Kitsch and Perception: Towards a New ‘Aesthetic from Below’

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Although kitsch is one of the most important concepts of twentieth-century art theory, it has gone widely unnoticed by empirical aesthetics. In this article we make a case that the study of kitsch is of considerable heuristic value for both empirical aesthetics and art perception. As a descriptive term, kitsch appears like a perfect example of hedonic fluency. In fact, the frequently invoked opposition of kitsch and art reflects two types of aesthetic experience that can be reliably distinguished in terms of processing dynamics: a disfluent one that promises new insights but requires cognitive elaboration (art), and a fluent one that consists of an immediate, unreflective emotional response but leaves us with what we already know (kitsch). Yet as a derogatory word, kitsch draws our attention to a general disregard for effortless emotional gratification in modern Western aesthetics that can be traced back to eighteenth-century Rationalism. Despite all efforts of Pop Art to embrace kitsch and to question normative values in art, current models of aesthetic liking—including fluency-based ones—still adhere to an elitist notion of Modern art that privileges style over content and thereby excludes what is essential not only for popular taste and Postmodern art but also for premodern artistic production: emotionally rich content. Revisiting Fechner’s (Vorschule der Aesthetik, 1876) criticism of highbrow aesthetics we propose a new aesthetic from below (Aesthetik von Unten) that goes beyond processing characteristics by taking content- and context-related associations into account.

Kitsch and Perception: Towards a New ‘Aesthetic from Below’

in Art & Perception

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Figures

  • View in gallery

    Mother and Child as a universal kitsch subject (A) and Mary, Mother of Jesus as a devotional modification of this theme (B). Drawings adapted by the first author.

  • View in gallery

    Henry Moore (1961): Reclining Mother and Child. Drawing adapted by the first author.

  • View in gallery

    (A) Jacques Villon (1952): Maternity. (B) Max Ernst (1926): The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses. Drawings adapted by the first author.

  • View in gallery

    (A) Egyptian figurine of Isis nursing Horus from the 7th century B.C. (B) Christian-Orthodox icon showing the Mother of God. Drawings adapted by the first author.

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