Saturday, 15 January 2011

Kitsch (P. Crick)

"It is a surprise to find how, in the biological realm, the endlessly evolving forms of life appear as anticipations of distinctive forms of human social behaviour. Ignorant of the slur which we place upon them and of the effect they have upon our metaphors, parasites such as ivy, mistletoe, or the pernicious flea, pronounce the joys that can be gained just by shaping one's life around the life style of a host. Why struggle for support or food when you can get someone else to do all the hard work for you? Such is the question parasitism suggests. A refutation of the argument is hard to find.

The price which the parasite pays for its upkeep is dependence, but offered such support by a more energetic organism, all else follows. Generally, in the natural world the right degree of maintenance is forthcoming; but should the host die, then the parasite will probably follow suit. The key fact in this sort of relationship is that it is a very one-way affair, and irreversible.

In human culture, a nearly identical partnership is that which holds between Art and Kitsch. They are interinvolved, but in an irreversible mode. Lift, for example, all trace of Kitsch from a society and Art would still be able to flourish. It might, indeed, expand its range and become more successful. Extract, however, Art from the structure of a culture— prise out its nervous system—and, after a sufficient pause, any sign of Kitsch would also vanish. Perhaps in this instance the culture might vanish, too.

What, then, are the characteristics of Kitsch as a phenomenon which define and ensure its dependency on Art as the prior form ? [...]

Firstly, then, a work of art, although always the product of thought and imagination and, of course, very hard work, is not deliberative. The creative artist never sets out to calculate responses, for calculation would inevitably destroy the spontaneous character which enters into the development of the artefact. The creative act, the work of making the poem, the painting, the sculpture, does not preclude reason or reasoning; but the intellect combines with and fuses into the passionate element throughout the process, under a principle which ensures that the completed work will submit itself to an open and diverse response on the part of each differing perceiver. A work of art does not make use of its understanding of the nature of the medium being employed to control the psyche of the responding individual, as is the case in the sophisticated product of advertising on television where Kitsch photography and montage both of shot and of speech are the order of the day. Art does not seek to manipulate. It does not take up a position of power in relation to the recipient, as advertising will. It does not see the properties of the language of the medium as a weapon of approach. The artist is not self-conscious in that sense. Calculation as to effect will always mean that one who does so also calculates the precise reward of that effect. Calculation of effect is also the path to the manifestation of the sentimental. In Kitsch, deliberation and indulgence walk hand in hand, as courtier and courtesan. Flattery is its essence. [...]

Secondly, Art knows nothing of closure. The artefact may sometimes be simple; but it is never simplistic. Art does not insult the complexity of nature and of Man through an act of reduction. Nor is there any finality in a true work of art, either in its internal state, nor when it is experienced from the outside. The completed form of the work, its structural harmony, is a resolution of conflicting forces in the originator—a momentary resolution,
not a terminal fusion of those forces. In its external aspect, the artefact gives the observer or participant work to do. It puts questions, starts a mystery, inseminates the observer with new unforeseen questions, leaves itself open, leaves itself exposed to the world like a flower; all this, while giving delight; whereas a Kitsch product is final in quality, says one borrowed definite thing, and then, no more. It arouses certain secondary pleasures in those who crave Kitsch but asks no questions, is unmysterious and shallowly explicit. Kitsch is very much a by-product of social anxiety, and tries very hard to reassure. It seeks to protect both its maker and its consumer from the rigour of the real. [...]

The third negation of Kitsch is a double negation. Art is never un-selfreferenced. Kitsch, on the other hand, bears the stamp of its own ignorance. Whenever a Kitsch product falsely offers itself as a work of art, analysis of it gives no evidence that the work anywhere knows itself to be a work of art. The authentic work knows itself to be such because the creator of it discovers as he goes along that he is a maker of the new (and not just the maker of a novelty). There is always concrete evidence within a work of art of a technical kind which will show on inspection that not only is the artist engaged in a search but that he is searching with a method which is provisional in its essence. Moreover, this note of provisionality always enters into the expressive form which the act of search takes. Such an attitude shows what it means to assert that a work of art is self-aware. It is just one step beyond this from self-awareness to self-reference. Selfawareness of this tentative order ensures that the work of art will indirectly comment upon its own use of the medium. It will show itself to exist in a state of tension with its own technical means, and its own specific cultural inheritance.

A further aspect of the self-referencing function resides in the fact that a work of art, simply by existing in its 'resolved' state, can be seen by observers to relate both to past works by the same artist, and to those which will emerge in the future. The relationship articulates the general quest of that artist. Kitsch can never exemplify either search or quest in this sense. The third great difference between Art and Kitsch occurs in the sphere
of decoration. Art is not self-indulgently decorative. In a Kitsch product, there is no inner formal necessity between the ornamental element and motif. The decoration is used simply as cosmetic to whatever is being
centrally presented. [...]

The last and fifth major contrastive difference between the two modes of making is to some extent a continuation by other means of the issue of decoration. A work of art, if looked at in terms of its rituahstic aspect, is never ritualistic without substance. The ritualism of Kitsch, however, gives full reign to the resources of human fancy and fantasy without regard to the traditional base of accredited ritual. The authenticity of the ritual domain in Art is derived from its historical validity—the ideological validity of the field of ritual reference at the time at which any given work of art invoking it is made. A work of art can, of course, evoke past ritualistic forms, not (as may be the case) as quotation, but rather in the form of celebrating the climate of a previous epoch and its value-system. But whenever that happens, it will treat the material referred to in the language of the present and not just naively import the ritual mode unaltered. Kitsch imports, and borrows, intact. Art alludes, and transforms. [...]

Today, Kitsch is the flourishing formula of a mass culture. Its presence can be detected in every social practice from religion, through all mediacommercials, to athletics, even. Kitsch is the great hedonist vehicle of our time, a parasite now grown to leviathan maturity, while the host on which it feeds remains comparatively small. But to this depressing fact there is an opposing optimistic parable. In certain Latin American countries, the scourge of extreme poverty has brought into being a type of artistcraftsman, who lacking all plant or technology has taken to recycling chosen items of garbage (Strassenschlamm) into new and beautiful and useful individualized products, such as oil-lamps, which' are sold at local street-markets. They are sold not (yet) to tourists, but to ordinary local people.

This model of creative courage in which an innovation drawn from the uninviting gutter of industrial waste breeds beauty alongside utility, has something in common with the way in which Western artists have taken up facets of the enormous Kitsch output in their own culture and through a deft act of allusive irony incorporated them into fresh aesthetic statements. Modem art therefore engages in a crucial if low-key dialogue with its feverish parasite. On each occasion where that irony is manifested a work of art becomes a work of criticism, and a work of criticism becomes a work of art.

Crick, Philip (1983) "Kitsch". In: British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 23, no. 1.

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