You may not know the definition of kitsch, but you do know it when you see it. And for a definition that is much longer that you require, check out my article “What is Kitsch?” The way to know that something has achieved the level of kitsch is to consider whether the object in question qualifies as being in bad taste. But bad taste is not nearly enough for an object to qualify as kitsch. It must also be manufactured such that it can be described as having a definite quality. Bad taste plus lack of quality often, but not always, equals kitsch. A much better way to get a handle on it is to look at some of the greatest and most popular examples of kitsch from American history.
Fuzzy dice are definitely kitschy. The origin of fuzzy dice is about as clear as the reason why Sarah Palin was ever considered a realistic Presidential candidate. The most likely candidate for the origin of this kitschy item seen hanging from many a rearview mirror is centered in the hot rod craze of the 1950’s. Hot rodders souped up their cars and put all manner of interesting if tasteless adornments on them. The mirror sticking out from the front windshield simply offered too tempting a target: it was the perfect spot from which to hang things that let everybody around you know you were a bad boy. The choice of dice probably stemmed from the rise of Las Vegas as Sin City. The fuzz? Who the hell knows what those crazy hot rodding kids were thinking.
I’ve also got an article on the origin of the Lava Lite, but here’s the quickie version: An Englishman and an American joined forces to make money. The result could be seen inside the dingy apartments of just about every hippie in America and, like drugs and rock and roll, it quickly spread to the mainstream. The Lava Lite went from fad to kitsch pretty quickly and it is one of those kitschy items that requires a certain level of intelligence to own. You have to keep use the right bulb or the results can go from blobby to burnout.
You would think that something as ugly as a leisure suit would never even have reached the fad point but would have straightlined into kitsch. I can assure that it is mere coincidence that I also have a history of the leisure suit article for you. The funny part of the popularity of the enormously ugly leisure suit is that, like so many other ugly fashion statements, it began as a clothing choice especially for the rich. This was circa World War II and if you had an extra hundred bucks hanging around, you could buy a proto-leisure suit down at the Sears and Roebuck. It would not be until the 70s’ that leisure suits hit the big time. One of the joys of TV Land life—back when they actually aired reruns of classic TV shows—is watching “The Bob Newhart Show” and seeing Bob and the rest of his friends, neighbors and patients parading around in this kitschy object like it was the height of fashion. Which it was. Back then. Not now.
Try as they might, the practitioners and purchasers of velvet paintings have not been able to transform the art form from kitsch into sophisticated artistic statement that brings in millions of dollars. Those who make velvet paintings much look at those who spend millions on Andy Warhol paintings and scream into the air as they tear out their hair. What’s the difference? None, but one is still kitsch and the other, for some unknown reason, is high art. I had a college professor who once confessed to experiencing angst on a regular basis over the fact that he once saw a velvet painting of Elvis Presley being crucified and he didn’t buy it.
Troll dolls used to be called Dammit Dolls. If you want to find out why, check out my article. Troll dolls began popping up in the 1950’s, but didn’t really take off until JFK was cheating on his wife with Marilyn Monroe. Or thereabouts. An episode of “Gomer Pyle, USMC” reveals that Gomer kept a troll doll. Bobby Hill on “King of the Hill” has a troll doll collection that his dad, Hank, arranges be disposed of permanently by a man who has come to inspect water damage inside his house. The peak of popularity for the troll doll was around 1964 at which point they began their odyssey toward becoming pure kitsch.