Kitsch is the German word for trash, and is used in English to describe particularly cheap, vulgar and sentimental forms of popular and commercial culture

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  • Jeff Koons, 'Winter Bears' 1988
    Jeff Koons
    Winter Bears 1988
    Polychromed wood
    displayed: 1245 x 1170 x 450 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© Jeff Koons
  • John Currin, 'Honeymoon Nude' 1998
    John Currin
    Honeymoon Nude 1998
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1168 x 914 x 33 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Trust Fund 1999© John Currin, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
  • Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, 'Meet the People' 1948
    Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
    Meet the People 1948
    Collage mounted on card
    support: 359 x 241 mm
    Presented by the artist 1971© The estate of Eduardo Paolozzi

The word kitsch came to be applied to this type of popular and commercial culture sometime in the 1920s. In 1939, the American art critic Clement Greenberg defined kitsch in his famous essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch and examined its relationship to the high art tradition as continued in the twentieth century by the avant-garde.

Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough – simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc, etc.

Some more up-to-date examples of kitsch might include plastic or porcelain models of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Japanese manga comics and the Hello Kitty range of merchandise, many computer games, the whole of Las Vegas and Disneyland, and the high-gloss soft porn of Playboy magazine.

Greenberg saw kitsch as the opposite of high art but from about 1950 artists started to take a serious interest in popular culture, resulting in the explosion of pop art in the 1960s. This engagement with kitsch has continued to surface in movements such as neo-geo and in the work of artists such as John Currin, Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy.