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The Dark Side of Modernity's Moon

''To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito'' Harold Rosenberg

Postmodernity is kitsch: the eclectic, over-determined and ubiquitous iconography of contemporary culture is at one with this popular and polemical aesthetic. Almost a century ago, kitsch was kicked out of the sphere of modern artistic endeavour, accused like a petty thief of randomly appropriating, recycling and quoting eras and styles. In the last 15 years, kitsch has established its rightful claim to that territory from which it was so dismissively exiled.

Deeply embedded in the processes of industrialisation and mechanical reproduction that made it possible in the first place, kitsch, with its love of imitation, artifice and repetition, can be finally appreciated as the foremost representative of a modernity whose official emblem was for too long the quest for originality. In its relentless battle for novelty and progress, Modernism ironically succeeded in repressing the very mechanism - massive reproduction - on which it relied to pave an enlightened highway to the future. The result was an exclusive and obscure discourse, far too removed in its vanguardist concerns from the daily practices of those it hoped would eventually follow suit.

The tumultuous downfall of this redemptive ideology of the new gave way to a culture that is bent, almost with a vengeance, on the known and familiar. Once the dark side of modernity's moon, kitsch now shines its Pandemoniac light on the leftovers of 20th-century experimentation. What emerges is not a simple panorama of victory and defeat, but rather the spectacular failure of any attempt to structure cultural practices in a totalising way. Sooner or later, this ideological mortuary seems to say, we all come to die here, the rotting skeletons of ships that once flamboyantly cruised dangerous and unknown seas in search of promised lands.

Nothing is farther away from kitsch and its perennial infatuation with the most obvious and explicit forms than cognitive opacity. Kitsch confronts conceptual abstraction with the tangibility of figurative ¡mages, and the distance and coldness of speculative emptiness with a warm familiarity saturated with meaning. Let's allow kitsch to speak for itself in a recycled pastiche borrowed from Umberto Eco:

In the midst of an enchanted silence, with the sea whispering afar, a soft breeze stirs the rigid leaves. A silk robe, embroidered in white ivory and gold, flutters over her soft, sinuous neck, on which two braids, the color of fire, gently rest.... Brunhilda sits at the piano, her agile hands moving across the keyboard while she is lost in who knows what sweet musings. Like the smoke that raises from its fiery ashes, leaving the flame in strange ringlets, so a gloomy 'largo' emerges from the instrument. Slowly, the melody flows higher and higher, exploding in powerful harmonies, returning to itself in voices that are at once childish, begging, enchanted, and soft as angel choirs, whispering over nocturnal forests and solitary creeks, ample, passionate, rambling under a starry sky and over abandoned rural cemeteries.

Counting among its initial meanings the act of collecting junk from the street, kitsch has been identified for well over a hundred years with all that is superfluous and degraded in our culture. From the derogatory vocabulary it inspires, it is clear that kitsch is globally considered bad taste. Tacky, gaudy, schlock in English; cursi, naco, picúo in Spanish, kitsch can easily win any contest for the most disreputable term that can be ascribed to an object, a style, or even a person. Secure in this belief, different social groups have used the term 'kitsch' as an infallible weapon against their adversaries. The descendants of a waning aristocracy labelled as 'nouveau-riche kitsch' the eager consumption of a bourgeoisie that was rapidly displacing their own acquisition privileges. Artists and art critics, in turn, have used the accusation of kitsch to debase mass culture's profane appropriations of the themes and forms of canonised art. Instead of diminishing, these attacks seem to multiply with the passing of time: intellectuals disdain the pompous verbosity of academics; the rich scoff at the poor's emotional approach to art; men laugh at female sentimentality, and so on.

Poor kitsch. Like a distorted King Midas that turns into garbage everything it touches, kitsch has been presented with horror as a virulent and contagious sickness, a bloodsucking vampire that ungratefully turns on the culture that innocently gave it birth: in a few words, as “evil” itself. I promise. These are the exact epithets used by two of the leading figures in the description, theorisation and eventual condemnation of this phenomenon: the German philosopher Hermann Broch and the United States art critic Clement Greenberg. Despite being worlds apart in every other respect, these two are historically united in the anti-modern argument with which they meet what may be called their common enemy.

