Thorsten Botz-Bornstein*
The Aesthetics of Frozen Dreams:
Kitsch and Anti-Kitsch in Jeff Koons and Mariko Mori

This article is about how two artists who come from different cultural spheres develop kitsch into art. Jeff Koons, born in 1955, is an American artist freely using kitsch elements in his sculptures, paintings and other works. Video and photographic artist Mariko Mori, born in 1967, is arguably the most visible Japanese artist in the West. Juxtaposing Western art and Eastern mythology, she integrates, like Koons, elements of transfigured kitsch that she alters on a profound level. Both artists’ works refer to the traditions of Duchamp and Warhol and engage in “commodification” which has a particular status in the contexts of their respective cultures. Koons and Mori produce extremely stylized visions of Pop-cultural excesses and present them as joyful kitsch-scapes. I compare Koons’s “kitsch as avant-garde” principle and Mori’s “spiritual kitsch reality” and draw conclusions concerning the position of kitsch in a global context. 


The word kitsch was probably coined in Germany in the 1860-1870s in order to designate cheap artistic stuff (Dorfles 1975: 234) and proliferated during the nineteenth century in Europe. The common understanding of kitsch refers to a tasteless copy of an existing style, a system of “bad taste” or artistic deficiency, which almost always involves exaggerated sentimentality, superficiality, banality, and triteness. Clement Greenberg’s definition of kitsch as a too formulaic aesthetic expression (Greenberg 1961: 10) is important but might not always be suitable, as will be shown below. The same is true for Matei Calinescu’s definition of kitsch as an aesthetic phenomenon that contradicts the “law of inadequacy” (1987: 257).

It has been said that in industrialized countries kitsch has acquired a scope of cultural anesthesia (Lugg 1999: 4) often serving as an aesthetically vulgar means to enter a consumer-oriented dream world. Of course, this will not happen in all places of the world in the same fashion. It is necessary in this article, which compares an American and a Japanese artist, to distinguish between different local kitsch-cultures. In America kitsch is most present in the imaginary of Walt Disney and Koons’s works draw very much on this culture. His ironical way of pointing out the “truthfulness of Disney” with its “complete optimism” (Koons 2000: 31) lets his works often appear as disneyfied landscapes of the everyday world. 

For Baudrillard Disneyland is “the microcosm of the Occident” (Baudrillard 1986: 56) which would exclude Japan. Though it has been claimed that “Japan is a Disneyland, a focal point where history and locality cease to exist” (Sato 2004: 340), this “Disneyland” has its own style. As a matter of fact, Japan has its own cartoon industry, which has developed the aesthetics of kitsch in a very particular direction. Even more than in Disney aesthetics, in Japan kitsch is made to look cute (kawaii) which becomes particularly obvious in the proliferation of youth culture for which the predicate “kawaii” seems to represent a sort of national aesthetic standard. Kitsch and cute things do also exist in Disney but they are designed as a romanticized escape from industrialized society; Japanese kitsch and cute culture has a similar objective but it defines this shift rather as an escape from the world of adulthood altogether. Sharon Kinsella has pointed out that from the beginning, “Disney cute was based more on a sentimental journey back into an idealized rural society populated with happy little animals and rural characters taken from folk stories [while] Japanese cute fashion became more concerned with a sentimental journey back into an idealized childhood” (Kinsella 1995: 241). The result is a cuteness that “differs from Disney [in that it] invites an act of interaction [and] triggers fantasy” (Allison 2004: 37) and offers a multidimensionality that one most often searches in vain in Disney productions (cf. Napier 1998: 101).

The cute is generally defined as childlike, sweet, innocent, pure, gentle and weak. In Japan, cute kitsch is a “large scale” phenomenon developing since the 1980s and turning in the late 1990s into an explicit kitsch culture (Kinsella 1995: 226). The aesthetics of cuteness is more than an aesthetic style but appears as a full-fledged way of articulating a subjective attitude that can become manifest in design, in language, in bodily behavior, in gender relations, and in perceptions of the self. Brian McVeigh holds that “cuteness is not just a fad in the fashion cycle of Japanese pop culture; it is more of a ‘standard’ aesthetic of everyday life” (McVeigh 2000: 135). Mori plays with the theme of cute kitsch in the same way in which Koons plays with Disney props.

