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  1. Jessica Jenkins – co-organizer of ‚Designing Socialist Modernity‘ – kindly asked me to add a brief comment on this blog concerning a topic that might come up at the conference: kitsch.

    To pick up the conference topic – the theoretical description of and reflection on a socialist modernity – one might say that kitsch seems to be an adequate category describing most of the East German design and art objects. At least it seems so from a former Western European point of view. Authors like Carlo Mongardini wrote 1985 that design objects like teapots depicting former Yugoslavian dictator Tito being kitsch items “promising the right national ethos”. Clement Greenberg wrote that “Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact to the ‚soul‘ of the people” (Greenberg 1939: 47) meaning explicitly Stalin and Hitler. On the other hand East German theorists like Guenther Durzak considered the kitsch phenomenon a mere capitalist problem making the GDR and any other socialist nation being kept from kitsch. He wrote in 1965 that kitsch is only possible in a capitalist condition.
    The interesting question that occurs is: What is kitsch then? An expression of socialist modernity? Or nothing that ever existed in socialism and hence cannot be a viable category for describing socialist art and design? Both directions are to some extend misleading and antagonistic. If we take a step back from this conflict we can see that kitsch is (1) a verdict which is (2) not bound to specific design and art objects. Any set of attributes that makes an object kitsch can be applied to art as well. Matei Calinescu for example wrote that kitsch has a certain “semiotic ambiguity”, “offers instant beauty and works openly counterfeits” (Calinescu 1987: 252). For works of Richard Prince for example nobody would use the kitsch verdict and yet all attributes apply. Any other attempt to prove kitsch to be an exact stylistic attribute, a psychological mindset or a mode of (cultural) industrial production suffers from that same theoretical ambiguity. My contention thus is that kitsch (3) is a discoursive phenomenon: It is a verdict that transforms political, economical, ethical or religious world views (but also questions of beauty and taste) into an aesthetic statement. A statement that denies any art object it’s status of being art and hence easily disqualifies its world view. Because we can hardly trace back the speaker’s initial cause the kitsch verdict thus seems like a mere aesthetic statement considering solely the object’s aesthetic quality. That makes kitsch a viable discoursive tool attacking an opposing world view – not much objection is possible, alternative concepts seem far.
    Kitsch is not only a tool to attack the project of a socialist design production during the times of Cold War but also after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A quote from an East German design book published in 2004 at the very popular Taschen Verlag documents this concern very well, when author Ralf E. Ulrich talks about the GDR’s political disavowal of a Western Modernity: “In the field of design, the 3rd party conference of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in 1950 rejected the concept of functionalism and branded the austere aesthetics of the modern age as ‚alien to the people‘ and ‚a weapon of imperialism‘. Instead, greater value was placed on homegrown crafts, which usually meant adorning every type of household item with kitschy motifs.” (Ulrich 2004: 13)

    Sebastian Loewe
    PhD candidate
    Berlin and Halle, Germany