The New Kitsch: Two-Minute Art

Alan Behr in Culture Kiosque:


The appearance of two new books of contemporary art allows us to pause and consider the power of New Kitsch. We needn’t pause that long, however, because true to the aesthetic of New Kitsch, each of those books takes no longer than two minutes to absorb. Given the time pressures and multiple distractions of contemporary life, two minutes may be all that a book on any subject can hope to obtain from a modestly attentive reader. When, after all, was the last time that anyone other than academics or students carved out time for a serious novel? While sharing the speakers’ platform at the New York Public Library with Günter Grass recently, Norman Mailer remarked that the people who trouble themselves even to write those novels will soon be regarded as eccentric as the authors of verse plays.

Extrapolating from Mailer’s prognosis, it won’t be long before all books will completely reveal themselves in less than the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee, but in the meantime, we have the contemporary art world—that charmed coalition of aesthetic social climbers—to bring us our quickie reads. Two recent entries stand out: one from Marilyn Minter (b. 1948, Shreveport, Louisiana), an artist who seems unafraid to try her hand at any two-dimensional medium, and the other by Charlie White (b. 1972, Philadelphia), a photographer first and last.

We must distinguish the New Kitsch sensibility of these two artists from that of the masters of Old Kitsch (formerly known simply as kitsch). Old Kitsch emphasized technique over content—or form over substance, if you will. It was characterized by excessive sentimentality and typified by once-respected, later passé (and now somewhat resurgent) painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Paul-Joseph Jamin. It was academic, simplistic and so 1890.

The New Kitsch is not sentimental. It is self-knowingly cool; but coolness, like sentimentality, is about showing off at the expense of perception and engagement.