Koons’s Kitsch as Avant-Garde

Koons produces readymades placing – like Duchamp and Warhol – ordinary objects into galleries and museums. Duchamp took objects like a urinary and declared it to be art; Warhol adopted piles of soup cans in order to reveal the falsifying discourse of capitalist marketing culture which attempts to conceal the mass-produced nature of its products. Koons applied the same approach to persons who are commodified to some extent – Marilyn Monroe, Dennis Hopper, Joan Crawford – and who appear, once they are transformed into a readymade, as Hollywood mass-productions. 

Like Warhol, Koons chooses objects that are “defined not so much by their function as by their audience, their market” (Caldwell 1992: 10), but his objects are much more commodified even in their original state. He uses religious symbols, Michael Jackson, Pink Panther, or Cicciolina, and commodifies them with the help of gold, stainless steel, bright colors, and sweetness. To commodify means “to turn a valueless object into something valuable” and this is also the main principle of kitsch culture. Kitsch turns objects that have little value in themselves into cultural icons, objects of desire, or other items that can be exchanged on a capitalist market. Koons effectuates a second process of commodification that turns (valueless) kitsch into (valuable) art. The fact that he reveals this “anything goes” philosophy quite liberally provides the possibility to read these acts of commodification at the same time as critiques of commodification. 

There is not only a difference in the choice of objects but also in the respective processes of Warhol’s and Koons’s kitschifications. What Duchamp, Warhol and Koons have in common is that they isolate ordinary objects from their context and attempt to make visible the strangeness that these objects have probably always had but that we never noticed. The objects used by Warhol as well as by Koons responded to emotional and psychological desires long before they were used as art objects. However, in the form in which Warhol presents them, the emotional content is “cut off” (though not entirely negated) and this creates a sophisticated aesthetic surplus. Koons employs, in principle, the same strategy but he goes one step further: he voluntarily presents his objects as moments of kitsch in themselves. Kitsch becomes art not because we would recognize in it an artful element but, paradoxically, because its kitsch identity is singled out and exaggerated. 

Kitsch itself is produced through a similar device; the only difference is that kitsch strives to obtain, in the first place, emotional proximity instead of intellectual or aesthetic distance. Koons’s works (more than Warhol’s) leave us bewildered because many of his objects are attractive and repulsive at the same time, sometimes bordering on the uncanny. They establish a distance between us and them and confront us with disconcerting aspects of contemporary life that until now we have ignored. Kitsch, on the other hand, sucks us into the fully articulated pleasure principle of its own enjoyment.

It is clear that Koons eludes one of the principal strategies of kitsch, which were decisive for Clement Greenberg and Norbert Elias. For Greenberg kitsch uses “for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture” (Greenberg 1961: 10) and for Norbert Elias, kitsch is “nothing other than the expression for this tension between the highly-formed taste of the specialists and the undeveloped unsure taste of mass society” (Elias 1998: 32). Koons’s kitsch, on the other hand, cannot be read as a degradation of high-culture; as kitschified kitsch it rather degrades popular culture.

Koons’s strategy annuls also Clement Greenberg’s famous claim that avant-gardism is necessarily opposed to kitsch. For Greenberg kitsch is always the “rear-guard” (1961: 10) because it encourages us to consume those parts of art that were initially not meant for consumption but for more sophisticated aesthetic enjoyment. Koons reproduces feelings and he does so even in a formulaic fashion (which formally qualifies his works as kitsch), but his raw material are works that are already kitsch. The stained steel used in the Luxury and Degradation series degrades a sort of luxury that has never been one but rather a petty bourgeois version of it: “To me stainless steel is the material of the Proletarian, it’s what pots and pans are made of. (…) it’s fake luxury. If these pieces were in silver they would be absolutely boring” (Koons 1992a, no page numbers). The objects from this series are fake luxury objects bought by an ascending middle class. If these things are kitschified, their kitsch-version will be more truthful than the “real” thing. In real life people do rarely embrace kitsch as kitsch but rather as the “real” thing. (Coca Cola sells one of the most commodified products of the world and insists that it is “the real thing.”) This is why Koons’s message enclosed to the Banality series reads like a cynical appeal to fatalistic honesty: “You’re ambitious and you’re trying to become a new upper class. Don’t divorce yourself from your true being, embrace it” (ibid). In principle Koons announces that, by undergoing a supplementary process of degradation, the ascending members of the middle class will finally be able to fully embrace their degraded selves. 

