Thanks guys for your thoughts on why bonsai and mainstream art don't mix very well.
Here are some more ideas on Kitsch and Art, as presented in Odd Nerdrum's book On Kitsch. The ideas below belong to the authors of the book, including Odd Nerdrum, Jan-Ove Tuv, Sindre Mekjan and others. I mostly rephrased the content and sometime used partial quotations. Therefore, I highlighted the whole text to distinguished from being my own.
Art is elusive. Kitsch is straightforward. Where artists express beauty indirectly, in a roundabout way, a Kitsch-producer takes the direct route. In art, beauty and truth, although it is the perpetual and irrational ideal of all artists, is never handed directly to the viewer. Those who hustle their way into direct contact with beauty, commit sacrilege. They create not art but Kitsch.
According to modernists, art invites the viewer to become involved and immersed in the artwork.
On the other hand, Kitsch simply overpowers the viewer. It promotes the illusion that aesthetic pleasure lies within the aroused feelings, so it acts like an artistic lie.
For centuries, craftsmanship was part of being an artist. This is not the case in contemporary art, where only ideas count. A contemporary artist is protected by his time: if you are ?in?, you are safe and your work is considered art. A classical figurative painter is ?out?. He is competing with the best ever created in the history. Because he has to carry this heavy burden, often he is laughed at and almost always placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. The question is not whether the work is well executed, but whether it carries the right ideas.
Contemporary art carries a permanent rebellion against tradition. Kitsch thrives on tradition. According to Clement Greenberg in his famous essay ?Avant-Garde and Kitsch?, the precondition for Kitsch is the availability at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries and perfected self-consciousness Kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. Kitsch steals the best of previous cultures.
Art represents the public space. It reflects the public?s ideals of formalism, objectivity and functionality.
Kitsch is the intimate space. Our love, joy, tears and hopes. Just like in soap operas, pornography and film violence. It gives intimacy dignity. A kitsch person does not long for official innovation, instead he yearns for a human state of emotion. Instead of fleeing away from human condition, Kitsch runs into it and lightens the existence of an individual.
Modern art tends to gravitate away from passion. Kitsch deals with universal basic themes that never go out of fashion. It forces us to be emotionally involved. If one has the courage to look beyond the moose by the lake, beyond the gipsy girl, one will find eternal values. There is something na?ve and child-like in the greatness of Kitsch history.
The six most important aspects of the Kitsch concept:
1. The subject has to be directly recognizable.
2. Skill of the artist is an important qualification, but it has no power to turn something into art.
3. A Kitsch painter is interested to learn from the old masters. According to Broch here is a moral requirement of art: ?You must neither completely nor partially copy the art of others. If so, you will be producing Kitsch.?
4. Kitsch is never ironic. That?s why it is easily perceived as pathetic. Art can take a Kitsch concept and introduce irony into it thus giving Kitsch a negative prestige. Then it can become art. An example would be to show a moose by a lake, with a NO SWIMMING sign next to it.
5. The kitsch maker is interested in archetypes. They are based on basic human impulses.
6. Kitsch is a systematic attempt to escape from everyday life. It can take us to a personal past (see the souvenir culture) or to places created by the imagination.
What Odd Nerdrum thinks as the most important characteristics of contemporary art is philosophical purity that finds its clearest expression in conceptualism. Intellectual reflection. The antithesis of craftsmanship. This is in sharp contrast with sensual expression. The one philosopher most instrumental in determining our concept of art is Immanuel Kant and his work The Critique of Judgment. All the leading art historians, including Ortega Y Gasset, Adorno, Greenberg, and Malraux, furthered in one way or another the thoughts of Kant.
Here is an interesting observation. There are areas in our time where the ideals of contemporary art didn?t take hold: literature and Hollywood film productions. The reason is that the survival of literature and film depends on commercial success. If you depend on large audience, you must create what they like: something that speaks to their heart. They will not be satisfied with intellectual reflection. They want love, death, and the beach. Economy wins, hands down.
I have been trying to place bonsai into the above context. I have heard many times that bonsai will reach critical mass only if we are able to place our expositions into art galleries and museums. It is a nice thought, but I think it needs to be heavily qualified.
I will step back from bonsai for a moment, and mention Odd Nedrum?s suggestion about how Kitsch can gain full recognition. Art has a powerful superstructure. It is the Academy, the Curatoriat, the art critics with their strict criteria as to what is considered art today. Nerdrum claims that Kitsch needs its own superstructure: the Superstructure of sensuality. It needs to be separated from art because it is the only venue that can give the sensual form of expression a structure of its own. Then may be it can gain back the respect to these works.
I believe that bonsai should not be mixed together with the rest of today?s contemporary art. By doing that, it will lose its unique identity. It will always be the second fiddler, the opening act before the main show that is art. It will be judged by standards entirely foreign to its origins.
Bonsai needs its own superstructure. Lacking an institution of its own, it will be looked at as mostly Kitsch. Just look at at all the characteristics attributed to Kitsch and you will realize that bonsai fits them all. There is little chance of winning this battle.
The only notable exception is literati bonsai. Its roots come from the middle ages, but it is surprisingly modern in many ways. First and foremost, it lends itself to intellectual contemplation. It encourages us to restrain and subdue our emotions, this being perfectly in line with the Kantian ideals. It invites the viewer to immerse in the work without overpowering him. It is never ?overdone?. The austerity and simplicity of a Zen garden and tea ceremony has all the right ingredients even by the strict standards of today?s art.
The other end of the spectrum is the bonsai that floods us with all the details, trying to copy real life exactly as it is. Hundreds of branches wired exactly to perfection, and sometimes with real life-looking human and animal figurines. No matter how skillfully done, the work will always be branded as Kitsch.
THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT BONSAI ALREADY HAS ITS OWN SUPERSTRUCTURE
It just needs to be strengthened and nourished. It needs to be clearly defined as being different, a world of its own, playing by its own rules. Other art forms can be used to complement and elevate bonsai, but never to set the rules of the game. Bonsai should be valued for what it is. According to its own criteria. Just like good Kitsch, it can become an alternative to art. It can transcend the strict criteria of art and give artists a way to find a unique form of expression.