Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

The curse of being liked by the wrong people

There is a fundamental belief in the field of liberal arts that art has an intrinsic value. Marxist theory made out a good case for art being merely a commodity with a market value like any other, but the notion of inherent value refuses to die.

Cultural relativism, similarly, has attempted to connect the value of art to a particular culture or time period. Yet we persist in our belief that art is either good or bad, and that we have an inbuilt sense of which is which. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” sums up the attitude of those of us who have not been formally educated in art appreciation, but who believe we have good taste.

The opposite of art is kitsch. This useful German word refers to cultural artefacts that have great popular appeal, but little or no artistic merit. It can also refer to something that is sentimental, gaudy or overly decorated.

Most of us like to think we can tell the difference between art and kitsch, and that our natural taste leads us away from the latter. But what happens when the same cultural artefact goes from being regarded as high art to being regarded as kitsch? Who is right and who is wrong?

For many years, the most glaring example of kitsch in South Africa was the art of Vladimir Tretchikoff. If you said the word “kitsch” to a certain class of South African, the first image that came to mind was Tretchikoff’s The Chinese Girl. Also known as “The Green Lady” it depicted a young girl whose skin tone is painted a distinctive blue-ish green.

The Russian-born Tretchikoff moved to South Africa after several unsettled years as a refugee and prisoner-of-war during World War II. The move was to bring him financial success beyond compare, but artistically it was suicide.

Tretchikoff had the misfortune to be embraced by white, lower-middle class South Africa. Something about his paintings spoke directly to this sector of society. For decades, prints of The Chinese Girl held pride of place next to flying ducks on the walls of countless mining-town homes.

With that kind of fan club, Tretchikoff had no chance of being taken seriously by the artistic establishment. His work became a by-word for cliché. The wrong kind of people loved him and bought his work in great numbers, and his reputation never recovered from the stigma.

Yet if one looks at his paintings today, it is difficult to say exactly what was wrong with them. They’re not particularly sentimental or overblown or gaudy. Many are now acknowledged to have been original and well-executed. Tretchikoff said the only difference between himself and Van Gogh was that Van Gogh had starved whereas he became rich. One may take this with a pinch of salt, but the art world has certainly been forced to revise its opinion of Tretchikoff.

The fact that The Chinese Girl recently sold for £1 000 000 at an auction in London suggests this reappraisal is well under way.

The curse of being liked by the wrong kind of people should not be underestimated. Carrol Boyes used to be known as an independent metalwork designer whose pieces were collected by a few connoisseurs. She was highly respected in the field of design and regarded as a pioneer of functional art in South Africa.

The first clue that her value as an artist had been debased was provided by Twitter. Media strategist and writer Sarah Britten tweeted: “Groupon is having a 50% discount on Carrol Boyes. Hold me back.”

This precipitated a flood of responses from tweeters who were not accustomed to seeing a cultural icon disrespected in this manner. Britten tweeted that she had, a “fraught relationship with Carrol Boyes”. She further clarified that her dislike for the Carrol Boyes brand stems from its association with corporate gifts that are ugly and non-functional — “the sort of thing chosen by a PA with little thought for the recipient”. She added that she used to admire Carrol Boyes back when it was new and different.

Other critics of the brand came out of the closet, speculating that its inclusion on the wedding registries of practically every newly engaged couple from the East Rand has damaged its credibility too. Whatever designer chic might once have been associated with Carrol Boyes has been thoroughly killed. It is no longer cool to admire her work.

Her popularity in the corporate world and with the East Rand set has undoubtedly been lucrative, but artistically it has amounted to a kind of suttee. The Tretchikoff effect has taken hold. It may be many years before Carrol Boyes claws back the respect she deserves as a designer.

It remains to be seen whose artistic reputation white South Africa can kill next.

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    • J.J.

      @ Fiona Snyckers

      Tretchikoff aside, if I understand you correctly, anyone or anything “associated” with “white South Africa” becomes discredited somehow by default if “white South Africa” likes it too much, because of… why exactly again?

      Why not “middle-class South Africa”. What is it with white South Africans and their self-loathing and naval gazing? Seriously! Get over it.

