Kitsch at Auction: A Case Study

On June 22, 1964, the Supreme Court judges handed down a decision on the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio.  The question at hand was whether to uphold or reverse the lower court’s decision that the film The Lovers was pornographic and could thus be censored under obscenity laws.  In the concurring opinion Justice Potter Stewart famously argued that: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”  In struggling to define a subject that is almost unidentifiable, Justice Stewart conceded that he could not, but that he could identify it on sight.

Print on canvas by Donna Neary. Sold January 9. 2013 at Quinn's Auction Galleries, Falls Church, VA.

Print on canvas by Donna Neary. Sold January 9. 2013 at Quinn’s Auction Galleries, Falls Church, VA.

A similar vein of logic seems to run through writings on kitsch.  Though many have attempted to define kitsch with varied success, the reader gets the idea that the writers “know it when they see it.”  In looking at various examples of kitsch on display at the Quinn’s Auction Galleries Wednesday Treasure Sale, one can begin to understand the struggle.   One print on canvas with a plaque that reads ““…To Execute the Laws of the Union…” / The Whiskey Rebellion / Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, October 3, 1794 / By Donna Neary” proves to be a problematic object that falls into different categories depending on the writer/judge’s opinion.Though some may argue that the image of a writer/judge is an incorrect one, it is, in fact, an eye-opening way of looking at various author’s kitsch criticism.  The authors Clement Greenberg and Umberto Eco set themselves up as judges wielding the litmus test of culture, judging the worthy from the unworthy along the cultural standards to which they subscribe.  Specifically, Umberto Eco points out that kitsch is determined by those “with taste” i.e. good taste.  Furthermore, the pornography comparison is also relevant as the above authors obviously find something abhorrent and offensive in kitsch as opposed to the ideal art.

The object in question is a painted image printed on canvas and framed.  It was originally commissioned as part of the “Heritage Series” by the United States National Guard which depicts engagements from Colonial America to the present day.  It is figural and depicts a noble George Washington on horseback receiving a salute from an infantryman while, the viewer may presume, they gathered to face the men of the Whiskey Rebellion.  To aid in identifying the scene, there is a brass plaque affixed to the frame of the work which identifies the subject matter and the painter.

Though both Eco and Greenberg would relegate this painting to the trash heap of history along with the majority of non-elite material culture, the painting is still appreciated and was indeed purchased by an art or antiques dealer either for their own pleasure or in hopes that the je ne sais quoi that drew them to the piece will now catch another’s eye for purchase.  Though the item is a printed canvas rather than a painting and, arguable, not a very “good” painting in the first place as far as execution is concerned, it is still a valid piece of material culture even if it is not in high taste.  The label of kitsch would be applied by the authors, but is not necessarily helpful.  Unlike the initial pornography example, the stakes are very different.  Though Clement Greenberg believed that kitsch would mean the death of high art (and perhaps in his opinion it is now dead), there is not the issue of first amendment protection at hand.  For most people, their working definition of kitsch is likely similar to Justice Stewart’s I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach.  The stakes are just as high though in that the determination of kitsch versus high culture still affects what is preserved and studied in society and history.

There has forever been a preference for preserving the remnants of high society and high culture as opposed to those of mid and low culture.  To society as a whole, the term kitsch is demeaning and degrading.  Kitsch is only helpful in othering the majority of production to non-art status in an attempt to increase the status of that which is determined by the taste-making upper echelon as art.  As a result, these non-worthy items are overlooked of any potential value.

Up for auction at Woody Auction, Kansas. LiveAuctioneers.com

Up for auction at Woody Auction, Kansas. LiveAuctioneers.com

It is interesting to consider though that kitsch is not judged the same in the market or at auction as it is by museums or academics.  In the low to mid-range sales, original oil paintings are often out-paced by a particularly collectible Hummel figurine or a mass-produced set of collector’s plates.  This market is immune in many ways from aesthetic judgement.  Antiques dealers are there to purchase items that will yield a profit and are somewhat blind to the Taste.   As much as high society or those trained in art might abhor the work of Thomas Kinkade, it is profitable, and their is a market for it, thus it is put up at auction.  Items are curated by an auction professional on the basis of what will make the most profit for the auction house rather than what is seen as beautiful by a particularly elite class.  The aesthetic judgment returns though for larger or more high-profile sales.  For example, though a Thomas Kinkade painting like “Bambi’s First Year” would probably sell for between $300 and $500 on the secondary market, it would likely be excluded from a fine and decorative arts sale because it may not fit everyone’s view of “fine art” while an Irving Amen oil on canvas which generally sell for between $300 and $600 would be included proving that curation based on aesthetic judgment occurs even within the auction marketplace.

Do you have items that you love even though they may be considered kitsch?  Tell us about them!

About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

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