by Mark Dorset
What is kitsch? . . . kitsch affirms itself as something that peels
life off of language. Layer by layer, it strips language bare. The more
abstract kitsch becomes, the more it becomes kitsch.
"Black Magic," in Posthumous
Papers of a Living Author
Kitsch is certainly not “bad art”; it forms its own closed system,
which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, or which,
if you prefer, appears alongside it. . . . Every system is dialectically
capable of developing its own anti-system and is indeed compelled to do
so. The danger is all the greater when at first glance the system and the
anti-system appear to be identical and it is hard to see that the former
is open and the latter closed. The Anti-Christ looks like Christ, acts
and speaks like Christ, but is all the same Lucifer. What then is the sign
that enables one to see this difference? An open system, like the Christian
one, is an ethical system: it provides man with the necessary directions
for him to act as a man. The hints given by a closed system, on the other
hand, (even if they are covered with a veneer of ethics) are no more than
simple rules of play; i.e. it transforms that part of human life which
is in its control into a game that can no longer be valued as ethical,
but only as aesthetic. This conceptual cycle is anything but simple . . .
but it can become clearer if you remember that a player is ethically [doesn’t
he mean aesthetically?] well-behaved if he is thoroughly versed in the
rules of the game and acts in accordance with them. He is not concerned
with anything else going on round him with the result that, when he has
to play his part, he will calmly let a man drown at his side. This man
is the prisoner of a purely conventional system of symbols, and even if
these symbols are copied from some sort of reality, the system is still
a system of imitation. We have already mentioned the grotesque religions
of beauty and reason. At this stage we can also add political religions.
Here again it is a question of imitation, of religions of imitation, which
therefore carry within them the seeds of evil. Kitsch is also a system
of imitation. It can resemble the system of art in every detail, above
all when it is handled by masters such as Wagner, the French dramatists
(Sardou, for example) or—to take an example from painting—someone like
Dali, but the element of imitation is still bound to show through. The
kitsch system requires its followers to “work beautifully,” while the art
system issues the ethical order: “Work well.” Kitsch is the element of
evil in the value system of art.
“Notes on the Problem of Kitsch”
in Gillo Dorfles’s, Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste
The terraced garden was liberally adorned with earthenware gnomes,
mushrooms, and all kinds of lifelike animals, on a pedestal stood a mirrored
glass sphere, which distorted faces most comically; there were also an
aeolian harp, several grottoes, and a fountain whose streams made an ingenious
figure in the air, while silver goldfish swam in its basin . . . Over the
outside door was an ingenious mechanism, activated by air pressure as the
door closed, which played with a pleasing tinkle the opening bars of Strauss's
'Freut euch des Lebens'.
Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man
epigraph in Gillo Dorfles’s, Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste
Although for [Walter Benjamin] the novel promotes an individualistic
experience that is radically different from the communal one of oral and
epic literary traditions, it enables for this very reason a creative understanding
of the world (rather than an acceptance of handed-down beliefs) which can
open the way for its transformation.
What is most relevant about Benjamin’s kitsch
essay, therefore, is that it describes the consequence of the shift from
a mode of experience based on a sacred distance to a mode based on perceptual
proximity. For Benjamin, modernity replaces the cyclic flow of traditional
time with a mirage of movement constituted by sheer repetition: the new
as the “ever-always-the-same.” [Walter Benjamin, “Central Park,” New
Germarr Critique 34 (Winter 1985): 42-43.] This condition is exposed
by dust, which can slowly accumulate on things given their ultimate immobility,
since the proliferation in space does not grant things movement (that is,
transformation) in time.
Ironically, or perhaps by some intuitive acknowledgment,
stillness was feared by the pragmatic idealism of the nineteenth century,
where everything had to have a reason, an explanation, or a function. Victorian
interiors, apparently merely ornamental, had a practical purpose: to cover
the emptiness left behind by the absence of tradition. Material proliferation
was legitimized by the pretended usefulness of things that contained other
things—albums, armoires, boxes, glass cases—often protecting them from
this era’s arch-enemy, dust. Interiors themselves, like the arcades of
a few decades earlier, were created to protect objects from the outside,
keeping them safe for contemplation.
The vast production of the late 1800s was
geared to protecting, showing, holding—an obsession that accounts for this
period’s fastidious arrangements, where nothing is out of place and all
the different elements participate in an obligatory meaningfulness.
“Dust,” in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the
Kitsch Experience, with Remarkable Objects of Art and Nature, Extraordinary
Events, Eccentric Biography, and Original Theory, plus Many Wonderful Illustrations
Selected by the Author
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