All this is also the reason why the art of Koons and Warhol (as well as of Duchamp) cannot be kitschified. Their works do not articulate hedonistic emotions but suggest, through a paradoxical and tautological re-articulation of a kitsch-reality, a kind of non-articulated nothingness that necessarily remains beyond all expression.

Mariko Mori: Spiritual Kitsch as Virtual Reality

Like Koons, Mariko Mori excels in a combination of innocence and calculation that she uses for productions of populist dreamworlds. Mori states that she would be a child of Warhol and a grand­child of Duchamp. As a matter of fact, she is also Jeff Koons’s younger sister. Mori commodifies popular culture, fashion, and science fiction. Her early “costume parties” focused on kitsch personae from popular culture and are very similar to Koons’s early works. In Art in America (1988-89), Koons appears as a starry-eyed teenage idol surrounded by bikini-clad beauties which is, in its uncanny impression of unreality, similar to Mori’s Birth of a Star (1995). Mori continues this approach with commodifications of cyborgs, manga characters, and cute Martians.

An important difference between Mori and Koons is that Mori’s evasions into spiritual kitsch landscapes are supported by computer technology. Mori produces computer manipulated crafts and videos that aim at a constant redefinition of the boundary between reality and illusion. Her later works, in which she experiments with mixtures of spirituality and kitsch culture, benefit from this ambiguity. Whether she creates oneiric landscapes that border on an utopic reality (Esoteric Cosmos, 1999), or whether she transforms herself into a flying divinity borrowing from the pictorial language of Buddhist icons (Nirvana, 1996-97), her interest in Eastern philosophy and mythology affirms itself in an almost naïve manner, consciously shunning the historical depth of Japanese religion, but rather shifting it towards utopian, posthuman mythology. 

In Mori’s installation work Garden of Purification (1999) the visitor is led through a Zen garden (on resin stones in various colors) whose floor is covered with sea salt. In the middle of each carefully raked stone circle is placed a “stone planet” that is supposed to affect the charkas. Kumano (1997-98) is an installation that has five large color photos of a Japanese forest as a background, giving the overall impression of Tarkovsky’s Mirror having been laid over with Solaris. Mori makes two dreamlike apparitions among the trees, overexposed as a priestess with ritual headwear, while a turquoise temple is visible on the right side of the panel. Her most recent work Tom Na H-iu (2007) is a sculpture made from glass and a symbol for rebirth capturing the death and rebirth of stars. A sort of spiritual consciousness is produced by a computer, which catches the light that stars generate when they die. With the installation Dream Temple (1998) Mori reached her so far most complete fusion of tradition and technology. The artist’s own comments on the work help to melt both into a smooth paste because “tradition” is now referred to via more abstract references to Japanese culture (the Buddhist principle of the inter­connectedness of beings, the principle of non-foundation, hidden energy, the mystical experience of being dead, etc.). The Dream Temple is a utopian site, representing a futuristic glass and fiberglass replica of the Dream Temple (Yumedono) in Nara built in around 739. The original Dream Temple is an octagonal building in which Prince Shotoku used to meditate and where he had dream visions that resulted in the creation of the statue Guze Kan’non, a statue still placed at the temple’s core. As Mori explains herself, the Yumedono in Nara was the place where “Buddhism solidified its first spiritual base in Japan” (Mori 1998: no page numbers). Interestingly, considerations of “another reality” that vaguely flow out of Buddhist philosophy lead, for Mori, to considerations of “the virtual.” For Mori this approach is very consistent as she explains: “The Japanese artistic talent seems to evolve along two currents, one of which is linked to virtual space, to the attempt of finding a passage from virtual space to real space” (ibid.). The particularity of the Dream Temple is that, though being a “real” installation, the exclusive use of transparent material combined with a complex use of “mystical” light, lets this real object look like an image produced through computer simulation. The Dream Temple enables to “live in a three-dimensional virtual reality” (ibid.). The resemblance that this has with the spatial experience of a real tearoom is baffling if we consider Toshihiko Izutsu’s description of traditional Japanese architecture (a tea room): “Moreover, the visual effect resulting from the lack of material impression of solidity and massiveness, seen in a reduced light coming in through white paper screens, seems to add a filament of ethereality to the view, or shall we say a filament of tenuous mist over the whole spatial field of aesthetic saturation” (Izutsu 1981: 61).
Religion practiced without a proper historical background becomes the sort of synthetic mysticism that is vaguely directed into the future. It is the mysticism that sects are often making use of. Myths are probably, as has stated Gillo Dorfles, the vastest containers of kitsch that humanity has ever produced as they relish in sentimentality, coarseness, and vulgarity. Any separation of mythology from history (easily effectuated by turning the myth into a utopian tale) produces almost automatically the most kitsch-like gibberish possible. Mori plays with this sort of spiritual kitsch that embraces the irrational, pre-conscious, “cosmic,” or fantastic, by reediting the spirituality of romanticism with the help of high-tech, occasionally integrating manga characters. Her Dream Temple is clearly an example of utopian architecture, but in spite of the enthusiasm for the future that Mori’s work vibrate in general, this work is different from the eighteenth century utopian architecture of Boullée and Ledoux. On all levels Mori refuses to represent the utopia in the form of an articulated wish (a Freudian Wunschtraum) but prefers to let the utopian concept empty itself into ethereality and undefined dreamscapes. (This is also the reason why her spiritual kitsch does not end up as mass-produced replicas of tea sets, meditation pillows, miniature rock gardens, or ads for weekend retreats promising peace of mind with Zen meditation and short-lived asceticism. Though this kind of kitsch does not really exist in Japan, it is widespread in Western countries which set out, since the 1970s, to kitschify much of Zen spirituality.) The point is also here that Mori’s “anything goes” philosophy lets her acts of commodification simultaneously appear as critiques of commodification.

