…[A]nything man can think about is in the realm of reality ... The true reality is the fairy tale, not the everyday course of things, which is only circumstantially living the fairy tale, full of disappointments, full of less than what you'd expect. – Louis I Kahn
Kitsch effectuates a range of reactions including sneer and frowning on the part of some who look down upon its unending constellation only with the faint hope that it will soon disappear making way for 'true' art.
At times kitsch leads to befuddlement on the part of the onlookers; puritanical in outlook, they are denizens of the modern cultural landscape who often misread kitsch as degenerated forms of an existing or past cultural paradigm. It is these modernist faithful who erroneously think that kitsch is brought into existence as and when art fails to become art, particularly when attempts at meeting the 'high' standards set under the meritorious governance of so called 'good taste' fall flat on the face.
It brings to light the fact that kitsch is ungovernable as its formation cannot be influenced by the dominant narrative of the time or the zeitgeist. It is not politically engaged as it has not been created to counter the zeitgeist, but carries definitive characters that defy, to various extent and scope, what the zeitgeist tries to impose on any unsuspecting society.
Kitsch is a cultural phenomenon – the result of a social-psychological thrust towards the beyond. It is the norm-defying nomadic soul of a community attempting to transcreate the free-style zones on the cultural horizon. In Bangladesh, as well as in many other countries, it is generated as part of the 'class struggle' as it hinges on non-gendered identity, non-social negotiation vis-à-vis objects of cultural/emotional value. Connected to attitude rather than taste, it is the ultimate anti-art that overrides all kinds of orders, including its own.
In its loudest register, a strand which is central to this mediation, kitsch is mass produced fantasy and utopia played out in an undefined site often breeding unlimited possibilities. Class, or its negation to be precise, comes into it by way of generating images, impressions and imitative behavioural patterns in respect to how one develops an attitude towards reality, myth as well as culture and thus positions oneself vis-à-vis the given social structure. As in a scenario where clothes defy reality imposed by socioeconomic conditions. A hijra or eunuch 'camouflaging' his-her true colour by producing a fictitious he-she is actually a mode of living that trashes the mainstream fiction-making which is often paraded as 'real'. What he-she, or she-he achieves is the cancellation of the notions of reality developed under a positivizing/rationalizing grid of knowledge and an authoritarian gaze and the attendant web of interpretations. Thus, kitsch defies any kind of conditioning, as well as interpretative cliché by producing excruciatingly ill-formed clichés. And through its non-hierarchical attitude, it creates obsessive clumsiness and fantastic chaos and constantly breaks the mould of clichés it generates so that objectification and reification remain in check. It is often a formless form that challenges taste hierarchy which is the mark of a society divided along class. When it stabilizes into an easily discernibly form, it does so to set the stage for social consumption.
The myth of snakes having a huge diamond for a crown, or the stories about pitchers full of glittering gold coins from a bygone era floating on pond-water in one unsuspecting mid-day, make us assume that these are kitsches related to the primordial mode of thinking, reflecting the archeological remnant of the primitivst impulse which existed from the beginning of mortal history.
These exempla emerge right out of 'nowhere' of the social imaginary, or the collective unconscious; they are constructions through which a population not merely expresses the desire to obtain wealth by fluke, these are fantasies played out on the otherwise untrammeled social landscape, behind which a multiplicity of social-individual psychic traits are at work. These stories constitute the loci where the collective desires/fantasies are deposited. Wealth, generated through human inventiveness and/or labour, may change hands in a dramatic turn of fate; it may act as if it is a force in itself impacting the social-cultural fabric generating uninhibited imagination. With the owner or possessor removed from the scene, wealth appears as an enigma in such fabulous tales and fables of Bangladesh which have no place in the mainstream modern literary-historical or social study.
We may interpret these tales as the creation of cultural bubbles – an escape from routine, or historical epochs, an effacement of memory as well as historical and social times, to benefit the imaginative and playful social psyche that constitutes the gimmicky, rhetoricized as well as the authentic otherness in our social-cultural realm. Against the backdrop of the majoritarian axiomatics, these are the antitheses that work as viruses, and they easily debase the sham cultural achievements of the urban educated masses who often inhibit the articulations of the 'other' through coercive means basing their acts on statist or pseudo-scienticist positions.
Kitsch, even in its most outlandish manifestation, has a reality of its own; it is a real part of reality, a constant striving for the creation of a (pseudo)mythic me and you, or us – a longing for the elasticity of life otherwise governed by a fixed set of economic and cultural variables. Kitsch is about the unexpected made into a regular fashion-wear, or a thing formed after the indigenization/localization of the exotic. In the lower income stratum we see meretricious display in attires, one that serves to defuse the condition that is perceived as real as kitsch takes us closer to the threshold of dreams/fantasies and even utopia. Kitsch is real as manifested fantasy/utopia. If for the downtrodden it is an affordable way to display their desire, for the rich it is the most uncomplicated way of exhibiting superfluity of wealth.
Kitsch generates as and when the interpretive modes become freewheeling; as is witnessed when Arabian kitsch is drawn from the Arabian tales, and the Indian dotes on Mahabharat. While epics are transposed onto the very sites of social and personal desires they are easily translated into kitsch.
The city of Dubai, by the merit of all the meretricious display of wealth, is a city with a lot of kitschy patches here and there. As a commercial/post-industrial business hub, it forwards a hybrid narrative. In such a multi-spatial domain Kitsch makes it into the mainstream only after it has been satisfactorily proven that if tapped to one's own advantage, it adds more profit to any profitable venture, and playfulness to any serious artistic/literary act.
