Matei Calinescu
Faces of Modernity

Earlier in the century, when modernism's victory over pompier academicism (one of the most gorgeous and self-righteous forms of kitsch) and other similar corruptions of taste seemed irreversible, the art world indulged in the optimistic illusion that the benevolent and sinister monster of kitsch would never again haunt its precincts. After a period of half triumph in the domain of 'high art,' kitsch was believed to be safely confined to the flea market or to the obscure—if thriving—industry of cheap imitations, humble religious art objects, vulgar souvenirs, and kinky antiques. But the polymorphous monster of pseudoart had a secret and deep-rooted power that few modernists were aware of—the power to please, to satisfy not only the easiest and most widespread popular aesthetic nostalgias but also the middle class's vague ideal of beauty, which still is, in spite of the angry reactions of various avant-gardes, the commanding factor in matters of aesthetic consumption and, therefore, production.

Other factors and influences have helped the recent reappearance of kitsch in the domain of high art. An extremely important 'strategic' advantage has been the tendency of kitsch to lend itself to irony. From Rimbaud's praise of 'poetic crap' and 'stupid paintings' through Dada and surrealism, the rebellious avant-garde has made use of a variety of techniques and elements directly borrowed from kitsch for their ironically disruptive purposes. Thus, when the avant-garde became fashionable, especially after World War II, kitsch came to enjoy a strange kind of negative prestige even in some of the most sophisticated intellectual circles. This seems to have been one of the main factors in the emergence of the curious camp sensibility, which, under the guise of ironic connoisseurship, can freely indulge in the pleasures offered by the most awful kitsch. Camp cultivates bad taste—usually the bad taste of yesterday—as a form of superior refinement. It is as if bad taste, consciously acknowledged and pursued, actually could outdo itself and become its own clear-cut opposite. This is at least what Susan Sontag suggests in her 'ultimate' statement on camp, namely, 'It is beautiful because it is awful.' Externally, however, camp is often hard, indeed impossible, to distinguish from kitsch.

The new camp fashion, born not long ago in intellectual (originally homosexual) circles in New York City, rapidly swept over the entire United States and has contributed substantially to the kitsch Renaissance in the world of high art. Still, one has reason to be surprised when one learns that a unanimously esteemed museum—with one of the best collections of modern art in the world—can house a show consisting mainly of magnificent kitsch, as redeemed by the sensibility of camp. In his New York Times review of the big exhibition of contemporary American art organized at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 1974, Hilton Kramer suggestively groups the numerous painters representative of the camp spirit (the 'grand master' being Andy Warhol) under the label of 'The Flea Market School.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.