Kitsch Happens: Utilitarian Objects Rather Than Works Of Art?
This spring twelve Jack Vettriano paintings are expected to fetch up to £1.2m when auctioned at Bonham’s. Previously the personal effects of this Scottish painter – such as his first easel – sold for a total of £21,000, and brand new paintings cost anything from £48,000 to £195,000. Factor in the estimated £500,000 he makes a year in print royalties and it’s no wonder sculptor David Mach has commented that he probably makes more money than Damien Hirst. Indeed, with insane prices like these we are in the realms of Hirst and Koons. But there is a major difference, and that is that while Vettriano is a painter, he is not necessarily an artist, and the reasoning behind this lies in that hugely misunderstood term: kitsch.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin defined kitsch as a utilitarian object rather than work of art, “offering instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort”. Koons and Vettriano rely on a visual language that characterises kitsch: instantly appealing; stimulating universal visual pleasure on the most basic level; a certain emotional lightness, and motifs that are commonly seen as traditional or retrospective. Yet Vettriano works to be taken entirely and completely at face value, while Koons – whatever your opinion on him – never fails to inspire intellectual response. Balloon dogs, terriers composed of flowers, the glossifying of Michael Jackson with Bubbles and plagiarised adverts from the 80s are all deliberately chosen to piss off as many people as possible, to spark debate, to infuriate that the state of art is now akin to the filthy transaction of obscene levels of cash. His use of the saccharine and twee is a very knowing one.
By contrast, Vettriano’s works are inconsequential scenes populated by inconsequential figures, staggeringly consistent in their total and utter lack of profundity. The paint is offensive in its total dazzling inoffensiveness: there is a reason you’ve seen ‘The Singing Butler’ on a zillion greetings cards. Its evocation of a dreamlike, escapist world translates as a hellish utopia of infinite, directionless wistfulness. Vettriano paintings certainly piss me off, but for their total lack of contribution to the ever changing beast that is the art world. According to Google, other people (let’s call them shoppers) search for Edward Hopper, who shares a similar painting style based on areas of block colour rather than distinct linearity and figures within a defined space, usually interiors. Yet Hopper has something deeper and unnerving within its surface: a distinct sadness, expressing his perceptions of the melancholy of American society with the iconic ‘Nighthawks’. Vettriano expresses… a limp wristed soft-core erotic fantasy, of women ‘tastefully’ (no pun intended) performing oral sex, with not the slightest trace of irony to cover its modesty.
In his 1939 essay on kitsch, American art critic Clement Greenberg identified it as a universal literacy: at heart a visual language that is defined by popularity, of its easy consumption by the people. If we regard the avant-garde as progressive art, kitsch is its retrospective opposite, achieving nothing but comfortable reflection and rehashing of well-trodden motifs. No wonder Koons is keen to defy this moniker, instead calling his works ‘banal’: they move art forward using motifs that look back, defined crucially by irony and purpose. Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal suggested the fluffy, soporific qualities of kitsch made it the preferred art of dictators, perfect for the anaesthetising of the people. Vettriano perpetuates paintings that operate as intellectual opiates rather than challenging us to think and evaluate our lives.
Sure, I’m opening myself up to accusations of snobbery. I like pretty, comforting images as much as the next person, just as I’d choose a pretty tea cosy for my house: that is the root of Vettriano’s popularity. It is just the huge amount of value attached to these paintings that is inexplicable. Perhaps they are the art world version of celebrities: people love them and feel attached to their familiarity, but there isn’t really much more to it than that.
Image1: Jeff Koons Winter Bears 1988 Image II: The Singing Butler By Jack Vetriano © The artist all rights reserved