Monday, May 26, 2008

kitsch on the brain

even before going to munich, i had kitsch on the brain. matei calinescu characterizes kitsch as one of the five faces of modernity. it is the very manifestation of the modern condition--endless replication. it's easy, not demanding anything from the consumer but consumption--no thinking, no processing, no intellectualizing, just enjoyment. and a consumer is indeed required. kitsch requires a receiver of the kitsch in order for it to function.

kitsch takes many forms--from the hundreds of lidded beer steins lining the tourist shops of munich to small plastic replicas of neuschwanstein to posters of the "arbeit macht frei" sign over the gates of dachau concentration camp. it's a way of trying to objectify memory. you don't have to remember the sight of neuschwanstein yourself if you have the little replica at home on the shelf. you preserve the memory of it there in the little hunk of kitsch plastic. a sort of false memory.

national costumes embody kitsch as well. rooted in some sense in some long-forgotten history, people wear them in ignorance of their original purpose. the stories behind the embroidered patterns and the reasons for certain details--like an apron made in some special way--are long since forgotten. they become a cultural artifact disconnected from culture, especially if they're taken home as a souvenir.

yugoslav writer dubravka ugrešič writes about the nationalist kitsch which destroyed her country a number of times in her book of essays--the culture of lies. she suggests that kitsch, whether it's nationalist or socialist, is deeply connected to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. and as such, is an insidious and seductive strategy. kitsch attaches to national symbols--crosses, sculptures, landmarks. of course, this sort of kitsch is much more dangerous than a souvenir of a trip abroad. but, at its base, it's the same cheapening of the real.

kitsch takes something away from the real. a replica of neuschwanstein does not stand in for seeing the real thing. a young girl's room full of monet water lilies posters does not replace seeing a real monet in an art museum. the serbian brotherhood symbol has little or nothing to with actual serbians or brothers. the unending duplication inherent in kitsch cheapens and demeans the real object.

and yet, sometimes i DO embrace the kitsch. my starbucks mugs collected in starbucks around the world are surely a form of kitsch. i have a framed poster of a matisse paper cutout (i could, after all, never afford a real matisse). i love those little russian nesting dolls--matryoshka--and buy them whenever i'm in a country where they are made and sold (ukraine, lithuania--it doesn't have to be russia--proving my point about the diluting factor of kitsch). but shouldn't we be more careful about doing that? shouldn't we be more interested in preserving authenticity?

as i pondered the notion of kitsch while i was in munich, where it seems to be screaming at you from every corner, i at first thought that there wasn't much of it evident in denmark. but, it seems that every country has their own brand of kitsch. in denmark, where everything is sleekly designed, it's just more attractive--but the same duplication is going on...hans wegner chairs in every home (including my own) and for those who can't afford them, ikea has a version that's hard to tell it's not the real thing. which brings me back to my point. kitsch dilutes the real. but, how can we escape it?

pretty bleak musings for a rainy monday...


Sabin said...

Hi Julie!
Bavarian kitsch and culture is what the world thinks is German!
I guess, in some years, when we´ll all speak spanish or chinese, there will still be lederhosen and white food - let´s hope it´ll be more white asparagus than white sausages with radish and mustard.

I was thinking of you, being in Bad Homburg and seeing the wonderful sides of this city. So next time, if you come to Germany, try the middle of it.

Jaime said...

I've never heard of this kitsch thing before...have I been living under a rock? Maybe.

The Monet example got me. I have seen many many pictures of Monet paintings, and thought they were nice to look at. But I was in the Art Institute of Chicago last summer and stopped dead in my tracks when I discovered one of the most beautiful Monet's I have ever seen. I couldn't stop looking at it. I didn't want to leave!
Somehow, buying a copy of it in the gift shop just wouldn't have been the same.

julochka said...

gabi--i'm sure you're right, as i don't remember being so hit over the head with kitsch on previous visits to germany. it was my first time in bavaria. it is interesting, tho', that the word "kitsch" itself is german--which leads me to ponder my notion that somehow an individual language is better able to capture something about that culture than another language. this is something i've been thinking a lot about and will have to write a posting about, no doubt...

jaime--you may not have used the word kitsch before, but you got the idea imnstinctively with the monet at the art institute vs. the posters. that's precisely what's not good about kitsch!