Umberto Eco

The Structure of Bad Taste



As an easily digestible substitute for art, Kitsch is the ideal food for a lazy audience that wants to have access to beauty and enjoy it without having to make too much of an effort. According to Killy, Kitsch is largely a petty bourgeois phenomenon, the cultural pretense of a public that believes it can enjoy an original representation of the world whereas in fact it can only appreciate a secondary imitation of the primary power of the images.

Killy seems to be part of that critical tradition which has spread from Germany to a number of Anglo-Saxon countries and which, having defined Kitsch as a petty bourgeois phenomenon, has identified it with the most glaring expressions of mass culture—of an average, consumer culture.

On the other hand, Broch himself doubts whether any kind of art would exist without at least one drop of Kitsch, and Killy wonders whether the false representation of the world offered by Kitsch is, in fact, only a lie, or whether it doesn’t actually satisfy man’s unquenchable thirst for illusion. And when he refers to Kitsch as “art’s natural son,” he deliberately lets us suspect that the presence of this natural son, capable of producing an effect the moment the consumer demands it instead of venturing into the much more difficult and exclusive production of a much more complex and responsible aesthetic pleasure, may well be essential to artistic life as well as to the destiny of art in society. Arguments such as these are often based on a rather ahistorical notion of art, for in fact it would be enough to consider the function fulfilled by art in other historical contexts to realize that the fact that a work is capable of producing an immediate effect has never been a reason to exclude such a work from the realm of art. If one is to believe Aristotle, in Greece art had the function of producing a psychological effect; such was, at least, the function of both music and tragedy. Whether in that particular context there was actually another meaning given to the concept of aesthetic pleasure. involving the appreciation of the form through which the effect is realized, is another question. Suffice it to say that in certain societies art is so deeply integrated with daily life that its primary function is precisely that of provoking particular reactions (ludic, religious, erotic) as effectively as possible.

The production of an effect becomes Kitsch in a cultural context in which art is seen not as technical ability (as was the case in ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages) but rather as something produced for art’s sake. According to this definition, any process that, using “artistic” means, aims at achieving a heteronomous end would fall under the more generic rubric of an “artisticity” that can assume a variety of forms but that should not be confused with art. No matter how much art I might pour into the creation of a cookie, it will never be anything more than a mere effect of artisticity, since in order to be art (in the noblest sense of the term) it would have to be appreciated for its style rather than desired for its taste.

But what allows us to say that an object whose artisticity seems to have a heteronomous end is by definition in bad taste?

A dress designed so as to enhance the charms of its wearer is not, by definition, a product of bad taste (though it would be if it drew the attention of the viewer only to the more obvious attributes of the wearer, thus reducing her personality to a mere prop for one particular physical trait). But if the production of an effect is not in itself enough to constitute an instance of Kitsch, then something else must be needed. This something else emerges out of Killy’s analysis the moment we realize that the passage he has brought to our attention wants to be considered as art. And we realize it because of the way it ostentatiously employs modes of expression that have previously appeared in works traditionally considered as works of art. In other words, Killy’s passage is Kitsch not only because it aims at producing sentimental effects but also because it is constantly trying to convince its readers that if they enjoy these effects, then they will share a privileged aesthetic experience.

To become a piece of Kitsch, a passage needs more than the linguistic factors intrinsic to the message: it also needs the author’s intent to sell it to his audience, and the audience’s intent to appreciate it. Broch is right when he says that Kitsch does not concern art so much as a certain kind of behavior, or a certain kind of person, a “Kitsch-man” who needs such a form of falsehood so that he can recognize himself in it. If we agree with this, then Kitsch will appear as a negative force, a constant mystification, an eternal escape from the responsibilities involved in the experience of art. As the theologian R. Egenter used to say, the Father of Lies would use Kitsch to alienate the masses from all notion of salvation, because he would recognize it as much more powerful, in its mystifying and consoling power, even than scandals, since these have a tendency to awaken the moral defenses of the virtuous at the very moment in which they are most effectively attacking them.

Posted: October 2018
Category: Essays