Style and Kitsch around 1900
“It is a poison admixted to all art.” ‑ With this view Theodor W. Adorno rejects the idea that kitsch is the opposite of art. This idea leads back to numerous style discussions around 1900, in which concepts of appropriate literary and artistic style were juxtaposed against the mass production of cheap cultural goods – put simply against “that kitsch” (Stemmle, 1931). The discourses on style and kitsch, however, have had many historical points of contact: While the ability to imitate was regarded as an essential criterion of “good style” in the discourse around 1800, it was precisely this quality that, around 1900, labeled kitsch as epigonal and lacking originality. The relationship between subjective artistic expression and objective reference to reality was also negotiated in both discourses, whereby their reconciliation was regarded as the highest form in the art discourse, while kitsch’s addiction to harmonization was disqualified as a pure sales strategy, declared to be the “utmost antithesis of the artistically sophisticated quality work” (Pazaurek, 1912).
This project explores the connection between style, Aestheticism, Art Nouveau, kitsch and advertising. It is guided by the assumption that the “determination for style” (Wustmann, 1915) observed at the turn of the century is to be understood as a reaction to mass production and popular fiction, thus as a conscious attempt to define and distinguish. In addition, through analysis of the cult of beauty and health, and the glorification of the youth, as well as an examination of the ornamental, decorative and surface aesthetic, this project will show how kitsch has been integrated into art, literature and advertising. This study aims not only to counter the desideratum of a systematic investigation of stylistic pluralism around 1900, but also to show that the discussions about an appropriate style cannot be understood without the kitsch-discourse. This assertion opens up the possibility of being able to describe modernist style discourses beyond epochal and individual styles: kitsch has been part of Modernism’s stylistic aspirations from its very beginning.