Friday, 5 October 2012

Kitsch and Its Object (T. Kulka) II

Part I
"Before turning to the question of how to paint - that is - to the question of the stylistic properties of kitsch, let us consider what further specifications should guide the choice of the subject matter, and what type of emotional response the painter should aim to elicit. Let us take, for example, the theme of the crying child that figures so prominently in kitsch depictions. Our painter should be advised to choose a nice and cute little child rather than a wicked ugly-looking one. The cry shouldn't be irritating or hysterical, but rather a sob of the soft and quiet variety; the child should elicit a sympathetic response. The painter should avoid all unpleasant or disturbing features of reality, leaving us only with those we can easily cope with and identify with. Kitsch comes to support our basic sentiment and beliefs, not to disturb or question them. It works best when our attitude toward its object is patronizing. Puppies work better than dogs, kittens better than cats. The success of kitsch also depends on the universality of the emotions in elicits. Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding the right kind of way. They know they are moved in the same way as everybody else. This psychological aspect of kitsch was also stressed by Milan Kundera: "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch" (Unbearable Lightness 251). The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones. Kitsch thus does not work on individual idiosyncrasies. It breeds on universal images, the emotional charge of which appeals to everyone. Since the purpose of kitsch is to please the greatest possible number of people, it always plays on the most common denominators.

The examples of kitsch themes mentioned above belong to what one may call universal kitsch. They play on basic human impulses irrespective of religious beliefs, political convictions, race, or nationality. They exploit universal subjects such as birth, family, love, nostalgia, and so forth, which could, perhaps, be further analysed in terms of Jungian archetypes. However, alongside universal kitsch we also find more specific types of religious, political, national, and local kitsch. "Kitsch has its source in categorical agreement with being," says Kundera. "But what is the basis of being? God? Mankind? Struggle? Love? Man? Woman? ... Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Communist, Fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international" (Unbearable Lightness, 256-57).

We may  thus distinguish between different types of kitsch of varying degrees of universality. Christian kitsch - exemplified by plastic Jesus babies, pictures of the Virgin Mary or scenes of the Crucifixion - combines the universal elements of kitsch with symbolism relating to the articles of Christian faith. Communist kitsch - depicting smiling workers in factories, young couples on tractors cultivating a collective farm or building a hydroelectric power station - played on the mythical valued of the joy of work and the enthusiasm for building a classless society. Capitalist kitsch, exemplified by advertising, on the other hand, uses class distinctions and status symbols to create artificial needs and illusions to foster the ideology of the consumer society. There can also be even more specific national kitsch that exploits the sentiments associated with national symbols and leaders: Mao Tse-tung leading the Great March, Lenin speaking to the workers, or good-hearted Hitler holding a child in his arms. The subject matter of kitsch may vary considerably in accordance with beliefs and traditions. What remains constant is that the consumer of kitsch is never emotionally indifferent to what the picture represents. [...]

Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions."

Kulka, Thomas (2002 [1996]) Kitsch and Art. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. pp 25-27.

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