Iris Scott and the Problem of Kitsch
In the winter of 2018 there was a row in PN Review over the work of poets who have taken to Instagram and YouTube as alternatives to traditional publishing that foreshadows a similar reckoning in the world of painting. Rebecca Watts takes aim at “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” in issue 239 of PN Review, criticizing poets such as Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest, and Hollie McNish for reducing poetry to mere honesty and accessibility. Watts argues that such a reduction ignores important elements of craft and leaves such poets devoid of “the aspiration to do anything well.” Similar complaints have been lodged against artists working in other mediums who have used social media to boost their profile and have, over time, achieved massive commercial success through digital accessibility. Paintings by artists such as Iris Scott carrying substantial price tags in the tens-of-thousands and have garnered her a huge following on social media platforms. It seems the problem of “kitsch” has again reared its head in the art world – but can such a criticism stick and does it even matter?
The accusation of being kitsch seems to emerge whenever artists achieve any kind of mass appeal, although this usually follows from a rather vague and ill-defined notion of what exactly constitutes “kitsch.” Kitsch, properly understood, has never really been about mass appeal alone.
Historically, the word emerges from the industrial capacity to mechanically reproduce artworks and offer them to “the masses” at a relatively low cost. This is usually associated with the desire of the bourgeois class to be “cultured” and respectable. Early theorists such as the Modernist Hermann Broch and Walter Benjamin associate these forms with their immediacy. They are readily identifiable, relatable, and require little if any intellectual effort on the part of the audience. Thus, the “tastefulness” of these works, what permits their display in the home or office, is centered on their familiarity and sentimentality. The work does not alienate guests with laborious conceptual pieces that are either challenging to look at or upsetting to the mores of the petit bourgeois.
Naturally, tastefulness is married to cost. The emerging middle classes cannot afford an original by a famous artist, and even if they could the problem remains that there is but one original and very many who would like to use that work to attest their own good taste. Thus, the desire for mass production is combined with a demand for tastefulness.
Over time, the idea of kitsch shifts to emphasize mass production, where trinkets, knickknacks, and various decorous “artworks” are sold to the masses so that they may make a show of their taste and style. These later examples are divorced from the idea of fine art and confined solely to the realm of the low arts where masses of know-nothings play at being cultured by possessing and displaying mechanically reproduced ornaments that are accessible, require no craft, and speak to their audience in largely emotive and sentimental terms.
Scott’s show, “The Door is Ajar, Mind the Cat,” is a challenge directed at an art-world for which fine art has become largely synonymous with conceptual art. Her lavish and elaborate finger paintings bespeak an immense technical skill that embraces the immediacy of sensuous and recognizable representations daring to be beautiful. So-called “fine art” has been exclusively focused on concepts for almost a century, and the more daring the approach to these concepts, the higher in esteem the artist climbs. But this daring approach to ideas leaves the world of the senses behind. It operates on an unacknowledged dualism in which the artist must abandon representation of the sensual in favor of the inscrutable world of ideas. Portraiture, landscape, and especially animals are eschewed in favor of the intangible, which is tortured into becoming tangible without ever being sensible in the full sense of the word. To the extent that any of these subjects would be permitted, they must appear so distorted through the lens of the concept that they are no longer representational of the subject, but are supposed to be representational of the indeterminable idea.
To be plain – a lot of conceptual art is non-sense. It is no wonder that such art lacks mass appeal. The masses demand the sensual. Paradoxically, this absence of accessibility is part of its “appeal,” though the appeal is one enjoyed only by an elite in-crowd that can wink and nod among themselves that they “get it” and the ignorant masses do not. It is within this context that a critic like Tomáš Kulka can argue that kitsch deals primarily with beautiful and emotional subject matter that is identified with ease and does not substantially enrich our relationship with the subject depicted in the work of kitsch.
Everybody gets a cat.
Indeed, one of the earliest examples of kitsch is a portrait of a cat in a frill collar, issued as lithographs between 1861 and 1897 by Frederick Dielman and entitled “The Widow.” Animal portraiture is thus ripe for the accusation of kitsch. It seems overtly sentimental in its association with “cat ladies” and the uniquely bourgeois mannerisms of those who dote over their pets – the historical resonance between the aristocratic portraiture of old and people who name their dogs “Duchess.” More importantly, such subject matter is the stuff of Internet celebrity. The Internet is full of cats. People cannot get enough of them and artists like Scott have huge Internet followings.
Another paradox of accessibility follows from this Internet acclaim. While it’s true that artists are instructed to have a solid website, that Internet presence is important for an artist’s long-term viability and a key means by which to craft their image, message, and brand, it is also true that a certain level of Internet fandom brings with it the charge of unseriousness, of pandering, or of being low-brow. That is, Internet celebrity is shorthand for the distinctive kitsch of the digital era.