    • aim for the culprits

      is the message that the message received and that hits a communication cord with the unpretentious is a message downgraded? isn’t the purpose of art, whether words, actions, depictions to communicate and inspire? those that do it best could be those that strike a cord with everyone. johnny cash comes to mind.

    • Cam Cameron

      Can black South Africans not kill an artistic reputation then?

    • Brent

      Seems to me it is totally false/unreal/pathetic to like or not like art based on who likes or who does not like it and not on its artistic merit or personel tastes. The chattering classes do deserve terrible revolutions, which unfortunately leave them untouched. Brent

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/sarahbritten Sarah Britten

      Here is the most egregious example of kitsch I have seen in a long time. It’s also jaw-droppingly expensive:
      http://www.property24.com/for-sale/camps-bay/cape-town/western-cape/11014/100545101

      Kitsch originally referred to mass produced item; Walter Benjamin decided that the problem with it was a lack of critical distance between the object and the viewer. There is no intellectual content in kitsch; it is decoration without purpose. In that sense, there’s a moral as well as an aesthetic vacuum at its core.

      This is my problem with Carrol Boyes, ultimately. I liked it when it actually was functional (even though you can’t wash pewter in the damn dishwasher) but it has become all form and no content. Heavy, clunky, hideous things dished out by corporates as proxies for actual caring or interest in others. Why can’t they just donate to a good cause instead?

    • Glen Tomlinson

      @JJ and Cam Cameron. You are both wobbling on the fringe of the ridiculous. The author has merely stated, ‘Tretchikoff had the misfortune to be embraced by white, lower-middle class South Africa. Something about his paintings spoke directly to this sector of society’There is nothing sinister or racially untoward about certain things appealing to certain sectors of society. Tretchikoff did resonate with this group of people…as other icons will resonate exclusively with other sectors of society. Read the wonderful book ‘I remember King Kong (The Boxer)’ by Denis Hirson and you will find hundreds of remembrances in the book that will really only be poignant to middle-class white people living in South Africa in the late 60’s and early 70’s. There are books out there by the barrow load waiting to be written by black people about life and memories living in South Africa under the oppressive Apartheid Regime…that will be completely different to Hirson’s history. This is a thing called diversity…and despite yourselves…it is a wonderful thing. It is what makes us a culturally rich a nation.

    • Glen Tomlinson

      Fiona, nice article. It makes me think of Jack Vettriano who painted those romantic beachscapes with butlers and elegant people in evening wear dancing in the moonlight. He is considered an accomplished artist if not a great one…but his work has been marketed and consumed into the realm of the kitsch. On the flipside a contemporary artist like Jeff Koons has set out in the territory of kitsch and commodity and managed to make himself one of the most collectable living artists. His ‘Michael Jackson and Bubble’ sculpture was sold to a Norwegian shipping magnate for $5.6 m in 1988. You do not get more kitsch than this piece….well with the possible exception of his ‘Pink Panther’ which sold for $1.8m in 1998.

    • OneFlew

      If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth listening to Grayson Perry’s recent Reith lectures on art. Witty and engaging and, even better, disliked by some of the establishment.

      A lot of the art world is driven by the vanity of small differences. All one can do is to fart in their general direction…

    • J.J.

      @ Glen

      It was Fiona’s very last sentence in her article which made me respond in the way that I did:

      “It remains to be seen whose artistic reputation white South Africa can kill next.”

    • bernpm

      @ J.J…thanks for your comment.
      I had a similar feeling of irritation, but based on a different reason.

      The famous Black/White connection. Is writer implying that Blacks cannot kill an artistic reputation????
      On Kitch…..I know quite some people who consciously collect kitch. The enjoy the odd pieces, enjoy them and tell lovely stories about them.
      In general: “one cannot argue about the taste of an other individual”. Variety is the spice of life!

    • Stephen Browne

      @Sarah Britten: I threw up a little in my mouth, thanks for that. Looks like someone put a peacock through a blender and designed a porn shoot with the result.

    • Coenraad Meyer

      Nice essay!

      I read the last sentence as a tongue in cheek comment (or perhaps sarcasm/irony? – I have never been good with these tags, being a lower class white according to the article). 😉