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.’

During the Reagan years Kundera was a darling of the neo-conservatives, who were pleased with his account of Communist society as a ‘world of grinning idiots’ on ‘the Grand March’ to a gulag mistaken for utopia. Today, however, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, aspects of ‘totalitarian kitsch’ have returned in American society, presided over by some of the same neo-cons. The differences are obvious enough: for example, the present administration tends to limit its ‘brotherhood of man’ to the nation, and it feels little need to naturalise its ideology, which renders it all the more immune to criticism. (Recall the heady mix of honesty and cynicism in this comment by a ‘senior Bush adviser’ before the last presidential election: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.’) Yet the similarities are marked as well: even though not all questions are precluded, many answers are given in advance (there are WMDs in Iraq, there is an al-Qaida connection etc), and we are surrounded by ‘beautifying lies’ of the sort noted by Kundera – a ‘spread of democracy’ that often bolsters its opposite, a ‘march of freedom’ that often liberates people to death, a ‘war on terror’ that is often terroristic, and a trumpeting of ‘moral values’ often at the cost of civil rights.

What does all this have to do with humble kitsch? In part the blackmail that produces ‘our categorical agreement’ operates through its tokens. For instance, in support of the ‘war on terror’ are the decals of the World Trade Center towers draped with Stars and Stripes, the little flags that fly on truck antennas and dot business-suit lapels, and the shirts, caps and statuettes dedicated to New York City firemen and police (if workers once symbolised production in Communist societies, these figures emblematise a new story of Christian sacrifice and revenge). More direct still are the yellow ribbon stickers on vehicles across the US that exhort us to ‘support our troops’ (SUVs seem to lead the way, as if extreme petrol consumption were a form of such aid). Part of the force of this sign is its legibility, which depends on an American custom, dating from at least the Civil War, whereby women ‘tie a yellow ribbon’ in fidelity to men gone to battle. Yet this origin is mythical, put in circulation by the 1949 John Ford film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which starred John Wayne as a cavalry officer in the Indian battles in the West. And even this source is shaky: as used today, the ribbons date only to the ‘hostage crisis’ of 1979-81 when 52 Americans were held by Iranian militants, and there the relevant source is a pop song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’ (1973), about a paroled convict.

The point is not to mock this symbol (its shallowness belies its strength), much less to bemoan its taste, but rather to suggest how it serves to ‘curtain off’ shit and death. For in lieu of images of flag-draped coffins, let alone of blown-apart bodies, we get these bows inveigling our support – which, of course, is less for ‘our troops’ than for this administration, whose adventures are not exactly in the troops’ best interests. Seen from this jaundiced point of view, the bows begin to seem more like collars that bind us sentimentally to the imperial project.

Another prime example of Bush kitsch, this time concerning ‘moral values’, is the brandishing of the Ten Commandments at state courthouses. (The main protagonist is Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who was dismissed after he refused to remove his granite decalogue; there are related cases in Texas and Kentucky, due to be heard by the US Supreme Court over the summer.) This act defies the separation of church and state, and that’s the point: to proclaim the Ten Commandments more fundamental than any Enlightenment nicety, and honoured as such by Jew, Christian and Muslim alike – as if religious tolerance, and not its opposite, were the message. Again, the historical source of these monuments is not deep: they date back only to 1956 when, in a publicity stunt for his film version of The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille paid for a few hundred tablets to be placed in public spaces across the country. (Charlton Heston, who launched his career as Moses and ended it as head of the National Rife Association, was also active in the promotion.)

Yet the monuments are far from absurd, for they militate for a convergence of church and state that is in keeping not only with the political ambitions of the Bush administration but also with the practical effects of its massive deficit: the deficit is an effective way ‘to starve the beast’ of the state, to take money away from social programmes so that people are driven towards the church – ‘Godfare’ instead of welfare. The tablets emblematise this vanguard of the right; they also epitomise its literal relation to the law, for even as a constitutional principle is defied, the biblical letter is honoured. (In part this literalism stems from the Baptist doctrine of the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible, which effectively obviates the need to read it, let alone to interpret it. Often in this society the Bible does appear more cited than read, and more brandished than cited. Being-alone-with-Jesus is all one needs.)

In the case of both the yellow ribbons and the Commandment monuments, exhortation slips into the imperative: ‘Support our troops,’ ‘Thou shalt (not)’. This is also the voice of the second anthem of the US, ‘God Bless America’ (also available as a flag sticker), only here it is God who is exhorted. Again, this stuff seems innocuous, but precisely because of this it acclimatises us to rhetorical structures that now suffuse political language, especially on the right, where policy positions – against reproductive rights, gay rights and so on – are presented as preordained, commands from on high, answers given in advance.

Some cultural critiques of Bush kitsch have appeared: witty campings by groups such as ‘Billionaires for Bush’ (who perform brilliantly in demonstrations), as well as graphic accounts of its oppressive effects, such as Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers. I want to point to two other instances, one an independent film, the other an art installation: each takes on a prominent ‘moral value’ advanced by Bush kitsch.