In our time of digital kitsch, the means of reproduction have shifted from the merely mechanical to the digital. In this shift, an acceleration of the speed of the reproduction, its similarity to the original (due to larger file sizes, high definition screen resolution and in-home printing capacity), and the practically inexhaustible number of reproductions that can be generated from a single digital file provide such a change in magnitude that a qualitative transformation follows from it. The time of kitsch becomes different, as does the space of its configuration. People no longer seek the object for permanent display in their homes or offices. Instead, they are motivated to share temporary and passing encounters with these works on the “walls” of their Facebook page, on their Twitter feeds, and over Instagram. Accessibility itself is intensified. Only an Internet connection is required. No one has to go anywhere or purchase a print. No one really has to leave their computer – social media has generated the digital economy of kitsch in its current form. Endlessly repeatable, the image takes on an exponentially increasing range of interpretations as it enters into various digital contexts and is shared with messages derived from a multitude of individuals with many different motivations for sharing the work.
This explains, in part, what gives rise to the two paradoxes discussed above. The art of digital kitsch is the art of being immediately sensible, and so immediately and intuitively grasped that the person acts on it within a very narrow time frame. It has to catch their eye. It must grip them, and they must feel moved in that moment to share it – often with a written message that, if not directly brought about by the sensation of the work of art, then is at least readily associated with it. Thus, the representational must take precedence over the conceptual. In fact, more baldly sensuous the work, the more it currency it has in the digital economy. This confounds the artist.
We have heard of the death of the author, and here follows the artist into digital oblivion. The argument for the artist’s website is one about maintaining identity – it’s about centralization. Social media renders the artwork radically decentralized, such that the artist risks losing the work of art to the masses entirely. The passage into the digital reduces the artist’s signature, thereby again de-emphasizing the message, the meaning, intended by the artist in the work of art.
In many ways, artists like Iris Scott whose regal portraits of cats and of dogs shaking luminously colored and textured arrays of water off their coats (see fig. 5 above) are following in the wake of Norwegian artists like Odd Nerdrum and Jan-Ove Tuv, who proclaim kitsch as a counter-narrative to the art-world’s overemphasis on conceptualization. These artists liken a positive sense of “kitsch” to the craft oriented art works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. These are sensuous works that take inspiration from the Old Masters, Romanticism, and do not shy away from the emotional.
Like Nerdrum, Scott wants her audiences to feel something and dares that it be a feeling of the beautiful and sublime again. Her landscapes, both pastoral and urban, tap into the human desire for a dwelling place. Here we can find a place to live and not just a life of the mind but also a life in which the mind breathes and lives with the body. This bodily living flies in the face of Kulka’s determination that kitsch cannot enrich. If that is the criterion, then Scott has absolutely escaped the label. Perhaps everyone gets a cat, but the work of art asks us to stop and again appreciate the unique beauty of the animal, our relationship to it, and how this relationship enlivens the senses and brings us back to ourselves as beings who must stake out a life in the world.
Scott’s reaction has been to posit her work as a form of what she calls “Instinctualism,” which leans hard into the themes outlined above. Her craft has been cultivated into a unique and vibrant mode of finger painting that is bodily, sensual, and highly technical. She has spent years honing this craft and developing techniques that allow her to paint human forms and faces with her hands. While the topic here has been Scott’s relationship to kitsch, her brand of Instinctualism shares obvious sympathies with the Kitsch Movement championed by Nerdrum.
Finally, Scott’s originals are expense – prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of those who share the work through digital mediums. Yet they sell quickly, often in the form of commissions that empty Scott’s inventory before it can even manifest. Nevertheless, like the prints sold in museum gift shops around the world, people can still approach and appreciate Scott’s work without shelling out thirty- to forty-thousand dollars.
The digital age demands a reckoning with the art-world. The barely formulated concept of digital kitsch and the philosophical rebellion of Instinctualism begs for such a confrontation within the hallowed galleries and halls of those who scoff at the taste of the masses. What is more, it is time to again think of the concept as it appears in the sensuous, as the sensuous itself gives rise to the concept and not the other way round. Perhaps “The Door is Ajar, Mind the Cat” will offer such a watershed moment. Here, the forms of high and low, of the concept and the sensuous, can meet once again and, through their synthesis, provide at last the novel vision capable of plunging the art-world into a surprising and fresh new era.
The featured image at the top of this essay is: Iris Scott, Stormy Splendor Dragon Ember, 2018, triptych, oil on canvas, 120×66″, New York, Filo Sofi Arts.
This essay originally appears as part of the critic package that accompanied The Door is Ajar, Mind the Cat exhibition at Filo Sofi Arts, NYC, from March 8 to April 18, 2018.