Playscape PLAYlist

Inspired by the works in the exhibition Playscape: Contemporary Art from the Colby Museum’s Collection, Museum staff Andrew Witte brings together examples of auditory kitsch from the past 100 years.

Sadie Benning, Flat Is Beautiful, 1998. Video, 48:58. Museum purchase from the Jetté Acquisitions Fund, 2007.003. Excerpted clip, 17:57–18:25.

Kitsch is all around us. Novelist Milan Kundera claimed it as “an integral part of the human condition.”¹ Kitsch is art for the everyday and the everywhere, often circulated via cheap images and products that find widespread appeal—clip art, pink flamingos, or the landscapes of Thomas Kinkade, for example. The word is commonly used negatively; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “art, objects, design, or entertainment having popular appeal but considered to be vulgar, of low quality, or lacking artistic merit.”²

Thomas Kinkade, Rosebud Cottage. 2011.

In writing about the concept as a specific aesthetic category, however, Tomas Kulka proposes three conditions that may define something as kitsch:

  1. The object or theme depicted in the artwork is effortlessly identifiable by the viewer; it has a certain universality.
  2. The subject is charged with sentimentality, an appeal to simple base emotions (for example, pleasure or grief).
  3. The artwork does not substantially enrich our perspective or knowledge of the depicted objects or themes.³

This definition gives form to the concept of kitsch beyond a subjective opinion on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste. Kitsch becomes more than a derogatory term; it exists instead as a common condition. Predicated on associations and memory, kitsch oftentime comes hand in hand with nostalgia. In my eyes, nearly all of the works in Playscape fit into this defined aesthetic category, and recognizing them as such allows for a new appreciation for the kitsch we see outside the gallery, too.

Ann Craven, Bear (Climbing Tree and Mountain Sides), 2021. Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in. (213 x 183 cm). Gift of the Artist, 2021.250.

Using this framework, let’s take a look at Ann Craven’s painting Bear (Climbing Tree and Mountain Sides). As a viewer, I instantly recognize the elements of a bear and a tree.The bear is cute and friendly-looking, with large blue eyes that give it cartoonish proportions reminiscent of a teddy bear or a Disney-fied animal. The recognition of these elements elicits a small, pleasant delight, though it does not significantly shift my perception of bears or nature. A personal conclusion: it’s pretty kitschy. Works such as Ralph Fasanella’s flat and caricatured depiction of a baseball stadium in Night Game-Practice Time and the friendly faces of Bernard Langlais’s wooden animal sculptures also recall similar childlike associations.

​​Kitsch can also extend into the auditory realm, as I illustrate through this PLAYlist. Think of elevator Muzak (“Still Life” by Infinity Frequencies), an advertising jingle, or even the bright synth of a Phil Collins song (“Two Hearts”). Such tracks highlight simplicity and sentimentality, and they often piggyback off of music we might consider ‘timeless’ or ‘classic.’

The playlist also includes the four songs included in Sadie Benning’s film Flat Is Beautiful, all of which reflect the film’s coming-of-age theme: “Crazy on You” by Heart, “Oh Daddy” by Fleetwood Mac, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, and “Big Brother” by David Bowie. These pieces of borrowed media we rewatch through the characters’ eyes underscore moments where the main characters, Taylor and Quiggy, navigate their identities through consumption and escapism. 

Tracks included in this soundscape suggest the concept of kitsch, whether they soar in sentimentality, evoke a sense of nostalgia or chagrin that we have attached to trends of the past, or riff off of the mainstay tropes of popular music. 


A Few Liner Notes

Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2007. Enamel and metallic paint on linen, 90 x 72 in. (228.6 x 182.9 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2012.007.

American painter Joyce Pensato often drew on motifs from popular media, creating shadowy, distorted portraits of iconic animated characters (such as Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, and Playscape’s own Daisy). In a similar vein, tracks in this playlist sample and appropriate children’s media in unconventional and playful ways. RGB, a project from electronic musician Pranesh Kamalakanthan, composed the album Inferior Goods using only sounds pulled from dollar store CD and DVD bins. The featured track “Nightlight” opens with dialogue and sound effects from an episode of The Simpsons. “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is a familiar cover with a twist. Alvin, Theodore, and Simon’s rendition is brought to 16 speed, revealing the sludge-like distortion behind the Chipmunk’s original composition. Shelly Duvall’s campy performance of Popeye’s Olive Oyl shines in “He Needs Me,” where her off-pitch, off-key, off-everything voice charmingly dots a swirling orchestral arrangement. “Once I Step Behind The Curtain, I Never Come Out The Same” is an ominous phrase sampled from a Polly Pocket commercial that repeats into devolved madness in a track from audio/visual noise project Ecology: Homestones.

John Coffer, Help Wanted, 2007. Tintype, 20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm). The Lunder Collection, 045.2008.

Country music has a historical inclination toward metaphor and wordplay. Romance is a game in the songs of Patsy Cline (“Turn the Cards Slowly”) and Adolph Hofner (“We Played A Game”). “You won, I lost, we’re through,” croons Hofner from a dance hall somewhere in South Texas in the 1930s, through a static haze reminiscent of John Coffer’s tintypes and historic lifestyle—a bridge that connects us to a not-so-distant past. Coffer lives in a log cabin he built himself and surrounds himself with antique technologies; one can imagine Midred Bailey’s “It’s So Peaceful In The Country” playing off a phonograph record. Vintage twang meets nineties alternative in the Asheville-based band Wednesday, whose song “Bull Believer” finds a connection between bull fighting and putting up with your partner’s bullshit. Bernard Langlais’s wall sculpture A Lot of Bull draws on a similar pun.

​​David Salle, Rips in the Mirror, 1998. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 144 1/2 in. (182.9 x 367.03 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2010.025.

I find a sonic resonance between David Salle’s painting Rips in the Mirror and the often avant-garde nature of electronic music—layered tones and synthetic instruments that when combined create a balanced, or even playfully discordant, melody. Included here are a few tracks from early pioneers, including industrial music’s godmother Throbbing Gristle (“Walkabout”). Electronica became mainstream in the synth pop hits of the 1980s, with melodramatic classics such as Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” or Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart.” Experimentation in electronic music continues today with the popularization of sub-genres such as hyper-pop, which exaggerates and abstracts the conventions of pop music. Auto-tune, samples, and overlapping melodies battle each other in maximalist compositions like Machine Girl’s “Missy Punk,” which takes from the likes of “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliot and “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown.

The rest of the playlist is yours to explore. I recommend listening in the presented order, but I don’t think shuffling it would hurt too much. Enjoy!


—Andrew Witte, Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellow in Museum Practice



1. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 256.
2. “Kitsch.” Oxford English Dictionary.
3. Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 37-38.