stencils and graffiti, inventing, you name it. That’s why it’s far more likely that most of the solutions to our climate change disaster will come from cultural innovation at the bottom, they will be small scale and distributed, not large scale and centralised, and they will involve endless personal epiphanies and tiny adaptive creativities.

Meanwhile, most of the resistance to reform will come from Greenberg’s supposedly superior “minority of the powerful and cultivated” who will defend climate destruction to the point of criminality because they benefit from it and then they will try to impose large scale top down “solutions” (eg “clean” coal and nuclear) that maintain or even increase the power of the socio-economic memes that got us into this mess.

This bag should stand as permanent reminder of how clueless, vulgar and basically unworthy many of the “powerful and cultivated” really are.

2 thoughts on “A bitch about rich kitsch

  1. Bernice

    Appropriation – I sorta hope it’s an in-joke at LV. Or symptomatic of how disjointed our neo-liberal society has become, that the Castlereagh Street boutique shoppers are oblivious to the bag’s more than passing resemblance to something from Paddy’s Market.
    But in reference to the NMA & Murcutt’s notion of the nationwide scattering of regional museums, it’s the manner in which so many of the objects at NMA end up as ethnographic post-it notes of some imagined Aussie past which I find worrying. I thought your point about regional & district museums struggling with the fall-off in volunteers interesting. More affluent retirees aren’t going to sit in draughty dusty public buildings, trying to warm themselves with a single bar radiator & rattling a goll coin donation tin at the two families & lost Telstra techie who wander in? & the notion that the local museum is well, rather daggy, unable to manage the bright lights, AV display & sexy signage of the NAMs & War Memorials of the world, so therefore why bother?
    No funding, no training, low levels of engagement with bodies such as CAN or Museums Australia, little support from local government. I’m often amazed that any of them survive at all.

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