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Liberace or The Apotheosis of Kitsch

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 8, 2012 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

In 1953, pianist and entertainer extraordinaire Liberace entered American culture with a TV show that introduced millions of viewers to canonic works and composers of Western art music. In his show—which garnered higher ratings than I Love Lucy—Liberace regularly performed shortened and “enhanced” versions of musical works such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Chopin’s Polonaises. In these free reinterpretations, Liberace routinely left out the “difficult, boring parts,” orchestrated the original piano score, and eventually created eclectic mash-ups that seamlessly blended jazz, bossa nova, and classical music. This cut-and-paste approach outraged music critics, and Liberace soon came to be portrayed in mainstream media as the very incarnation of kitsch, and later, as the paradigm of camp.

Dr. Salinas’ talk traced the genealogy of the notions of kitsch and camp in the discourse of modern criticism and sought to complicate them, by analyzing representative performances of classical works that Liberace recorded for his TV show. As a symbolic case representing an extreme tendency within mass culture, Liberace’s interventions can help us both to rethink the relationship between artwork, media, and performance and to reframe the anxieties undergirding the dichotomy between serious art and popular entertainment that has been central to modern aesthetics.