On September 24,1998 the enigmatic Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum gave a speech. The event was the opening of a major exhibition of Nerdrum's work covering the previous twenty years of his activity. The place was The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, in Oslo, Norway.
Here's how he began: "The understanding of who you are and what you are really doing does not always come easy. Most people need time to mature and gain full insight into these difficult matters. This is often related to the fact that certain things are hard to admit to oneself, and perhaps even harder to admit to others. In my case it might have taken longer than usual. But now, at an occasion like this, I believe the time has come."
I picture him in a peasant's blouse, his longish white hair mussed by the wind, his voice thick with suspense, his gaze earnest. Certainly the stage was set for something dramatic, and Nerdrum delivered. For at the height of his career as an artist, in front of Norway's cultural cream, he declared himself not an artist but a kitsch painter. Of course nothing could have been more in the face of convention. Since the Enlightenment the term kitsch has been nearly interchangeable with the term trash. To call an artist a kitsch painter is the blunt equivalent of calling him intellectually vacant, emotionally infantile and creatively derivative. In Nerdrum's view, the story of what we now call art began not in Greece but in Germany. He credits the philosopher Immanuel Kant with planting the seeds that became modern art. For it was Kant who first suggested that art existed in the realm of intellectual judgments and not in the realm of sensuous appeal. It was to be a matter of taste not of feeling. Since then art has been courting the purity of thought over the sensuousness of the body.
Now in a very interesting little book titled On Kitsch, Nerdrum has collected the voices of those sympathetic to his situation. There are essays that fill out a revised view of kitsch and that lay out the differences between kitsch and art. There is the script of a dialogue performed on Kitsch Day at Haugar Vestfold Art Museum in Tonsberg, Norway, in which Nerdrum discusses the difficulty of being a kitsch painter with Edvard Munch. There are a series of questions to test your own kitschness. There is the now infamous speech I referred to in my opening. And there is a whole collection of aphorisms on kitsch crafted by Nerdrum.
There is a sense in which proclaiming oneself kitsch could be seen as a little too kitschy--it has the potential of seeming like a contrivance. After reading his book I am no longer tempted to think of Nerdrum's proclamation of kitschood as some kind of publicity stunt. Though it is reactionary at points and full of a spirit of victimization, the book goes a long way in describing a motive and an aim for art that stands in stark contrast to the status quo. The art Nerdrum is campaigning for is an art not of the times, but of all times. It is earnest, not ironic. It is passionate not intellectual. It is created by hand and relies on the talent of the past. It is about craftsmanship and devotion more than timing and innovation.
In a time when pluralism is advertised as the artworld's achievement and open-mindedness is taken for granted, it is interesting to see an artist with as much devotion and talent for painting as Nerdrum has pushed to such extremes. The motives and aims he claims for his work are the ones many of those drawn to art have before they're educated away. I predict a lot of people will find a part of themselves in the sentiment of this book. Whether it is necessary to establish a completely new branch of art is up for debate, but if nothing else, this book shines a light on some of the qualities that make art unique--a lot of what today's art sets out to do can be done better with words, and it often relies very heavily on the texts that must accompany it. The art Nerdrum champions is the kind that can only be created sensually.