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.