Between 1933 and 1951, Broch and Greenberg established the parameters for the intellectual reception of kitsch. Broch outlined the basics for kitsch's damnation in 1933 in the context of a larger project about the European imagination at the turn of the century: ‘Kitsch and Art-with-a-Message”. Seventeen years later, he developed this initial draft in 'Notes on the Problem of Kitsch' (1951). Greenberg, meanwhile, penned in 1939 what would become the better-known text on this topic, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch'.

Conceptual and stylistic differences aside, these critics' arguments strike similar notes. Even the most cursory reading of Broch's initial proposal suggests it was the uncredited source of Greenberg's criticism of kitsch. In his founding text, Broch declares that the problem of kitsch lies not so much in imitation itself, since according to the Aristotelian postulates - which Broch shares - art imitates life, but, rather, in the fact that kitsch chooses art as its object of imitation. This choice of art as reference sacrifices, according to him, the principle of verisimilitude (understood as the direct relationship between art and reality) which Aristotle had established as the cornerstone of all artistic value.

This blow which, fortunately for kitsch, was not deadly is supported by Broch with the accusation, eagerly taken up by Greenberg, that kitsch isn't really interested in an integral aesthetic experience (beauty as a means to the truth) but only in the 'beauty effect'. In other words, kitsch is seeking earthly, not cosmic, value: it prefers transitoriness over permanence. Consequently, Broch claims, kitsch commits the unforgivable sin of imposing the register of mortal values on the transcendental; the finite on the infinite. Such distortion merits the most extreme judgement: it is the introduction of evil into the system of value. Broch illustrates kitsch's malignancy with the following dramatic example:

It is not mere chance that Hitler (like his predecessor Wilhelm II) was an enthusiastic disciple of kitsch. He liked the full-bodied type of kitsch and the saccharine type. He found both 'beautiful'. Nero, too, was an ardent supporter of beauty and possibly even more artistically gifted than Hitler. The firework spectacle of Rome in flames and the human torches of Christians impaled in the imperial gardens was certainly prized artistic currency for the aesthetic emperor, who showed how he could remain deaf to the screams of pain coming from his victims or even appreciate them as an aesthetic musical accompaniment.

Broch seeks to reaffirm these arguments by locating them within the broader context of Romanticism. He traces the origins of Romanticism back to the modern belief, brought about by the Reformation, that human beings are at the centre of experience, thereby displacing the theological axis. Broch then concludes that this is enough to consider Romanticism, if not itself kitsch, at least a sure parent of kitsch. He then goes on to declare that the mission of modernity will be in part to eradicate such a bad influence from our culture, returning to art the autonomy it intrinsically deserves, however relative this autonomy may seem to us, given its subordination to ethics.

I will briefly examine how this last point is developed by Greenberg, since it is he who, passionately and contradictorily, argues that while kitsch is the outcome of an unbridled modernisation, only the weapons of that modernity (the avant-garde operations) can cure culture from this contagious disease. Following Broch, Greenberg locates the origins of kitsch in the mid-1800s. However, instead of wasting time on philosophical speculations, the North-American critic opts for a more pragmatic approach, pointing a stern finger at industrialisation and massification, capitalism and consumer culture. The use of the term 'capitalism' and the Marxist quote with which Greenberg ends his famous essay should not fool us into believing that his is a Left-wing ideology. On the contrary, Greenberg 'embraces' these terms only in so far as they support his vision of modernisation as corruptive, and legitimate his vocabulary as contemporary.

In order to establish this suspicious correspondence between Marxism and himself, Greenberg performs an extraordinary pirouette: while Marx criticises capitalism for inducing alienation, Greenberg disclaims it for producing mass culture, that is, for the vulgarisation of the aesthetic experience. What makes Greenberg indignant is that thanks to industrialisation, capitalism and consumer culture, art is in the hands of those he indistinctly refers to as poor, peasants and plebeians. Literacy, therefore, has done nothing better than to make accessible to 'the insensible and indifferent masses' an aesthetic experience that only the moneyed classes (or, in Greenberg's words, 'the masters') can understand and enjoy properly - not exactly a Socialist argument. However, one can distinguish in the confusion of this ideological melange the same yearning for use value that Marxism displays, given that the notion of use value implies that only a direct relation to the object produces a valid (i.e. authentic) experience.

In his feverish -1 am tempted to say post-modern - levelling of periods and countries, Greenberg aligns the United States's consumer society with Soviet Socialism and German and Italian Fascism. All these cultures are kitsch, he claims, because they impose a collective criterion on the individual aesthetic experience, thus substituting the aesthetic process for its cause (what Broch had called earlier the 'beauty effect') and dismissing all reflexive detachment. To this state of social decay, Greenberg counters the avant-garde as the only living culture, claiming it as the result of a superior historical conscience, though of whom or what is left unclear in his text.