Finally, the ironical attitude is the reason why both Koons and Mori are driven towards self-commodification, a gesture that can only be ironic and ambiguous: since commodification implies that the valuable object had been valueless beforehand, we have to suppose that Koons and Mori as persons were valueless before having been commodified into works of art, a statement that the artists are unlikely to accept. Self-commodification – for all times strongly linked to Warhol’s claim that “everybody can be famous for one day” – reveals most clearly the ironical input that this art underlies.


Mori’s work cannot be understood without considering her cultural origin and Japanese aesthetics in general. In the Catalogue of her Dream Temple, Mori refers to the tea master Sen no Rikyû (1522-1591) and holds that his tea hut is a “work of conceptual art” (no page numbers). Rikyû is one of the main developers of the wabi-sabi aesthetics, a complex system dependent on Zen Buddhism. The term wabi-sabi has come to the attention of a wider Western public through Daitetz Suzuki and represents a Zen-inspired idea of beauty manifested in traditional architecture and crafts valuing imperfection, simplicity, poverty, and naturalness. Beauty and authenticity are found in aged wood, cracks, asymmetrical forms, and decay, which makes wabi-sabi expressions compatible with the principle of impermanence central to Zen Buddhism. Wabi delights Japanese in the form of those things that remind us of the transient character of all things. Historically, the rustic, bound-to-earth style of wabi-sabi tea bowls and other artifacts used for tea depends on their conception as “non-artistic” objects. The reason is that the Japanese received the first elements of inspiration for this pottery style from Korea and the “models” that sparked the development of are today art objects were, paradoxically, ordinary rice bowls used by Korean peasants. Elements of an utterly low culture became the most sophisticated items in traditional Japanese art.

This means that, formally, Rikyû’s approach corresponds to what Calinescu has called “the law of aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu 1987: 258) which is one of the principles of kitsch and corresponds also to the approach of artists like Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons. Duchamp’s ordinary objects that we can admire in art galleries and kitsch are produced through similar devices; the only difference is, as mentioned, that kitsch strives to obtain, in the first place, emotional proximity instead of intellectual or aesthetic distance. The law of aesthetic inadequacy is here applied on a formal level but cancelled with regard to aesthetic content.

Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi has more affinities with the Western modern stream of expression represented by Duchamp, Warhol, and Koons, than with most Western art that has been produced somewhere between Romanticism (which is the clearest precursor of kitsch) and early phases of modernity. The reason is that all of Romanticism (Broch 1975: 50), a good deal of “modern” art, and almost everything that exists between these two (that is especially the Nineteenth-Century period of industrialization which is most typical for kitsch, Elias 1998: 28), contains kitsch in the potential form. A great deal of Western art is potentially close to kitsch because it refers to the idyll of a recent history, to the idyll (utopia) of a near future, or articulates “something” in the form of a nostalgia of another (better) world. Wabi, however, as much as the art of Warhol and Koons, are fundamentally unable to give in to the transmission of a potential kitsch content because the popular material they use contains no sentiments in a potential form. Wabi art uses modest folk art objects which have little kitsch potential because of their very low degree of commodification; and Warhol and Koons choose objects in which kitsch is not potentially present but articulated.

It has been said above that dehistoricized myths can easily turn into utopianizing kitsch-like gibberish. It becomes obvious that, while in Western art historical reality is often replaced with a fabricated version of itself or with a fabricated myth or utopia (providing the possibility of kitsch), in Japanese aesthetics of wabi – but also in the art of Warhol, Koons and Mori – things develop the other way round. Objects exist here for themselves and, in a way of speaking, anticipate any kitschification through the tautological self-affirmation that is normally the unique privilege of kitsch. Koons’s unapproachable objects that he has cast in steel for his series entitled Luxury and Degradation literally take the fun out of kitschification; they reach what a Zen-inspired aesthetics would call a curious aesthetic degree of “nothingness.” The same happens when Koons leavens his Made in Heaven pictures with “quasi-religious glimpses of an ecstatic, celestial joy” (Rosenblum 1992b: 13) imbuing pornography with the “aura of the religious image” (Butler 2007: 68). By “desexualizing its sexual aspect” (Sylvester 2000: 35), pornography becomes “nothing” in an almost Zen-Buddhist sense of being insignificant on purpose.

Mori’s works follow the same strategy but for her this nothingness is represented by Virtual Reality when she says that she wants to reach a “virtual center where all tensions are overcome” (Celent 1998: no page numbers). Nowhere does the link between kitsch and the virtual become as clear as here because Mori spells out Virtual Reality as a concretized eternal present. This is similar to Koons when he says that his use of baroque is meant to “show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal” (Koons 1992b, npn). To him “Cicciolina is the eternal virgin [because] she’s been able to remove guilt and shame from her life, and because of this she is a great liberator” (Koons 1992a: npn). The spectator viewing these pictures is supposed to be “in the realm of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (Koons 1992b: 130). Spirituality is here instrumentalized in order to level out all differences. Also Mori, as she conflates Eastern spirituality and utopian mythology (which she combines with an aesthetics of the cute derived from manga), avoids historical depth on principle. An artificially established superficiality, joyously identified with Virtual Reality, lets her appear as the Koons of the cyberage.

Innocent Kitsch/Pornokitsch

Koons’s works, which look like kitsch without following its anti-artistic logic, settle on a degree of “absolute innocence.” His Made in Heaven series is “not pornographic even though they are depictions of explicit activity” (Caldwell 1992a: 14). The stylization takes the fun out of voyeurism, which means, first, that these objects are no longer suitable items for voyeurism as such, and second, even if they were, that voyeurism has here become an “innocent” activity since it is no longer nourished by “guilty” libidinal structures. In “first-level” kitsch, as in voyeurism, an imaginary “more” is always intrinsically present, since it represents the underlying power that makes phenomena like kitsch and voyeurism possible. It is the voyeur’s dream of having “real” sex or kitsch-lover’s dream of reaching the level of high culture and of being accepted into the social class that has so far closed its doors to him.

This imaginary “more” does not occur in Koons’s works, which is the reason why it can appear as innocent. Koons’ kitsch is absolutely self-affirmative and tautologically expressive to a point that the “law of inadequacy” is no longer applicable in regard to its content. The object obviously “is kitsch” (or even pornography), but this statement can never be formulated as a reproach. Already forty years ago Ugo Volli has analyzed a phenomenon that today appears to overlap with Koons’ later elaborations. Volli called this phenomenon “pornokitsch” and its formula is simple: “At the moment man makes of sex an aesthetic or scientific thing there is no reason to be ashamed of sex” (Volli 1975: 231). Pornography as art (or pornography as science) is innocent because it has become pornokitsch.