Bangladesh has a lot to show for when it comes to kitschy or hybrid local myths, and the Bengali as a nation has always tampered with the already established social/religious myths, as is evident in the legend of Manik pir, and the myth of many a sufi saint who once reigned in the public domain, both in spiritual and administrative scopes, providing an alternative to the authoritative brahminical code of life. The concept of meraj in Islam, the journey of the Prophet to the heavens, has also been subject to popular interpretations as well as image generation. The latter is often perceived as antagonistic to scriptural diktats.
Hybridtity is filially related to kitsch. We often discover in popular stories where one layer of matter is taken to another dimension with the help of imagination, as is to be found in the concepts of shonar khatia (golden bed), hirar poshak (robe of diamonds), khirer nadi (river of khir or milk), or in hybridized and anthropomorphic animals.
European kitsch, in similar fashion, is often related to Greek myths, though in the modern age, a lot has been plumbed, including nooks and crannies of social imaginary, to increase its supply. kitsch becomes popular and also crosses numerous boundaries to enrich other forms of popular art, though it need not be confused with popular art, or pop art. There is a fine line between the two, and pop becomes kitsch only by co-pting certain traits related to kitsch. Kitsch is predicated on its own set of anti-pragmatic, anti-rational social psychology.
In the West, the pop phenomenon has created a nervy, kitschy strain; Bangla movies of the last four decades have created some exceptional kitsches, occupying the entire gamut of interests – from melodrama to hyperbole. Hijras across the Indian subcontinent choose to live kitsch life as a strategy to survive, and the European transvestites, she-males are their close kin.
Kitsch has no link to philosophical deliberation or reflection; it exudes a certain impure/adulterated bhab or sensibility which has strong cultural connotations.
When the market protocol finds it to be profitable, Kitsch becomes product capital. The culture industry sometimes unknowingly generates half-kitschy, half- artistic acts leading to false kitsches which have no real power to subsume norm, identity and order. In the 'spectacalized vescular' system that is the modern capital-driven society, kitsch provides the moment of respite breaching the predetermined social norms and their continuity and the subjectivity that they fabricate.
The 'auto-voyeuristic social institution that subsumed the socio-material ecology,' as Noah Brehmer and Sydney Hart have defined such objectified social relations in a recent article, the automatism of social willfulness – the frivolous communal or individual acts that make possible kitsch, provides an alternate channel through the creation of a whole new regime of voyeurism. This form of voyeurism, though born out of frivolity, cuts across class, gender and generations. This fact alone separates the abstraction that kitsch sparks and the alienation the capital-driven auto-voyeurism gives rise to. Thus kitsch as a form of 'refusal of work within the established capitalist relations of production,' is no premeditated antidote of such order, but a refusal to take any such established orders seriously. Therefore kitsch is the ultimate portal to step out of the box.
Kitsch and Modernism
Etymologically, the word 'kitsch' comes from the German language and refers to any inferior art form, an unsuccessful copy of any established style, which can't be categorized from the aesthetical point of view, says a web site. The word first appeared in the art markets of Munich in the 1860s and the 1870s. At the onset the word 'kitsch' was used to describe the cheap and popular form of paintings. Hans Reinmann, a German writer, did a complete study on the kitsch phenomena which he compiled in Das Buch vom Kitch (The Psychology of Kitsch). He was emphatic that this phenomenon truly appeared 'in the studio of a painter'.
Many a time kitsch is confused with the cultural modern symbols, because it is often believed to have sprung from the popular demand for an easily digestible form of art. It, thus, is perceived as an antithesis of what is classically known as unique, original and tasteful.
Even though initially the word kitsch featured only in painting, it gradually invaded the daily life. Since the 1930s the word kitsch was used to define art which in spirit is antithetical to the 20th century avant-garde movements. Herold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, as part the theoretical canons of high-modernism, defended abstraction as the manifestation of high art, setting it against kitsch. In his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg points out: Kitsch is the product of industrialization and the urbanization of the working class, a filler made for the consumption of the working class: a populace hungry for culture, but without the resources and education to enjoy cutting edge avant-garde culture. Greenberg continues his assault: Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.
The basic framework for understanding avant-garde is through art-kitsch dyad, which led Theodor Adorno to erroneously remark that kitsch as a phenomenon defines the mass culture, where art is controlled and ordered by one's requests. According to him 'art constitutes true aesthetic fiction and what is merely sentimental rubbish is called kitsch.'
Before this, Kant, according to Wikipedia, describes the direct appeal (of kitsch) to the senses as 'barbaric'. In a book by Mark A Cheetham, Kant's enormous influence on the concept of 'fine art' is demostrated. Cheetham shows how 'sentimentality' or 'pathos', which are the defining traits of kitsch, do not find room within Kant's 'aesthetical indifference'.
Kitsch, on an altogether different register, has a strong linkage to totalitarian regimes and their apparatus of propaganda based on their political programmes and 'futurological prognoses'. The so-called social realism -- the prescribed genre through which a nation narrative is constructed, and the essential props (the manufactured portraits of statesmen) are made to inundate the public sphere -- are all considered kitsch. Academic art too has often been characterized as kitsch as it repeats some accepted norms through various aesthetic means.
Postmodernism toppled the dichotomous frame and the separation of art and kitsch has been renounced as, since the 1980s, an avalanche of kitsch materials and objects and images have been produced to flood the artistic space.
Novelist Milan Kundera's notion of kitsch can be termed as an approximate rescue attempt; though he never really renounces the dyad but accepts kitsch as part of life as it inheres herein and derives therefrom. He removes the 'bad egg' blotch from it:
The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not … depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children love.
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 the kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of men on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.Amen.
RONNI AHMMED is a painter and conceptual artist who has written extensively on art and is based in Dhaka.
GOLAM MORTUJA is a freelance art writer based in Dhaka.