Student Blog Post: First year students are required to author a blog post in response to their Techno Lab 2 class. In Spring 2017, we were in Oakland, CA and Susan Hackett submitted this post in response to working with Allison Smith. For Fall 2017, first year students learned weaving in El Salvador. As they work on their blog posts, we have decided to share some examples of these student writings.


Kitsch & Art & Art & Kitsch

“The precondition for kitsch, ‘a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.” ~Clement Greenberg from Avant-Garde and Kitsch, 1939

Left image courtesy of Lourghran Gallery, Right Image courtesy of AllisonSmithStudio.com

When I heard Josh Faught speak of the ‘macrame manuals’ and ‘made for television’ movies of his background in Coeur Creve, Missouri, I have to confess, it turned a switch and set the tone for my thinking the week our Nomad/9 cohort spent working with Allison Smith in Oakland. And maybe part of that reflection back on my early life was in part, precipitated by the need to process my mother’s death in early February. But, whatever the cause, from that moment on, I began to view what we experienced — the flat-bed printer, the quilt shop with its long-arm sewing machine (that I still desperately want to ‘drive’…), the large format printer in Allison’s studio, even the ‘Protest’ quilts we collectively made — through the lens of popular culture or kitsch. Kitsch is my native culture. Aesthetically, kitsch is my mother tongue. I may try for ‘high-minded’, but, kitsch is home.

I am descended from a family of makers-people who sewed clothes, knit sweaters and mittens, built and repaired houses, farmed food and canned everything they grew. But, as a baby-boomer, I am also a member of what I suspect is the first generation to live their lives almost entirely in a manufactured bubble completely disconnected from what Karl Marx would have called ‘our means of subsistence’. We were the first generation informed by the quality programming streamed into our living rooms by our black and white television sets that we would enjoy (were enjoying?) ‘Better living, through technology’. Our 1960s food was heavily processed and so convenient — why it scarcely needed cooking! Our clothes were woven of something called ‘perma-prest’ fibers spun from the residue of dead dinosaurs and made to look crisp, neat, and tidy, while requiring little care. This was the time both Levittown and the housing projects were built and filled with young families and those millions and millions of kids who would grow up to be disparagingly called ‘baby boomers’.

These years were a wonderland of what was thought to be endless, cheap energy from fossil fuels moving our gigantic cars around streets filled with free-range kids who were turned out each day to either walk to school or entertain themselves in the great outdoors, under the casual supervision of any convenient adult within eye-or ear-shot. It was also a t time of an increasingly abundant supply of cheap, manufactured goods, sold  in the ‘discount store’ chains that slowly but surely replaced the “5 and 10s”. These were the days when the label ‘Made in Japan’ translated to “poorly made”, a cheap copy, a knock-off — the kitschiest kitsch — something every elementary school kid knew even if they had never heard the word ‘kitsch’.

I grew up surrounded by kitsch. That’s my native cultural heritage and I suspect, no offense intended, that it is your cultural heritage too. Let’s embrace it! One powerful thing for many of our cohort on this trip to Oakland, was visiting Favianna Rodriguez’ studio and hearing her speak of her 19 year old self deciding to become an artist, but realizing she needed to have an abortion to do so. And while that is moving, the really potent part was what she said next, when you admit it, say it, own it and it can’t be used to shame you. What a powerful thing to take away! And if Favianna can do this with something as deeply personal as an abortion, what would happen if we all decided to name and claim our American working class/middle class heritage in all its kitschy glory?  To own it. To admit we are probably not quite as deep or cultured as we would like others to think. And that’s ok. But here’s another thought — where Greenberg’s essay speaks of kitsch appropriating from the avant-garde, and of the avant-garde being the ‘life blood’ of kitsch, what if art and artists were to so completely claim their kitsch, as to appropriate it for their avant-garde work? And, what if they could appropriate kitsch without their art becoming kitsch?

This is exactly what makes Warhol’s screen prints of soup cans and celebrities so brilliant.; it is the foundation of Dion’s ‘Survival of the Cutest’, William Powhida and his acidic critique of the contemporary art economy, Andrea Fraser, Liza Lou and suburbia crafted entirely of tiny, humble and kitschy little beads. Allison Smith and her use of (very kitschy!) Civil War reenactments and colonial imagery. (Just a few short decades ago, many’ middle-class families filled their living rooms with suites of furniture and accessories that were called in popular (kitsch) culture ‘colonial’. This was furniture that I’m fairly certain nobody resurrected from the 18th century would find familiar. I bring this up only because this predates what I suspect many of my fellow cohort members, experienced personally as part of popular culture.)

Engaging kitsch is a really powerful tactic for an artist because it is the aesthetic ‘mother tongue’ of all of us. When you speak to Americans of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, game shows, the Mall of America, paint-by-numbers kits and Dancing with the Stars — we all get it. But, this part of our culture is so prevalent and so insidious, that to engage it, well, it’s also something like grabbing a tiger by the tail — there is always the risk of the power of kitsch to drag artwork into its ever-hungry vortex. I am certain that those artists that do choose to engage kitsch, do it with an awareness of what they are doing. This art then becomes a very powerful kind of institutional critique. In Smith’s case, it is one where the institution being critiqued is our sense of history and historical truth. And while Smith freely speaks of her involvement with craft in creating her art, I heard no direct reference to kitsch. But, then again, kitsch is kitsch. It is both the environment we inhabit and no longer “see” as well as something of “the one-legged, red-haired step-child of aesthetics”.