But what is the avant-garde for Greenberg? According to his definition, the avant-garde is an elitist group of artists who are financially supported by the powerful classes, and whose main goal in life is to develop art as a meta-discursive (that is, self-referential and self-centred) system. The avant-garde reduces experience to expression, seeking a perfect harmony between form and content, thus proclaiming itself as a privileged site for the resolution (or, at worst, the exclusion) of any and all contradictions. Here's how Greenberg puts it:

... the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to 'experiment', but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point.
Unfortunately, this brilliant minority was threatened by the loss of its patrons' sponsorship, and the commercialisation of art - the proliferation of kitsch.

To summarise, both Broch and Greenberg practise what may be called an anti-modern thought. The two lament the substitution of a transcendental aesthetic experience for that other earthly and ephemeral one which starts with industrialisation and mass reproduction, two processes which, well, just happen to characterise modernity. Both men view kitsch as an easy way for the recently alphabetised urban masses to gain access to an experience whose transcendence (or ascension to a superior state of knowledge) can only really be granted by the exclusivity of an abstract and hermetic artistic language.

These stated oppositions - between individuality and massification, and transcendence and vulgarisation -are tacitly articulated by the dichotomy between what is considered pure (and therefore beautiful, sublime and healthy) and what is labelled impure, mixed or hybrid (which is vulgar, degraded and virulent). It is therefore quite paradoxical that Nazism should have inverted the 'classical' terms of this dichotomy, turning kitsch into the emblem of purity, and representing the avant-garde as a degenerative art. While it is not by chance that Hitler chose kitsch, particularly neoclassic nostalgia, to reproduce the dictates of his own racism, one should also take into account that kitsch was only a means of promoting a certain view. Rather than proving any inherent flaw in kitsch, what this shows is the danger of exclusive social formulae which base their power on the belief that a certain class, race or gender is privy to a real or supposed purity which bestows on it a degree of superiority. After all, it is precisely for its lack of aesthetic purity that kitsch has been regularly banned from the realm of high art.

An anecdote will serve to introduce discussion of the related polemics about mass culture. It humorously illustrates the seductive abilities of kitsch, abilities which, for better or worse, have gained it more friends than foes:

It is the story of a lascivious Lothar, who sought in vain to conquer the love of his Gretchen. She, completely indifferent to his love, would sit daily on a balcony overlooking the lake, sewing socks and enjoying the view. It was during one of these occasions that Lothar had the brilliant idea of taming two swans, whereupon he would swim right under his beloved's gaze, hanging on to his winged haulers. For several days, he repeatedly performed a variety of gallant poses with his birds under the balcony. Perhaps Lothar imagined there was something poetically mythic and archaic in such pranks. Whatever it was, his idea was successful, as he conquered his lady's heart and soon joined her in happy marriage

.This anecdote is retold by Haroldo de Campos in his brief essay 'Avant-garde and Kitsch'. De Campos subscribes to the theory of kitsch as an 'aesthetic lie', proposed by Umberto Eco four years earlier in 'The Structure of Bad Taste'. Eco is careful not to disclaim the cultural democratisation carried out by massive reproduction, which he defends as a legitimate cultural form. However, he gives kitsch a twist by declaring that the whole problem lies in kitsch's intention of passing for real art. To this illegitimate intention, (perhaps it would be more appropriate to dub it 'bastardly'), Eco counterpoises the paradigms of true art, which he defines according to the discovery and innovation of the avant-garde. Mass culture is fine as long as it knows its place: once it pretends to be 'original and capable of eliciting novel experiences' it commits a transgression that reduces it to kitsch.

Eco's proposal makes very little progress in the kitsch discussion. He simply calls the same things by other names, keeping kitsch safely in the… kitschen. His analysis does help to distinguish the different aspects of mass culture, a distinction that Gillo Dorfles fails to recognise in his 1969 book on kitsch, which became a classic on the topic. However, Eco only succeeds in substituting the terms of transcendence and univocity used by previous thinkers for the more modern one of originality. Furthermore, he allies himself with the old arguments by criticising the aesthetic decontextualisation performed by kitsch. Not even Susan Sontag, whose notes on camp sensibility gained her wide notoriety during the same period of time, gives kitsch favourable recognition. Kitsch, for her, is stultifying: it takes things out of context, reduces the attention span and diminishes the appetite for complexity. Japan, she affirms, is a country where kitsch has become the predominant mode of experiencing reality.