Also Mori undertook the transposition of what Calinescu has called the “hallucinatory power of kitsch” to a mode of reality that is hallucinatory in itself. As a matter of fact, the “hallucinatory power” or “spurious dreaminess” of kitsch (Calinescu 1987: 228) can be helped – within seconds – to an absolute existence simply by calling reality “virtual.” It is important to note that in Mori’s work, as in that of Koons, this mechanism has no “cheap” cathartic effect because here we have to do with art. Koons’ works ask deep-reaching questions about the status of objects in modern capitalist society by revealing the presence of kitsch almost everywhere.
Mori’s work goes one step further in the direction of a technological Posthumanism. In her work not just the “thingly” reality but the concept of reality itself has become kitsch, that is: reality with its “real” as well as its spiritual side has become consumable, enjoyable and “cute.” As in Koons’s works, the result is a type of self-sufficient kitsch that appears as “innocent.” The use of cute elements is more than just strategic: it is essential to Mori’s art. 

In order to understand this we need to turn again towards Japanese culture. Much of Japanese cute kitsch consistently follows an ontology of the singular, annulling the tensions that in the case of “first level kitsch” flows out of the very conflict with the law of inadequacy. In the omnipresent Japanese kitsch culture of the cute (though not only there) kitsch has a more “innocent” existence. Volli’s early reflections on pornokitsch retrospectively retrieve a part of the contemporary Japanese cultural situation in which aestheticized kitsch manipulates the limits between conscience and innocence, or adulthood and infancy. The “shôjo,” since twenty years one of the most typical creatures of Japanese mangas, is a liminal creature settled between woman and child. This creature is also very much involved in pornographic productions, so-called hentai anime. I am not saying that this kind of pornokitsch is free of voyeuristic aspirations but that it is ambiguous by definition. It represents a kitsch culture that pretends to know neither guilt nor remorse because it attempts to be only “what it is.” It is a kitsch culture that pretends to be nothing “more.” This means that it annuls the “law of inadequacy” through which kitsch normally functions because kitsch always strives towards “adequacy” or simply the “more.” The pretension to be innocent as well as the stylization on which this cartoon industry bases its entire project, are supposed to produce a sort of innocent pornography that Volli anticipated already in the 1960s. 

It needs to be pointed out that, in general, the Japanese have a more innocent approach towards pornography, which has cultural and religious foundations. Helen McCarthy wrote about the subject of sexuality in anime and manga: “Sexual preferences or fantasies of any kind are not regarded as strange or reprehensible in Japan, where a long tradition of liberal thought has created an atmosphere in which anything is permissible in the privacy of your imagination” (McCarthy 1993: 48). This is probably also the reason why in Japan the smallest neighborhood bookshops, “well stocked with pornographic magazines, comics, and books [and] vending machines, conveniently located on street corner, offer a large variety of porno-comics and ‘dirty pictures’” (Buruma 1984: 55). It is the reason why “leaflets and free catalogues for porno videos are widely distributed to homes in the suburbs” (Yunomae 1995: 108). A statement about the Japanese national character penned down by the Italian anthropologist Fosco Maraini in the 1960s (a statement that would no longer pass as politically correct today) explains a wide range of the phenomena that have been described here: “No doubts, caused by the memory of some original sin in the backyards of the collective subconsciousness, trouble their sleep. No need for psychiatrists or couches. The world is good; man is a kami (god); work is good; wealth is good; fruits are good; sex is good; and even war is good, provided you win it.” According to Maraini, the Japanese would strive for nothing other than the “knowledge of the world as it is” (ibid.) which is, curiously, also the ambition of Zen Buddhism.

