Saturday, 9 December 2006

How does Milan Kundera define 'kitsch' in The Unbearable Lightness of Being?


Milan Kundera touches on several intriguing philosophical ideas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Nietzschean idea of 'ein mal ist kein mal' and the idea of kitsch, which the chapter The Grand March is devoted to. From investigating several studies on 'kitsch' it has become apparent that Milan Kundera is heavily quoted, but often the actual content of his ideas regarding kitsch is overlooked and he is classified as a writer who has simply written on 'Communist kitsch'. This is a shame since it misses Kundera's key point, that “kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”1 It is also ironic: the same sin is committed against Sabina when she is characterised as “carrying on the struggle”2 against the Communist tyranny afflicting her homeland simply because she is a Czech artist working in the West. We might imagine that Kundera's response to being pigeon-holed in the same way would be the same as Sabina's: “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!”3 To ignore the other aspects that Kundera writes about would be a misinterpretation of his conceptualisation of kitsch. Though his statements may initially appear excessively abstract (“kitsch is the absolute denial of shit”) they are not trivial ideas, and may help to understand why writers have argued that kitsch is dangerous, such as Hermann Broch who pronounced that “the producer of kitsch...profoundly desires evil”4. Therefore this essay will closely examine the progression of ideas about kitsch in the chapter The Grand March. First, however, we will briefly look at general theories surrounding the aesthetic of kitsch.

The term 'kitsch' is normally associated with works of art or objects that are popular but that are considered to have no real artistic value and to be lacking in good taste, for example because they are sentimental.5 Kitsch is also associated with mass produced objects, and has thus been linked with the industrial revolution, the growth of the bourgeoisie and modernity. This point is objectionable on several grounds because it implies that bad taste specifically associated with kitsch has been in existence for less than two hundred years. It seems more likely that bad taste is a universal condition, particularly if we accept that sentimentality is the cornerstone of kitsch. It is a commonly held view that Romanticism was the mother of sentimentally orientated art, which opened up the way for aesthetic escapism.6 The suggestion that kitsch taste is only associated with the bourgeoisie also implies that the aristocracy or higher classes have innate better taste. Kitsch, however, is not confined to cheap, mass produced objects. Painters of the French Academy of the nineteenth century were paragons of kitsch, such as Bouguereau. In his essay On Kitsch and Sentimentality, Solomon discusses Bouguereau's depiction of two pretty young girls in their best dresses wearing angelic expressions on their faces. This is a good example of aesthetic kitsch, since the actual painting is said to be executed with perfection. Objects need not be cheap or badly produced to qualify as kitsch, rather, it is the sentiments behind them that qualify them for their title. Kitsch has most likely existed for as long as humans have existed, but we know7 that the actual term 'kitsch' arose in the 1860s or 1870s in Munich's art markets, describing cheap and hotly marketable sketches. Kitsch in this sense is intimately associated with the bourgeoisie, because these cheap reproductions allegedly appealed to their “crass tastes”. They thought they could achieve status by aping the most apparent features of the elites' cultural habits.8

Recent writing also builds on this tradition of linking kitsch to production. The argument from the ivory towers9 goes like this: humans, most who are “wage slaves” spend most of their time working in mindless jobs. When they have leisure time, they must find a way of entertaining themselves but without questioning the basic assumptions of their menial, pointless lives. Kitsch is the chosen outlet, since it kills time, is patterned and pre-digested10 and provides easy titillation, much like “the feelies” in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Matei Calinescu describes it as a “systematic attempt to fly from reality” and a relief from boredom and effort simultaneously.11 If we were thinking in Hegelian terms, this is pervasive alienation: humans created their means of production but they are no longer in control of it, and now the system itself creates the distractions (kitsch) to keep them from questioning the system. In fact, the term 'kitsch' was popularised in the 1930s by thinkers like Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno and Hermann Broch whose use of the word was reliant on the idea of “false consciousness”, a Marxist term denoting the mindset present in capitalist structures of being misguided to its desires. Clement Greenberg argued in his 1939 essay Avant-garde and kitsch that capitalist propaganda produced a levelling of culture and avant-garde art was a way of resisting this process. As we will see later, Kundera's argument is somewhat similar: pluralistic culture cancels out political kitsch, it is when there is one prevalent political kitsch that people cannot resist. The common thread in both arguments is that one dominant mode or system endangers individuality and consequently provides a chance for unhindered kitsch. By way of digression, it is interesting to note that Greenberg wrote his essay partly as a response to the repression of modernist art in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where Aryan art and Soviet Realism had become the only sanctioned styles.

