The cult of kitsch is alive and kicking, its disciples not such a rare species as one might think! Unlike traditional antiques, where items are studiously classified according to an era, style or maker, graded for rarity, beauty and delicacy, praised for craftsmanship or quality of media, in the world of kitsch nothing is sacred. It’s difficult to categorise, other than to say that it is the opposite of all the above, revels in being undiscriminating, and relishes this distinction.
Although kitsch has been around since the mid to late 19th century, in the 1860s it applied to the art market in Munich, and a decade later described cheap, populist pictures and sketches; the term was later to include music. The term ‘kitsch’ was popularised in the 1930s, but nowadays, it encompasses just about anything clumsily copied and of an overly sentimental nature. It was once seen as a threat to culture.
Mass-production influenced all aspects of popular culture, and manufacturers were quick to supply customer demands for cheap and cheerful products, usually made from plastics, metal, wood and ceramics. In the post-war era, Japan, Hong Kong and later Taiwan, copied anything and everything, filling an insatiable market for consumables.
Kitsch seemingly has no formula (other than lots of negatives when attempting to define it). It follows no rules, is unoriginal, has no boundaries in taste or time, never heard of subtlety, ignores anything that might hint at good manners or quality, design or colour principles. Yet, unwittingly, we all know what it is when we see it!
Whether we like it or not, kitsch abounds in every aspect of our everyday lives, and quelle horreur, any one of us could probably find a piece of kitsch lurking somewhere around our home, because tacky as it might be, it’s practical, been inherited, handmade for us or given as a gift, or you’ve let your guard down and bought a cheap knick-knack from the local secondhand shop because it will cheer up your pot plant or look cute on a window sill.
You don’t have to be a snob to know kitsch is mawkish and not universally appreciated. So how is it that an object that is to most eyes cheap, garish, shoddy trash – over-sentimental, badly-made, gaudy, often downright ugly – appeals to anyone? Seems that IS the appeal. For lovers of kitsch there is no rhyme or reason. It’s encapsulated in the Roy Slaven persona of ClubVeg mantra - “Too much is just NEVER enough.”
No matter our background, none can escape for we’ve all grown up with it; as once innocent children, who didn’t love the little novelty dust-catchers on the shelves? We didn’t know if they’d come from Wedgwood, Wade or a chainstore, they were just cute and colourful, and begging to be dropped by unsteady little fingers.
In true cult style, kitsch trends are always seeking The Next Big Thing. Generations have always and will always be amused to see the most mundane household objects, mass-produced paintings, souvenirs or china knick-knacks from our past adopted and acquire superstar status in kitsch’s parallel universe, when once we’d barely given any of it a glance.
A good example is the Anchor Hocking Fire King peach lustre kitchen collection which enjoyed phenomenal success in the 1950s and sixties and no Australian kitchen was without some part of the range. They were attractively flashy, especially the Peach Lustre range, but essentially just sturdy practical wares with the distinction of keeping food or drink hot, a unique marketing feature of the day.
Among the most unique are the handmade objects, some produced in numbers, others one-offs but clearly having a kitsch zeitgeist. Novel objects were created from natural barks, seed pods, lucky stones, shells, timbers, and whatever was at hand, then perhaps enhanced with a commercial doll or carved wooden animal head. Handmade golliwogs using old fabrics, animals created from carved wood or cleverly crafted in metal by a craftsman also hold great appeal, as much for their resourcefulness as their individuality.
Mulga wood is another popular decorative that has gone on to become a popular kitsch classic, as it was selected for the beauty of the timbercut, shaped, varnished, and fashioned into an infinite number of useful coasters, bottle coasters, desktop inkwells and pen holders, ashtrays, and paperweights.
From the resourceful between-the-wars era to the Sixties, kitsch becomes a completely new creature. Flower Power dominated every facet of decoration, with orange and yellow the most popular colourways, and the daisy was flower of the universe. Hard clear plastics, resin and glass were the new media and mass-produced into a multitude of designs.
The Seventies brought mismatched everything, Gonks, Smurfs, Troll dolls, and the great 1977 sci-fi cult classic Star Wars, which initiated the franchising of movie merchandise, not just notable because it was the first, but remarkable because it remains the most successful in the history of movie merchandising. Its first three movies were responsible for some of the best and worst kitsch, even though George Lucas kept tight control on products and manufacturers and spawned a galaxy of merchandise while Superheroes such as Batman swamped the Eighties, and yet another cultural icon was born.
Love it or leave it, the kitsch zeitgeist has only just begun.