Kitsch Biennale 2010 in Palazzo Cini, Venice,
the painting "Sandra armed" by Odd Nerdrum exposed
among the masterpieces of the Cini collection:
the continuity of tha tradition.
" If you fall asleep on a horse , the horse will stop at the rocks.
Art is a car, kitsch is a horse. "
Trying to explain in a few words the more than positive meaning that Odd Nerdrum wanted to reassign to the term "KITSCH", usually used to describe works never worthy of particular attention according to the criteria of the devious and so-called " fine arts " , is not an easy undertaking . I hope that the aphorism of the Master and the next illuminating essay written by the painter Jan-Ove Tuv, one of his elder students, may serve to clarify a bit the ideas for those who who are hearing about it for the first time .
Other argument essays and explanatory writings will follow about what in my opinion is one of the most interesting contemporary philosophical speech, having great potential for a positive action in our world and that is already reaping many benefits.
WITH ALL DUE RESPECT.
Edvard Munch had several houses. Coming to one of them in order to paint, he had often forgotten
the keys. So he had to find someone who could open the door. !e person concerned would
receive half a Krone for the job. But every now and then, Munch had forgotten money as well
At one such occasion, he tried giving away a print instead. Of course he meant well, but the reaction
was merciless. Accept such things? No thanks let me see the money!
In a similar situation, facing another locked door and without cash, he compensated his helper
with an etching. !is man, unable to say no, accepted. Finally home, he let his wife take care of
the matter. She stapled it onto the wall of the outdoor toilet, in the company of cut-outs from
Later, the same man received a big painting as payment. Again he felt there was no choice, and
brought the piece of canvas home. His wife, helpful as always, stapled it onto the loft ceiling. As
next Christmas approached, she cleaned the house. !e painting was carefully burnt and the cutouts
thrown along with the print. New magazines had arrived, with new illustrations.
Inger Alver Gløersen describes this in her book !e Munch I met. It is the funniest thing, though.
Several times, as I have recounted the story, something strange has occurred: People start laughing.
Presumably they regard it as entertainment? Personally, I would be glad to relinquish accounts
like these, so we could focus on the works. However, such stories manifest the necessity of
respect and what happens when it is non-existent, or fades. Greek sculptures with heads, arms
and legs chopped off. A third of the 17th century painter Georges de la Tour`s works eradicated;
for centuries he did not have a name. Consequently, his works could not possibly be of any
!e Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset once said that the hearts of men remain the same. I believe
this is correct and further, that these hearts face a choice between two cultures.
!e first culture is based on a single tenet: quality and talent is measured by what you know. !is
culture always exists, but varies in strength. It is the precondition for an Ilya Repin, who became
the most celebrated painter of tsarist Russia. Even though he was of non-noble descent. His skills
could not be disregarded.
Repin`s work sprang from the European culture, in turn born out of seven centuries of Greek
Humanism. !is is a mindset which holds a painter to be more skilled the more he can breathe
life into what he paints. It is the story of Pygmalion, who created a marble sculpture so vivid that
she stepped down as a living woman.
!e most profound victory of this culture is that it made the talents of man his safety net.
!e other culture assigns grades according to who you know. !is path is also present in varying
degrees. A couple of years ago, the German magazine art interviewed several prominent curators.
!eir opinions were unanimous: Skill in handcraft is an outdated litmus test for judging quality
in art. In such a situation, the talent becomes dependant on personal sympathy or antipathy. !is
obviously affects the participants of this exhibition: !eir skills have become a disadvantage.
Notwithstanding, the contemporary art world experiences as little envy at the sight of their talents,
as the Christian iconoclasts envied the Greek sensuality. !e iconoclasts simply knew that it
was ideologically wrong. Assured by this, they could oust all respect for the ability to transform
stone into soft skin.
The comparison might seem exaggerated. Rembrandt`s paintings are not thrown onto the fire.
Rodin`s bronzes are not melted down or drowned at sea. And of course curators do not mind
old master works as long as they are executed by an old master. !e art world needs them as
forerunners of 21st century art. Contemporary masters would disarrange the official art history.
!ere would be no improvement if the development went from Rembrandt to Rembrandt.