Shôjo culture, together with an ambiguous erotic kitsch culture, represents the extreme case of a culture that has decided to settle its aesthetic expressions in an ambiguous field between, as has said Alessandro Gomarasca, “innocence and provocation” (Gomarasca 2001). It is certainly no coincidence that Mori appears in her works as a shôjo, but I would go as far as saying that both Mori and Koons are shôjos. John Whittier Treat defines the life of the shôjo as “essentially narcissistic in that it is self-referential, and self-referential as long as the shôjo is not employed productively in sexual and capitalist economies” (Whittier Treat 1996: 283). As the universe of shôjo kitsch culture “celebrate[s] the vapidness of our contemporary existences” (ibid.) it can at times come very close to Koons’s “Walt Disney version of an erotic fantasy, complete with adorable animals” (Caldwell 1992a: 13) or a “collision of love à la Disney with the reality of sexuality” (14). A typical device of Japanese rorikon (Lolita-Complex) commodification linked to shôjo culture is to “sexualize objects that are normally not explicitly sexual” (Shigematsu 1999: 130). However, the vice versa is also true: Koons’s strategy of “transforming … through innocence, beauty, security, and trust the visible elements of the vulgar, pornographic” (Schneider 2001: 18) also echoes a principle of shôjo culture. And even where it embraces no erotic elements at all, a resemblance between Koons and a typically Japanese conception of kitsch is striking. Take Koons’s Rabbit, which incorporates the viewer in itself because it reflects him/her in its mirror surface. The relationship that Rabbit establishes with the viewer approaches the strategy of one of the most typically Japanese kitsch personages, Hello Kitty. The producers of Hello Kitty explain that “the reason Kitty’s mouth is not drawn is so that anyone looking at her can imagine their own expression for her. When you are happy, you can imagine a smile on her face; when you are sad, she’s sad with you. Kitty always knows how you feel, and being your friend, she shares your feelings.” Both Rabbit and Kitty represent the most typical cases of kitsch defined by Ludwig Giesz which is for him always in the first place a “self-enjoyment” in which the “enjoyer enjoys himself” (Giesz 1975: 41). In any case I find Koons’s productions more shôjo-like than those of the most prominent Japanese representative of Koons-style, Takashi Murakami, whose sculptures of the insipid female manga character Hiropon rather represent the kind of eroticized kitsch that Koons would probably like to avoid.
Being both innocent and calculating, both frivolous and sincere, the shôjo as well as Koons and Mori attempt to exist narcissistically and beyond critical dialogue. Refusing any open form of irony (though being ironical and calculating on a more hidden level), they cultivate a juvenile eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too attitude that has become more and more recurrent in self-centered, capitalist consumerism. All three of them create a utopia in which kitsch can no longer be called kitsch because this dreamworld has its own rules. Koons points out that for him the dream of such a teenage world is most explicitly exemplified by the Beatles: “Nobody ever said that the Beatles’ music was not on a high level, but it appealed to a mass audience. That’s what I want to do” (Koons 1992b: 114). In the Beatles’ universe the bad becomes good and it is possible to be avant-gardist and still be loved by the masses. Mass culture can at the same time be elitist.


If kitsch is the legitimate taste of the twenty-first century, the elaboration of Virtual Reality is its main technological achievement. Permitting an immediacy that art must avoid, kitsch can produce the image of a cultural anomie; and this kind of combination of kitsch and Virtual Reality can most successfully be produced through an elaboration of the “spiritual” side of kitsch. In virtual reality the “unreal” component of reality (illusions, wishes, myths, etc.) can become “real.” Kitsch is the real precursor of Virtual Reality.

Mori makes this particularly clear. Her “kitsch” produces itself out of itself, being no imitation or simulation of a preexisting reality. This is why this kind of reality looks so much like a posthuman frozen dream. In this point it comes close to kitsch, but also to the aesthetics of the wabi-sabi. In wabi-sabi, in kitsch, and in Mori’s treatment of the virtual, dreams are “frozen.” Wabi-sabi lets emotions “freeze” in a state of non-articulation, that means it freezes nature (natural colors, materials) and avoids exuberance by willfully installing austerity. Kitsch simply freezes emotions in their state of exuberance. Mori’s installations provide us with a sterile spirituality that appears as a parody of kitsch because the illusions of consumerism are here revealed as what they are: the frozen dreams that Virtual Reality makes use of. What they all have in common is that they manage to install themselves at a non-place of relativity, or at an eternal present, in which the (present or historical) “real” no longer represents an obstacle for creation.

* Dr.Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, PD, is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Dept. of Philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences, Gulf University for Science and Technology in Hawally, Kuwait. He also taught in the U.S.


Allison, Anne. 2004. “Cuteness as Japan’s Millennial Product” in J. Tobin (ed.), Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon. Durham: Duke University Press, 34-52. 

Baudrillard, Jean. 1986. Amérique. Paris: Grasset.

Bornoff, Nicolas. 2002. ‘Sex and Consumerism: The Japanese State of the Art’ in Lloyd, Fran (ed.) Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art. London: Reaktion Books.

Broch, Hermann. 1975. ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’ in Dorfles, 49-76.