Kitsch is essentially an aesthetic term, but it has also taken on an ethical aspect. Kitsch is not about evoking a genuine aesthetic response12: it is a pantomime of aesthetic life. In the words of Clement Greenberg: "Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times."13 If we consider that true art must provide a “genuine aesthetic experience” then kitsch art provides a parody of this experience, or as Theodor Adorno put it, kitsch is a “parody of catharsis”14. This makes it morally dubious. Similarly, the term kitsch is applicable to culture and other forms of experience if it seeks to provide a fake reality.
Thomas Kulka defined three necessary and sufficient conditions for kitsch in his book Kitsch and Art. The conditions are set with forms of art in mind, but I think they can be raised to a more abstract level. The conditions are:
1)Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.
2)The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.
3)Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.15 (In fact, as Robert Nozick observes, it may obstruct real emotion or provide a simulacrum of the emotion that erodes and degrades the capacity to feel that emotion.)16
We find a similar description for the aesthetic of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kitsch must be of a “kind the multitudes can share”17. Because the multitudes can share it, “the brotherhood of man on earth will only be possible on a basis of kitsch”18. As Tomas Kulka points out, this has become a reality with globally watched soap opera such as Dallas and Dynasty.19 To enable such a wide spectrum of people to partake in kitsch, it must not “depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.”20 Here we can see that conditions one and two of Kulka's aesthetic definition have been fulfilled: these images are emotionally charged and are classic or hackneyed themes that most people can identify with or pretend to imagine.

Now we will briefly summarise Kundera's argument before exploring it further. We start with the premise that “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit”. This denial is necessary for the “categorical agreement with being”. Thus categorical agreement creates the need for kitsch. There are many categorical agreements with being – democratic, fascist, European to name but a few. It then follows that there are many different kinds of kitsch. In particular, Kundera delves into the kitsch of totalitarianism, and mentions American kitsch and the kitsch of Fritz's Grand March. The culprit at the basis of this kitsch is sentimentality.

Sabina visits a friend when she is in America and he takes her for a “drive in his gigantic car, his four children bouncing up and down in the back.” As the children run on the grass, the senator “describing a circle with his arm, a circle that was meant to take in stadium, grass, and children, adds , 'Now that's what I call happiness.'”21 The senator is experiencing a twofold emotion: joy at seeing children run and grass growing, but a mistaken 'deep understanding' that where Sabina came from, grass did not grow and children did not run. Kundera asks the question: “How did the senator know that children meant happiness?” The answer is the senator's feeling: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.”22 Because kitsch “is an integral part of the human condition”, no one can escape kitsch completely. Perhaps even the author cannot, reminding us again that Kundera's work occupies a position in postmodern literature, where the author is no longer a god controlling his creations. Even Sabina, who hates kitsch, is not immune from sentimentality. We get a glimpse of her idyll, her “silly mawkish song”: “her kitsch was her image of home, all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father.”23 At the present point in the book we find Sabina almost living in her idyll, with an ageing couple. But Sabina is aware that this situation will not last long: she knows that her song is “a beautiful lie”; moreover, the old man is seriously ill. His impending death will break up this happy union, and Sabina will move on in her “path of betrayals.” In a sense, Sabina's kitsch is not dangerous because she is aware of it and “as soon as kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness.”24 However, Franz only realises too late that his kitsch is a beautiful lie, and it (literally) kills him. Franz imagines his absent lover (Sabina) to be his ethereal goddess, shedding her brilliant light on all his undertakings.25 In her book on the novels of Kundera, Maria Nemcova-Banerjee argues that Franz has “unwittingly transformed Sabina into a cult memory whose monumental sentimentalism closely resembles the form of kitsch she hates most.”26 Franz decides to go on the mission to Cambodia because he sees a link between the oppressed, Communist Cambodia and Sabina's oppressed, Communist Czechoslovakia. He is unceremoniously given a terminal hit on the head by a group of thugs in a side alley, and expires in a bed in Switzerland under the eye of his estranged wife. The tragedy is that just before being assaulted, he finally realises that he is actually happy with reality, because “it is much more than a dream.”27 Alas, just as his epiphany materialises, so do his killers.