To rescue kitsch, we must return to its country of origin. None other than Walter Benjamin proposes the parameters for a more positive and contemporary understanding of this phenomenon. In his oft-quoted 1936 essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin describes how mechanical reproduction occasions the loss of the aura of authenticity by which art legitimises itself as a superior experience. Faced with a proliferation of copies, Benjamin says, authentic experience, based in the privileged ownership of, or contact with, a unique product, is dismantled. In fact, all efforts to redeem this experience are anachronistic once it is displaced by a new sensibility, one that is constituted precisely by the effects of mass reproduction and urban expansion - that is, by distraction. In a short and little-known text on kitsch, Benjamin valorises it over art, declaring that 'cheap sensoriality' allows kitsch a more intense experience of the world:

Kitsch is the last mask of the banal, with which we clothe ourselves for dreaming and conversation to assimilate the extinct world of objects. What we used to call art begins only four feet away from the body. But now with kitsch the object world approaches human beings, succumbing to their touch and shaping its own figures within them.

Ironically it is with this Jewish writer who committed suicide soon after the Nazi occupation of Paris that kitsch finally gains theoretical value, having been established as a fundamental part of that experience which we now call postmodern: the extinct world of objects, the end of a direct contact with reality. Nowadays, the interrextual transgression that traverses and mixes different cultural registers is quite common. By the same token, the definition of the real has expanded and become more complex, including representation as a determining element of perception that eliminates the traditional hierarchy between reality and simulation. Theatricality, artifice, and the presentation of a reality whose saturation with signifying codes makes it into hyperreality, are finally some of the ways of knowledge and aesthetic enjoyment of our time.

The avant-garde and kitsch, therefore, are counterpoised in three fundamental aspects. The first is the system of values that each of them reproduces: the avant-garde believes in a transcendental aesthetic, understood as a superior form of knowledge gained in the perfect correspondence between form and content. Kitsch, on the other hand, is dedicated to the sensorial as a familiar way of grasping the intangible, relegating the so-called content to second place, and despising rational processes as modes of gaining knowledge.

The second distinction between the avant-garde and kitsch refers to their formal mechanisms - how they produce meaning. Consistent with its transcendental ideal, the avant-garde exercises strategies of symbolic purification (getting rid of the banal and superfluous - language, history, social conventions) in order to discharge its terrestrial load. This is how it seeks to access ultimate truth, conceived as a unique moment of existential discovery. Kitsch operates through iconographic saturation and sentimental overload, designing affection as the experience to be recreated, and offering this experience to whomever is interested. For all the avant-garde's originality and novelty, kitsch rejoices in repetition and cliche.

Thirdly, and as a result of such disparate systems of value and formal operations, the effects and consequences of each are diametrically opposed. The avant-garde prides itself in the difficulty that distances it from vulgar reality. It seems to want to replicate with its exclusivity a certain individual interiority, one that would allow it to return to a primordial origin - the goal of all originality. Kitsch doesn't differentiate between exterior and interior; fantasy and daily practice. It is constituted in the irreverent mix of exclusive discourses, in the almost arbitrary absorption of all those elements that make up reality. For kitsch, spirituality can be found in the material tangibility of its representations: the fires of hell, the suppleness of heavenly clouds. With its extravagant overdetermination, it unintentionally succeeds in achieving that communion between form and content which the avant-garde, in its excluding and purifying zeal, could only further abstract. Greenberg didn't know how right he was when he called kitsch the first universal culture.

Finally, because of its cheap copies and its continual decontextualisation, that is, thanks to what Broch called the distorted reflection of reality that kitsch offers us, it is possible to see that reality is not univocal, but that it changes according to the place from whence it's being looked at. Consequently, kitsch becomes an innocent parody of univocality, proposing its own joyous visual clutter as a reminder (let's call it a souvenir) of reality's infinite versatility.

*This essay was first read at the Modernism and the Avantgarde colloquium of the Fundación Vicente Huidobro, Santiago de Chile, 1991. It was later translated into English and published by Agenda, November 1992.




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     Las ruinas del futuro:

    • Regardez mais ne touchez pas !
    • The Dark side of Modernity's Moon
    From Pastiche to Macaroni
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