Buchloh, Benjamin. 2001. ‘Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Arts: 1956-1966’ in A. Michelson (ed.) Andy Warhol. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1-46.

Buruma, Ian. 1984. Behind the Mask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Butler, Rex. 2007. ‘Two Warhols’ in Andy Warhol [catalogue]. South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery.

Caldwell, John. 1992. ‘Jeff Koons: The Way we Live Now’ in Jeff Koons. San Francisco: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 9-14.

Calinescu, Matei. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Celent, Germano. 1998. ‘Mariko Mori: Eternal Present’ in Mariko Mori: Dream Temple. Milano: Fondazione Prada.

Doi, Takeo. 1973. The Anatomy of Dependence. New York, London, Tokyo: Kodansha. 

Dorfles, Gillo. 1975. Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste. New York: Bell.

Elias, Norbert. 1998. ‘The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch’ in J. Goudsblom & S. Mennel (eds), The Norbert Elias Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fogarsi, George. 1997. ‘All that is Solidu Melts into Kitty’ in CTheory: Theory, Technology and Culture 20:3, Article 55.

Giesz, Ludwig. 1975. ‘Phenomenology of Kitsch’ in Dorfles, 156-174.

Gomarasca, Alessandro. 2001. Poupées et robots: La culture pop japonaise. Paris: Autrement.

Greenberg, Clement. 1961. ‘Avantgarde and Kitsch’ in Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Itoh, Teiji (with T. Ikko and S. Tsune). 1993. Wabi, Sabi, Suki: The Essence of Japanese Beauty. Hiroshima: Mazda Motor Corp. 

Izutsu, Toshihiko & Toyo. 1981. The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan. Haag: Nijnhoff.

Kaplan, Frédéric. 2004. ‘Who is Afraid of the Humanoid? Investigating Cultural Differences in the Acceptance of Robots’ in International Journal of Humanoid Robotics 1:3, 1-16.

Keene, Donald. 1988. The Pleasures of Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kinsella, Sharon. 1995. ‘Cuties in Japan’ in Lise Skov & Brian Moeran (eds), Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press. 

Koelwel, Eduard. 1937. ‘Kitsch und Schwäb’ in Mutterprache 52.

Koons, Jeff. 1992a. Jeff Koons. San Francisco: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Koons, Jeff. 1992b. The Jeff Koons Handbook. New York: Rizzoli.

Lugg, Catherine A. 1999. Kitsch: From Education to Public Policy. New York & London: Falmer Press.

Maraini, Fosco. 1972. Japan: Patterns of Continuity. London: Hamish Hamilton.

McCarthy, Helen. 1993. Anime: A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Animation. London: Titan Books.

McVeigh, Brian. 2000. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling and Self-Presentation in Japan. New York: Berg.

Mori, Mariko. 1998. ‘The Dream Temple and the Cave of Lascaux’ (with Shin’ichi Nakazawa & Takayo Iida) in Mariko Mori: Dream Temple. Milano: Fondazione Prada.

Napier, Susan. 1998. “Vampires, Psychic Girls, Plying Women and Sailor Scouts: Four Faces of the Young Female in Japanese Popular Culture” in D. P. Martinez (ed): The World of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 91-109.

Rosenblum, Robert. 1992. ‘Notes on Jeff Koons’ in R. Rosenblum (ed.), The Jeff Koons Handbook. New York: Rizzoli.
Sato, Kumiko. 2004. ‘How Information Technology Has (Not) Changed Feminism and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context’ in Comparative Literature Studies 41:3.
Schneider, Echard. 2001. ‘Surface and Reflection’ in E. Schneider (ed.) Jeff Koons. Köln: König.

Shiokawa, Kanako. 1999. ‘Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics’ in Lent 93-126.

Volli, Ugo. 1975. ‘Pornography and Pornokitsch’ in Dorfles, 224-250.

Whittier Treat, John. 1996. ‘Yoshimoto Banana writes home: The Shôjo in Japanese Popular Culture’ in J. Whittier Treat (ed.) Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 275-308.

Yunomae, Tomoko. 1996. ‘Commodified Sex (Sexism): Japan’s Pornographic Culture’ in AMPO Japan Asia Quarterly Review (ed.), Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement. New York: Sharpe.

Visit the Website of Prof. Th. Botz-Bornstein