Toys as kitsch

In a particularly satirical tone, Freidell (1937) described how the petite bourgeoisie in the last century decked themselves out with the cheap, mass-produced imitations of the elite’s, the aristocracy’s trappings of power and taste in the form of papier mâché instead of rosewood, sheets of lead covered with chalk instead of marble, a palette knife instead of a Turkish cutlass, an ashtray as a Prussian helmet, etc. - tasteless reproductions of the “real”, the original goods.

It was in the 1800s that the material conditions for the democratisation of access to goods were created. These material conditions have now become the characteristics of 20th century consumer society.

Imitation of “real” things brought with it a slow blurring of the identity, meaning and hierarchy of things. This was dissolution and an aesthetic freedom which both undermined the culture of the aristocracy and the elite but also contributed to its appreciation. The duplicity and the division between form and content, form and function - the fascination of the ostensible and the simulated as a kind of mask over things - is a clear example of the fact that the status of things is undergoing a transformation.

Increased buying power and new demands of culture will initially always give rise to copies of existing things before the traditional forms are broken and new forms, designs and customs become the norm.

In this way, things have a “life cycle”, due to their becoming worn out, losing relevance, poor quality, losing value and going out of fashion. Fashion, therefore, becomes the emblem which is decisive for the relationship between new and old/antique, “in”/”out” - but fashion is also the force which can give things life.

In the construction of 20th century Western society, freedom has been largely measured and determined relative to the ability to acquire things. Beyond the purely material level, which usually goes beyond bare necessities, there is a further aesthetic demand connected to people’s “taste”, i.e. capacity to buy the “right” things, which is often determined by fashion.

“The extent to which one is able to buy what one wants is taken as the measure of how free the individual can feel. Not because what counts is owning specific things but because ownership and choosing to own or not to own, the feeling of being part of the enormous consuming organism is a significant basis for the self-confidence and identity of the individual. There is an identity the social success of which is connected with the ability to handle things with taste, a social convention which implies a promise of freedom.” (Christensen, 1993).

Toys are naturally subject to the same development as everything else, things, objects in the modern Western welfare society.

A great deal of modern toys can therefore be seen as kitsch, a natural product of industrialisation and urbanisation: Cheap mass produced imitations of noble originals or playthings of the elite and stylish play objects - and the only difference between kitsch and quality is “good or poor taste”! (Steenhold, 1994:32-39).

As it happens, the aesthetic and cultural standards for toys (like many other things) are founded in the demand for authenticity and good taste. A poor or artificial replacement for the real (always very much more expensive) thing is expressed as bad taste or lack of taste.

But the essence of kitsch (including kitsch toys) is, as Dorfles (1961:71) expressed it: “ a mixture of the ethical category with the aesthetic: The aim is a “pretty” piece of work and not a “good” one, because the most important aspect is the effect of beauty. Despite its often naturalistic character, despite the repeated use of realistic terminology, the world is shown not as it really is but as people would like to see it or as people fear it is.”

Kitsch toys are therefore to be found within a realistic universe but do not come directly from the ordinary everyday context. They are not social realistic. They are a prefabrication of an effect which is based on certainty, tried and tested, seen it before. They reiterate only the simplest “clichés” or forms which are easy to emulate. These forms are given universal value and the thing or object is sentimentalised. 

The Barbie doll, Barbie’s world, Belville, My Little Pony and (as a mixed blessing) Masters of the Universe and other monster toy concepts are the modern toys which come closest to the ideal of kitsch toys. Barbie is what people want her to be! Belville is the older girl’s dream of the future! HeMan’s universe is what people fear the world could turn into!

Old toys are also sentimentalised. Old (antique) toys which have an unbelievable position in toy collectors’ consciousness can be described as kitsch when nostalgic and sentimental feelings are united, thus elevating otherwise worthless and useless things to fetishes, giving them enchanting or even magical abilities. (See later Winnicot).

Within psychoanalytical circles, such adoration of things-in-themselves, despite their being completely adrift and bereft of any form for real historical connection, has been given a meaning such that the toys have been identified as substitute phenomena - with the widespread opportunities for interpretation which this area has to offer.



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