At the heart of kitsch, according to Kundera, is the ‘idiotic tautology’ ‘Long live life!’ Bush kitsch has its own version of this tautology, even as it seems to define life as, optimally, the time between conception and birth (and, more rarely, between vegetative state and death). In part the thinking here is evangelical: if the Creation is one with the Fall, then the foetus is more innocent than the child and so more worthy of protection (this line affects the Bush position on stem-cell research, too, among other issues). In his new film Palindromes, Todd Solondz mercilessly plays out some implications of this view of ‘life’.

The movie centres on a girl called Aviva (played by different actors in different scenes, which, along with her palindromic name, indicates her allegorical status). Barely a teenager, Aviva is subsumed by this ideology of ‘life’: she wants a baby, and, when she becomes pregnant, she cannot separate her existence from this pregnancy. After her middle-class parents urge an abortion, she runs away and falls in with a foster family full of kids who are damaged psychologically or physically. This family is a palindrome of its own, a closed world run by an evangelical couple called Bo and Mama Sunshine, who have coaxed the children to accept Jesus as their ‘personal saviour’. At dinner on the day Aviva arrives, an albino girl, who is blind as a result of her mother’s drug abuse, tells the story of her redemption in a harrowing idiom of beatific-robotic faith. Later, the kids, who have formed a musical group called the Sunshines, practise songs written for Jesus; shot in quasi-documentary fashion, this segment combines the sentimentality of Christian pop with the pathology of family bands. In another scene Mama and the children celebrate life-through-Jesus upstairs while Bo and two associates plot the murder of an ‘abortion doctor’ downstairs (the same doctor Aviva had visited with her mother); here the kitsch tautology of ‘life’ is seen not only to ‘curtain off’ death but to produce it as well. None of this is subtle, yet the strategy of the movie is precisely one of mimetic excess – to rehearse evangelical language to the point of implosion.

‘The flag and the foetus [are] our Cross and our Divine Child,’ Harold Bloom wrote under the first Bush: ‘Together [they] symbolise the American Religion.’ This is even more the case under the second Bush: if the foetus is sacrosanct, so is the flag soaked in the aura of the Cross. Especially since 9/11 this administration has operated as if under the aegis of the wrathful Christ: we too have suffered, we too have a right to judge and to punish. Perhaps this is the point of identification that made Passion of the Christ so popular in the US: after two hours of torture, Mel Gibson (like Jesus, an honorary American) delivers the split-second money-shot – Jesus resurrected and vengeful, as though he were Mad Max, Braveheart and Patriot all in one.

It is this ‘moral value’ of redemptive violence that Robert Gober evoked in his recent installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. As usual with Gober, the exhibit was a broken allegory that both elicited and resisted interpretation. It opened with two stacked garbage cans in plaster covered by a sheet of plywood, on which lay the folded shirt of a priest. This makeshift pulpit let onto two rows of three dirty white slabs (in bronze made to look like scrap Styrofoam), each of which, like a plinth, supported a particular object. To the left was a plank of faux wood in bronze (malformed, it seemed both molten and petrified) and to the right a bag of nappies (made of plaster sealed in plastic); then a milk crate with three more bags of nappies and another plank; and, finally, two glass bowls filled with large pieces of fruit in beeswax. Elsewhere in the gallery were other fabricated elements characteristic of Gober: behind two doors were two pairs of legs, one male, one female, set in two bathtubs, and in two corners were two torsos, each with a male and a female breast, and with a male leg sprouting from the crotch. The presentation of all these things was at once forensic and ceremonial, as if we were in a morgue and in a chapel at once. This strange effect made sense once we saw that the four framed pictures hung on the side walls consisted of reproduced spreads from the first section of the New York Times of 12 September 2001, with images of embracing couples drawn over photos of the al-Qaida attacks.

The forlorn objects, molten material, mortuary slabs and commingled limbs evoked a historical hell that combined the post-attack space of the World Trade towers with the bombsites of Iraq. Implicit here too was a political continuum in which the trauma of 9/11 was transformed into the triumphalism of the ‘war on terror’, replete with the rhetorical coercion of the last election (to oppose Bush was to appease the terrorists, to betray the troops and so on). This last implication was keyed by a crucified Christ made of cement. Decapitated as if vandalised, Jesus was flanked, in the customary positions of the two Marys, by spare tokens of suburban life, a white chair in glazed stoneware and a carton of bug-lights in blown glass. Like additional stigmata turned into tacky spouts, the nipples of the beheaded Christ gushed streams of water into a round hole cut roughly into the floor.

Like Solondz, then, Gober orchestrated his effects through a mimetic exacerbation of Bush kitsch, drawing equally on Wal-Mart goods, churchyard displays and 9/11 mementos. The acephalic Jesus was the crucial touch, for it condensed a mess of associations: reminders of the beheaded hostages in Iraq as well as the hooded victim at Abu Ghraib (the one posed on a box with his arms outstretched as if crucified with electrodes), and, behind or through both images, the figure of America in the guise of Christ the righteous aggressor, the one who kills in order to redeem. The ambiguity of this symbol was irreducible and intense, and as such it served, momentarily, as a riposte to the world of yellow ribbons and Commandment monuments.

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