Still, the curator is more cultivated than the traditional iconoclast. !e sanctions are more subtle.
A curator does not burn a beautiful portrait or crush a marble figure. He laughs; he does not
choose it for an exhibition. As a consultant, he gives advice not to buy such things. !e curator
knows that a sincere, figurative work is wrong ideologically. On the whole, this way of judging a
work is signified by how its qualities are never taken into consideration.
!e painters and sculptors in this catalogue share certain fundamental values. !eir discipline is
based on handcraft, the motifs are sincere and the faces are devoid of irony. !ey are united in a
quest for the archetypical, detached from time.
In order to attain this, one studies anatomy, composition, handling of paint and clay, etc. One
hears of Michelangelo`s forgery of a Greek Cupid figure. Upon his exposure, he received the
commission for the famed Bacchus his crime proved his skill! One smiles, thinking of Leonardo.
He bragged about a painting of the Madonna. She was so beautiful and vividly painted that
the customer implored him to paint over her religious attributes. !e man desired her, but was
plagued by feelings of guilt. In the end he had to send her away from his house.
And one hears that Michelangelo and Leonardo were great artists.
Yet, art shares the fate of many other words, in that its meaning is the exact opposite of what
one thinks. Anyone who seeks to know more, may find Larry Shiners !e Invention of Art helpful.
Originally, there were liberal arts (such as mathematics and logic) and mechanical arts (such as
navigation and gardening). Up until then, art had been a neutral term for discipline, science
or knowledge. It referred to rational knowledge, which could be learned and taught.
But then in the 1740`s - painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and music were gathered
under the category fine arts. In and of itself, this was less grave. However, that all changed
as (mostly) German philosophers started discussing what values unified this new group of arts.
!ey were determined to separate them from the other groups, with the result that handcraft had
nothing to do with the matter - it seemed to supply the idea with a greater nimbus of spirituality.
In fact, it was made clear that the fine arts represented the opposite of handcraft. (To separate
this new meaning from the older, I will in the following write Art when referring to the fine
arts). !e philosopher Kant is unmistakably clear: You are only making Art when you do not
know what you are doing. !us creates a true genius. !is is the background for the admiring
tone of the phrase Oh, no-o it`s more than just handcraft!
But it did not stop at that. Gripping the audience emotionally was derided as barbaric. Kant
had an idea of the perfect, objective judgment, in which there was no room for sentimentality
or pathos. Art was to be contemplated with indifference.
Later, the philosopher Hegel said Art should reflect its time, and participate in progress. His
addition left little for the talent to rejoice in, as a work without relation to a time was rendered
worthless. Hegel identified progress with the unwinding of handcraft and sensual representation.
!ese apprehensions fertilize the laughter of the curator.
Yet Leonardo knew nothing of them. He was proud of his ability to fool the viewer. It proved his
skills! He tried to get out of time, and advised others to do the same (by not painting contemporary
clothing, f. ex.). Despite this, Art historians refer to him as an Artist. What they gain from
this is obvious: it makes video Art the climax of a long tradition in the face of the fact that
Leonardo represented opposite values.
!e nature of their logic is familiar: 1) Artists follow their time. 2) Leonardo was an Artist. 3)
Leonardo would have made video Art today. So saying, his aura is injected into the contemporary
Artist. Blood transfusion as an academic principle. It is like publishing a history of the combustion
engine from the Greek horse to the modern trailer.
So how is the standing today for those who want to tell stories through painting and sculpture? I
once asked a gallerist what she looked for in a work: originality or quality? Originality was her
immediate response. If a painter had entered her gallery with a Rembrandt portrait made today,
but at the same level of quality she would have rejected it.
Did she understand the consequences of what she said? In such a culture, an Ilya Repin does not
stand a chance.
As the Art values spread with the advancement of the 19th century, the ability to perceive talent
was gradually corroded. A successful composition became a lie; a nude false; a sincere face
unmodern and untrue. Kitsch. A difficult word? To the curator it has the same ring as talent.
Words are not neutral. !ey may help or counteract people`s possibilities of seeing the work they
are standing in front of.
A word does not improve a work, but may secure its survival.
Basically, it`s H. C. Andersen`s story of the swan all over again: it was ugly by duck standards.