Image courtesy of Kiayani Douglas

Quilts and kitsch…

Roland Kiracofe showed a number of examples from his quilt-top collection. This one, is my favorite! This work functional folk-craft made with the material at hand, and kitsch. I consider  it  a wonderful example of kitsch. Consider how little time was spent on design compared to the labor-intensive implementation. The colors and patterns of fabrics don’t have much in common with each other and there doesn’t seem to be much attempt to make them work together. There’s very little sense of an attempt to make this anything other than what we see — a fairly recent implementation of pieced quilting using fabrics that appear to have been found or scavenged with an apparent goal of making use of whatever was at hand. So the question that remains, that further tilts the scales toward kitsch for me, is why was it never finished? If this quilt top reflected a need for a functional, warm quilt, why did the maker use all the time and effort into making the quilt top, but not take the shorted time required to finish it and making it functional? There’s an unwritten narrative in this piece.

It was looking at the Kiracofe’s quilt-top collection, a heart-warming ‘land of misfit toys’, that was a tipping point for me in acknowledging and accepting the kitsch of the recent quilt-making world (including my own contributions to this part of the kitsch-iverse). Many of the quilts Kiracofe showed us were not surprisingly, kitschy. Kitsch became a part of quilting in large part because of the ubiquity of quilting’s appeal. It appealed along dimensions of patriotism, (although it didn’t originate in the US); it also appealed to the DIY’ers that came of the counterculture; it appealed to fine artists like Ed Johnetta Miller of Hartford, who used fabric in lieu of paint to create imagery; it was elevated nationally by the famous “Gee’s Bend” quilts. It was, I suspect, a victim of its own accessibility and success.

There were several innovations to make quilting more available to time-starved Americans. Besides the ‘cheater cloth’ Allison told us about, there was a snip and tear method of making strips to make pieced quilts. (Ask me how I know….yes, I confess, I borrowed the book from the library and made one.) There was also a very successful set of ‘Quilt in a Day’ books and workshops that made rotary cutters and cutting mats very popular. (And yes, mea culpa — I bought the book and made a few of these as well!) Some of the quilts Roland showed us were a little difficult to comprehend. Like the one pictured below. (Note to non-quilters: The purpose of the “snip and tear” and rotary cutter/cutting matt techniques were to prevent the kind of outcome seen in the image to follow by increasing the accuracy of the pieces being cut before joining them. Both those processes also make a point of making ‘micro-corrections’ while joining pieces to prevent the kind of result shown in the next photograph.) This was the ‘What was she thinking?’ quilt. Beautiful! But really, what was she thinking? None of pieces quite fit, but still, she soldiered on at her sewing machine…

Image courtesy of Kiayani Douglas. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image courtesy of Jessica Dudek Viens. 

This is an unfinished piece in Smith’s studio. I looked at it all week, unsure of why I found it so compelling, but now, on reflection, I think I finally know. The piece was made by Smith using an image she made from a group of recently re-created Civil War era prints on fabric. She took the image and printed it on her large format printer. Once printed, she began to appliqué the printed fabric image (that now became a home-made quilters’ ‘cheater cloth’), onto another piece of linen, with a layer of quilt batting between the two fabrics.

So let’s sit with this for a moment and see where it takes us — an image is printed of a group of fabrics that are reproductions of fabrics printed over 150 years ago, that resembles a 20th century kitschy innovation (printed cheater quilt fabric) that was developed to enable time-starved folks to make an object that superficially resembles an actual piecework quilt. I love this object of Smith’s! But, what I truly love is how slyly it incorporates multiple layers of redirection and manages to rise above kitsch. I think its fair to say that the hazard of working with kitsch, is finding your art dragged into the ‘kitschy-verse’. But some artists, like Warhol, Dion, Powhida, Liza Lou and yes, Allison Smith, can turn the table on kitsch and appropriate and incorporate kitsch to meet their creative ends and ultimately turn kitsch back into art.

Paper-backed linen fabric rolling off the large format ink-jet printer at Smith’s Oakland studio.

Greenberg felt that kitsch stood in opposition to the avant-garde; that kitsch fed off the avant-garde, appropriating the parts of it that could nourish its own endless hunger for content. And that appears to be true of the early-to-mid 20th Century when he wrote his essay, But, I think we are well past that point now. Our western culture has become kitsch. From peanut butter and jelly sandwich cuisine to vacations at the Mall of America, Disney-anything, condensed books, the illuminated paintings of Thomas Kinkade, Craft Expos, Quilt-in-a-Day workshops — you get it, I’m sure. Greenberg feared the ‘middle-brow’, popular culture, kitsch if you are willing to accept my take on it, would overtake and dilute the avant-garde. Further, he was concerned about the need for income of the avant-garde practitioners; this need would both entice them to slip into creating kitsch as well as tie them to their patrons. But what Greenberg could not foresee in 1939, was the mindful way that artists — artists who I believe he (Greenberg) would have defined as avant-garde practitioners, like Warhol, Smith, Dion, Powhida, Fraser et al would fight back with the most appropriate tool/weapon possible. Fighting kitsch with kitsch and in the process, turning cultural lead to gold.