In this age of heightened spectacle and surveillance, kitsch seems an innocuous form of cultural persuasion and political manipulation. Yet since 9/11 it has returned with a vengeance in the US, with an effective brand that might as well be called ‘Bush kitsch’.
The word ‘kitsch’ comes from the German verkitschen, ‘to make cheap’, and an elitist concern about debasement pervades most accounts of the subject (it begins with art but hardly ends there). Kitsch has attracted – that is to say, repelled – novelists from Hermann Broch to Milan Kundera and critics from Clement Greenberg to Saul Friedländer, all of whom took it up at periods when technologies of mass culture and mass politics were intensifying: Broch and Greenberg after the dramatic rise of Fascist regimes in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and Kundera and Friedländer as the totalitarian regimes decayed during the volatile 1970s and 1980s. (The latter period also saw a camping of Nazi iconography, which provoked Friedländer in particular, and a parody of Stalinist representation, as performed by ‘Sots’ artists like Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid – ‘Sots’ is from the Russian word for socialism.) For these figures and others, kitsch cuts across culture and politics instrumentally, to the detriment of both.
In 1933, as the Nazis came to power, Broch identified kitsch with an emergent bourgeoisie caught between contradictory values: an asceticism of work on the one hand and an exaltation of feeling on the other. This early kitsch tended to be a blend of prudery and prurience, with sentiment at once chastened, keyed up and made saccharine in its expression. Broch was insistent about the disastrous effects of kitsch – he called it ‘the evil in the value-system of art’ – and Greenberg agreed. In another momentous year, 1939, he underscored its capitalist dimension: ‘a product of the industrial revolution’, kitsch was for him an ersatz version of ‘genuine culture’, which the bourgeoisie, now dominant, sold to a peasantry turned proletariat stripped of its own folk traditions. Kitsch was soon mass-produced, becoming ‘the first universal culture ever beheld’; as such, it floated ‘the illusion that the masses actually rule’. It was this illusion, of course, that made kitsch (with variations according to political ideology and national tradition) integral to the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Greenberg also indicated how kitsch dictates its consumption through predigested forms and programmed effects. This notion of ‘fictional feelings’, which anyone can experience but no one quite possess, led Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory (1970), to define kitsch as a parody of catharsis. It also allowed Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), to argue that it is instrumental to our ‘categorical agreement with being’, that is, to our assent to the proposition ‘that human existence is good’ despite all that is ‘unacceptable’ in it (the reality of shit and death above all), which it is ‘the true function of kitsch . . . to curtain off’. In this expanded definition, kitsch engineers a ‘dictatorship of the heart’ through ‘basic images’ of ‘the brotherhood of man’, a feeling of fellowship that, for Kundera, is little more than narcissism writ large:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
It also makes it, in societies ruled by a single party, ‘totalitarian’, and ‘in the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.’