But why should kitsch be dangerous apart from being “a beautiful lie?” This is a question addressed in Solomon's essay On Kitsch and Sentimentality. His answer is that people's primary problem with kitsch is its easy evocation of sweet emotions, and the problem with sweet emotions is that we have a poor opinion of the emotions. Sentimentality has become a term of harsh abuse since the degradation of the sentiments in nineteenth century philosophy, particularly following Kant's attack on sentiment and sentimentalism28. Kundera makes the link between kitsch and sentimentalism, saying that the word was born of “the sentimental nineteenth century.”29 Solomon distils six arguments that are used to explain what is wrong with kitsch. It provokes excessive and immature expressions of emotion; it manipulates the emotions; it evokes faked or false emotions; it evokes cheap, easy or superficial emotions; it is self-indulgent; it distorts the perceptions and interferes with rational thought and an adequate understanding of the world.30 We will just concentrate on a few of these points. Kitsch manipulates the emotions by using icons to guarantee an instantly and wholly predictable emotional response.31 This is a violation of a person's autonomy. Kitsch and sentimentality are self-indulgent when the emotion and not the object of emotion is the primary concern. Thus Kundera famously writes:
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.32
The second tear almost appears to be a desperate wish to affirm one's humanity. Or as Kulka puts it, “consumers of kitsch are pleased...because they know they are responding in the right kind of way.”33 Kundera has also argued in a lecture that: “Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”34 Here Kundera is still concerned with self-indulgence but also with the banality and unoriginality of our ideas. Solomon writes that “Of course, Kundera's concern is with political propaganda and the use of kitsch as a cover for totalitarianism”35 although I would argue that as Kundera has written that kitsch afflicts all mankind, he really is referring to the banality that all mankind is steeped in.

Furthermore, kitsch can be used politically by intentionally provoking feelings in place of nasty and more urgent political impulses36. This is what Kundera refers to as “Communist kitsch.” We find similar ideas in George Orwell's 1984 with the songs designed for 'the proles' to sing. The songs keep the minds of the proles occupied. The “drivelling songs” are produced without any human intervention, being made on a machine. The association of Communism and kitsch is also promoted by a fellow Czech philosopher, Karel Palek. "Karel Palek, who graduated from the Charles University as a phililogist in 1972, realised that there was no future for him in academic life, and refused to follow a substitute career in translation. After trying out the boiler rooms in the Tyrs House in the Mala Strana and the Alcron Hotel near Wenceslas Square, he came to the Stomatological Clinic in the Charles Square. Conditions were good; it was a gas-fired boiler which needed little attention, and with a small desk and a large ash tray (for cigars) he settled down for thirteen years work as a samizdat critic and editor. In 1983 Roger Scruton visited the boiler room: "...lit from above by little windows at ground level through which an oily light filtered downwards over a collection of kitsch... Fidelius [Palek's pen name was Peter Fidelius] is a student of kitsch, which he sees as a precursor of the imagery of Communism". "Communist culture", he argues, "is really kitsch with teeth".”37 This is similar to the vision that Sabina has of a fully realised Communist utopia, “a world full of grinning idiots”: “she would die of horror within a week.”38 Communist kitsch is the mask of beauty Communism tries to wear.

The epitome of Communist kitsch, Kundera writes, is the May Day parade. Although we may associate Communist kitsch with endless pictures of masculine bodies toiling the earth and Soviet films of “incredible innocence and chastity”39 Kundera deconstructs the idea further. The dazzling smiles on the May Day parades, were “not merely expressing political agreement with Communism; no, theirs was an agreement with being as such. The May Day ceremony drew its inspiration from the deep well of the categorical agreement with being.” The hidden motto of the parade was not “Long Live Communism!” but “Long Live Life”: and the cunning of Communist politics lay in the fact that it appropriated this slogan.40 However, political kitsch is not just associated with Communism, rather it exists whenever a single political movement corners power. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. Pluralistic political culture cancels out these competing kitsch influences, allowing the individual to “escape the kitsch inquisition” and remain an individual. Totalitarianism bans anything which infringes on its kitsch. Therefore, no individualism, no questions, no doubts and no irony is allowed. So to preclude any questions, all answers are given in advance. This is somewhat like the show trial, reminiscent of the scene in the Hungarian film “The Witness” where the judge prompts the witness on his testimony and the sentence has already been written before the trial begins. Yet those who fight against totalitarianism are also drawn into the simplistic dichotomy: “they cannot function with queries and doubts. They, too, need certainties and simple truths to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears.”41 This reminds us of the scene where the American actress makes an impassioned speech linking the suffering of children with the barbarity of Communist dictatorship and the threat to “our traditional values.” She ends her speech in tears. Unsurprisingly, this angers the representatives of the left-wing intelligentsia represented at the conference by the French, who rail against her American kitsch – because it clashes with the kitsch of their Grand March.

