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

In: Art & Perception
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  • 1 1University of Bamberg, Department of General Psychology and Methodology, Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, Germany
  • 2 2Bamberg Graduate School of Affective and Cognitive Sciences (BaGrACS), Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, Germany
  • 3 3Forschungsgruppe EPÆG (Ergonomics, Psychological Æsthetics, Gestalt), Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, Germany

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.

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