Sunday, March 28, 2010
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (book and film) is predominantly about philosophy of life, relationships, politics, and art with how each impact our lives. In the film, one of the primary characters, Sabina, is an artist who uses her own body, mirrors, paints, air brushing, whatever media she finds, including a hat, to inspire her artistic direction. Her life is her art.
Because this story is also about totalitarianism, it looked at various ways totalitarian regimes impact those who live under them including the arts using kitsch. Frankly I had never thought of kitsch as having a political purpose.
I think most artists do think about whether what they are doing is kitsch-- in other words is it trying to be too cute, to manipulate emotions, to provide an answer instead of thinking. (I recognize that one person's kitsch may be another's concept of great art.) I know why I don't like things I label kitsch, those I see as maudlin or too cute when I am decorating my home, but I had never thought of it the way author Milan Kundra saw it as actually serving purposes in getting or maintaining power-- politically or religiously.
Kundera wrote that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult with which to come to terms, offering instead a sanitized view of the world, in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions".
Because totalitarianism doesn't respect differences nor does it allow it, kitsch serves its purpose with papering over complexities with something that appeals to the emotions while it not challenging the mind. And so we have the flag pin that impacted the last election. Meaningful? How?
In a healthy culture, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable direction; by contrast with totalitarian thinking, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life." Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch."
"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 kitsch kitsch." Milan Kundera
What could be defined as kitsch is a question that gains more interest when you consider that kitsch (in entertainment too) is really about control. Do we go through whole eras where kitsch dominates the art world? Should we be concerned when art (including writing) that challenges is pushed aside for art that feels good and denies think about it. I have said I like 'feel good' but when is it healthy and when is it harmful and actually serving aims beyond our own?
When thinking of examples of the 'think about it' kind, the kind that challenges and makes people angry demanding they think, Andres Serrano's photograph of a cheap plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine comes to mind.
Offensive? Definitely. Shocking? You bet. But what was it saying? Was it about what religion has done to Christ? Was it putting down Christ? Was it a statement about the Church itself? Or was it about kitsch, meaningless objects that people venerate? What exactly was it saying? Most people got so angry they didn't care. They just wanted it gone. I would say it was not kitsch based on Kundera's definition anyway.
A painter who comes to mind when considering art that is not kitsch would be the Australian artist, [Norman Lindsey]. The film Sirens is roughly based on his work, was set in his home in Australia, and (along with artistic nudity) presents the argument of whether art is intended to challenge or to comfort. Not to say that art cannot be comforting but what about that which isn't? Should it be banned? Totalitarian regimes (of all sorts) would do exactly that.
Finding examples of what is kitsch is harder for me. Is this? Is that? Well if it makes us content with the status quo, if it doesn't inspire us to find our own goals but catches us up in the goals of our government, if it sedates us, numbs us to thinking for ourselves, well maybe that's it. I can see how it can be especially used in entertainment. Some think the powers that be are political parties. What if they are not? What if they are corporate?
The digital painting at the top is mine based on a photograph that was also mine of an eagle along the Yellowstone River in Montana. Does it qualify as kitsch given the symbolism in it? I personally don't think so as it stands, but what if I added a flag to it and used it in a campaign for some political goal?