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All in Bad Taste

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Kristen Hileman, John Waters: Indecent Exposure (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2018). Above: Badly Framed (2006)

Perhaps it started when John Waters suggested I try the chicken salad. Or when I saw my first beehive hairdo walking down the street. Whatever the reason, this I know: I crave kitsch. This cheap, commercialized, popular, vulgar, or hilariously sentimental art—I can't get enough of it. Lately, I've been mining Watson Library's collections for books on kitsch, bad taste, and every plastic figurine in between. I present my findings below, but be warned: The best items are NSFW—you'll just have to come visit and see them in person.

A comprehensive reference text, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stern seems like a natural starting point in our exploration of kitsch. The cover itself is heartrendingly awful, but if you can manage to open the book, a vast amount of bad taste awaits you.

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Jane Stern and Michael Stern, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990). Left: Book cover. Right: Entry for artificial grass

Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles, translated from the Italian Il Kitsch and printed in 1969, includes multiple essays by the likes of John McHale, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg. The images below of the Mona Lisa bath towel and coin purse accompany Dorfles's essay "Kitsch," as an example of a masterpiece turned symbol of kitsch by its vulgar reproduction. The overly sentimental birth announcement is found in another Dorfles essay, "Birth and the Family," where he states "children . . . are the source of the worst type of sentimentality, which inevitably produces the purest form of kitsch."

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Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste (London: Studio Vista, 1969).

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Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste (London: Studio Vista, 1969).

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Kitsch (Paris: Marie Concorde Editeur, 1970–71).

Above are the covers of the rare French periodical Kitsch. Published in Paris by Marie Concorde, only two issues went to press: the first in 1970, and the second in 1971. (Watson Library has a copy of each issue.) Robert Crumb, Egon Schiele, and Roy Lichtenstein were just some of the artists featured in the short run of this periodical, with Tom Wesselmann producing the cover art for each issue. Remember the NSFW warning mentioned earlier? All the fun stuff is between these covers, but I can't show it to you here!

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Kitsch (Paris: Marie Concorde Editeur, 1970–71). Above: Roy Lichtenstein spread

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Wen Liao, Xianting Li, and Yihui Xu, Ouh La La Kitsch (Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 1999). Left: Shit with a Dream (1999) by Yu Bogong. Right: Shit with Hair (1999) by Yu Bogong

Ouh La La Kitsch is a personal favorite. In 1999 Li Xianting and Liao Wen organized an exhibition to explore the theme of "Gaudy Art" in China. The exhibition catalogue was published by Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House and includes essays exploring this theme (including "Living in Kitsch" and "Parodying 'Peasant Style Get-Rich-Quick Taste'") along with biographies of the artists, including Yu Bogong, creator of Shit with a Dream and Shit with Hair, shown above.

Der Kitsch: Eine Studie über die Entartung der Kunst by Fritz Karpfen is another example of kitsch found in Watson's special collections. Published in 1924, Karpfen's use of the word kitsch to describe the degeneration of art predates Clement Greenberg's definition of kitsch from his seminal article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939) by fifteen years. A particularly striking image from this text, with the caption "The Summit of Kitsch," is shown below. Artist F. Chever produced these plastic angels, placed them on a telephone wire, and called these "funny birds" swallows.

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Fritz Karpfen, Der Kitsch: Eine Studie über die Entartung der Kunst (Hamburg: Weltbund-Verlag, 1924). Left: Cover. Right: Swallows by F. Chever

Jumping ahead almost fifty years, we come to Bevis Hillier's The Decorative Arts of the Forties and Fifties Austerity Binge. Divided by decade and then thematically (examples: mermaids, balloons, the coronation), this book is full of kitschy goodness I'd love to see in my own home. I'm compelled to share the "Remember Harbor" brooch, constructed out of plastic and topped off with a fake pearl.

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Bevis Hillier, Decorative Arts of the Forties and Fifties Austerity Binge (New York: C.N. Potter, 1975). Above: "Remember Harbor" brooch

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't include one more gem from John Waters, the self-christened "Pope of Trash." Below is Waters's Loser Gift Basket, which includes a king-size candy bar, a bottle of Sloe Gin, and a carton of Pall Malls—sounds like a Friday to me.

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Kristen Hileman, John Waters: Indecent Exposure (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2018). Above: Loser Gift Basket (2006)

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