And here we come to Kundera's argument that there are many different kinds of kitsch because there are many different types of categorical agreements with being. There are many different types because there are many interpretations on what the basis of being is: God, mankind, struggle etc. The chapter opens with a discussion on shit: this human expression is the aesthetic equivalent to the theological notion of sin.42 It is an irreconcilable problem: “the daily defecation session is proof of unacceptability of creation”. It causes a rupture to the basis of European faiths, that the world was made for man because man is made in the image of God. But man cannot be made in the image of God, because man defecates and God cannot (if he did, defecation would be acceptable, but its unacceptability is proof that He does not). Thus Yakov Stalin kills himself: he is the unclean son of a deified father, he is a man who experiences his personal physical being as a metaphysical scandal.43 Kitsch is the only way of reconciling this problem. Kitsch denies shit, because it is unacceptable to human existence. Thus if we lie, we no longer have a problem.

It seems appropriate to end this essay with Kundera's closing notes on kitsch: “kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.”44 All that remains of Tomas and of Franz are trite descriptions of their gravestones which look like the sort of thing one should have for their epitaph, but they are actually totally inappropriate. Tomas' epitaph, bestowed on him by his Catholic son, is “HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH” and Franz's, from the wife he came to hate “A RETURN AFTER LONG WANDERINGS” (an oblique reference to their marriage). All that will be remembered of these characters are these simple, easily digestible meanings. They mask what the people were, and how they died. Tomas will not be remembered as a womaniser who found happiness with Tereza, whose body was crushed beneath a truck. Franz's tombstone denies the relationship with his student mistress which finally made him happy. Instead, the memories of them will exist in these trite descriptions, stripping both men of what they really were and chose in life. This is the essence of kitsch that Milan Kundera describes: a lie that can be used by all – not just Communists – to hide what we find unacceptable or irreconcilable in life, so that we can continue living “a beautiful lie.”

3 comments:

Michael Olarewaju said...

A awesome, impressive essay. I see kitsch in society so very well and so very often. I work at an Opera House and I can swear the sun would delay its rise if I don't hear: "Oh, the music was fabulous." at least twice a night. I also advocate many of Ayn Rand's principles in Objectivism and I'm able to reconcile most counter-arguments as a misunderstanding (indeed, they often are). But one argument that Objectivism might not survive is the trial of Kitsch: Does it try to paint the so-called beautiful lie? Does it deny the existance of shit in its attempt to place human beings as a heroic figure? Or does it not accept the presupposition that shit defiles the image of the heroic figure? (is it even possible that 'shit' can be accepted by a being and the being simultaneously think of itself as heroic?). I have a slight suspicion, and its confirmed once in a while, that I too am a caliphate of kitsch. Is it Kitsch to fantasize of an ideal?: only if it means that 'shit' cannot exist in the world of ideals. So when I find myself agreeing to the idyllic images of Objectivism, as there are reasons to do so, I am suspicious that it might be a subconscious attempt to evade that reality that life cannot be totally (indeed categorically) reconciled into an ideal. Thus the question remains: can one reconcile 'shit' and the heroic being without evading the nature of both?

Michael Olarewaju said...

A awesome, impressive essay. I see kitsch in society so very well and so very often. I work at an Opera House and I can swear the sun would delay its rise if I don't hear: "Oh, the music was fabulous." at least twice a night. I also advocate many of Ayn Rand's principles in Objectivism and I'm able to reconcile most counter-arguments as a misunderstanding (indeed, they often are). But one argument that Objectivism might not survive is the trial of Kitsch: Does it try to paint the so-called beautiful lie? Does it deny the existance of shit in its attempt to place human beings as a heroic figure? Or does it not accept the presupposition that shit defiles the image of the heroic figure? (is it even possible that 'shit' can be accepted by a being and the being simultaneously think of itself as heroic?). I have a slight suspicion, and its confirmed once in a while, that I too am a caliphate of kitsch. Is it Kitsch to fantasize of an ideal?: only if it means that 'shit' cannot exist in the world of ideals. So when I find myself agreeing to the idyllic images of Objectivism, as there are reasons to do so, I am suspicious that it might be a subconscious attempt to evade that reality that life cannot be totally (indeed categorically) reconciled into an ideal. Thus the question remains: can one reconcile 'shit' and the heroic being without evading the nature of both?

Adfero Affero said...

Watching the film again recently I realized the only direct use of kitsch was [transcript].


I really like you, Tomas.

You are the complete opposite of kitsch.

In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be...a monster.


How do think the film deals with kitsch apart from this?