Thomas Sutcliffe: Kitsch is in the eye of the beholder

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The Independent Online

What is kitsch? It has never been an easy question to answer, given that it depends on the taste of the viewer - but one ad hominem answer that would meet my requirements is "any art that is admired by Uri Geller". Geller is a kind of embodiment of kitsch himself - self-dramatising, spuriously urgent, yet capable of getting through to the public in a way that infuriates the high-minded. So it seems apt that he should always have championed the art of Vladimir Tretchikoff, painter of what is claimed to be the biggest-selling art print ever, an image the artist called Chinese Girl, but which is known by millions as "The Green Lady".

Tretchikoff died earlier this week, prompting Geller to issue a tribute to the aesthetic powers of this work: "There is a subtle innocence in the face, there is some kind of spiritual ambience about that painting. It radiates an aura of peace of mind," he said, about a portrait that Tretchikoff reportedly modelled on the daughter of a Chinese restaurant proprietor. And Geller certainly wasn't alone in admiring its qualities, as worldwide sales of "The Green Lady" made Tretchikoff very rich.

It isn't any easier saying why this image should have cornered the market as an undemanding space-filler - though any explanation which denies that aesthetic sense must have played some part in the phenomenon seems to me doomed to failure. Paintings are always aspirational objects - and for millions of people this seemed to aspire in the right direction.

Obviously the exoticism helped - a considerable thrill before widescale immigration made the "foreign" face something of an antiquated concept. Some people will have bought it simply for its colour - the stabs of red lipstick, yellow satin and post-mortem flesh (more blue than green, in truth), which will strike those with delicate retinas as garish, but which obviously satisfied some post-war hunger.

What's most striking about the image, though, is the way it both nods towards and simultaneously repudiates, 20th-century developments in visual art. It's hard to say from the reproductions whether Chinese Girl is genuinely unfinished or a careful simulation of incompleteness, but that, and the morbid tint of the face, are badges of enfranchisement from mere slavish imitation of life. Not too free - the mass market wasn't ready for that - but on a long leash. They are details that whisper, even to the most artless aesthete: "This is not just a picture, this is art."

This self-consciousness couldn't speak any louder, because knowingness is as destructive to kitsch as Kryptonite was to Superman. When Wayne Hemingway published a celebration of mass-produced art called Just Above the Mantelpiece, his genuine enthusiasm for such works was quite different from those who originally bought them. It was self-consciously anti-design - a contradiction of the prevailing orthodoxies of good taste - and his display of the canonical works of Woolworths art converted them inescapably from kitsch into camp. And Hemingway in effect acknowledged the problem when he argued that Tretchikoff had achieved what Warhol wanted to do, but couldn't because he was too cool. Whatever else Andy Warhol was, he wasn't innocent or unknowing - and some kind of naivety is essential to kitsch. It has no designs upon us.

Not everyone agrees. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera suggested precisely the opposite; that self-consciousness was the hallmark of kitsch. "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," he wrote. "The first tear says: how nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch."

If that is true, though, it is difficult to see how any art could be exempt from the charge, since all art is vulnerable to the responses of its audience. As you stand in front of Michelangelo's Pieta, a moment of self-consciousness - just one flickering thought about your membership of its long historical audience, and the pleasure of feeling what you feel - and one of the great sculptures would instantly be reduced to the status of a ceramic kitten clawing its way out of a brandy glass. It would be truer to say, surely, that kitsch invites the first tear and forestalls the second - for fear that any kind of reflection will lead on to something worse. Kitsch wants us to stop at "How nice!" (or "How soulful!" or "How sad!") because it can't effectively sustain any longer or more troubled conversation. That's true of "The Green Lady" too, with her bland pensiveness.

As well as being one of the best-selling images in the world, she must be one of the least looked-at and least thought-about, too.