The Recovery of Kitsch

David Lloyd

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An irrepressible conundrum mocks national cultures, all the more so when, overshadowed by more powerful neighbors, culture is all the nation has to distinguish it. That conundrum is the apparently inevitable declension of the icons of authentic national culture into kitsch. The images proliferate: round towers and wolfhounds, harps and shamrocks, La Virgen de Guadalupe and pyramids in Yucatán, Aztec masks and feath- ered serpents. And they have their histories, disinterred and shaped in the projects of cultural nationalism to symbolize the primordial origins of the spirit of the nation, la raza. But long before their visible commodification as signals of safe exoticism deployed by our tourist boards, breweries, or airlines, the logic of their standardization and circulation was embedded in the nationalist project.

What does cultural nationalism want? In the first place, to retrieve for the people an authentic tradition that, in its primordiality and con- tinuity, differentiates the nation culturally if not racially from those that surround or occupy it. This act of retrieval seeks to reroot the cultural forms that have survived colonization in the deep history of a people, and to oppose them to the hybrid and grafted forms that have emerged in the forcedmixing of cultures that colonization entails. It is an archeological and genealogical project aimed at purification and refinement, at originality and authenticity. The fact that, as we know only too well, most tradition is invented tradition is less significant than the act of resistant self-differentiation that project involves.

For, in the second place, it is to identify with this difference that cultural nationalism calls its prospective subjects: Rather than masquer-ading as a well-formed Anglo or Englishman, celebrate our differences even where they are marked as signs of inferiority. Transvalue the values of the colonizer, cease to defer to the dominant culture and its commodities, produce and consume authentic national goods. Above all, cultivate the sentiment of a difference that unifies the people against the colonizing power, for in that sentiment of difference survives the spirit of the nation. Cultural nationalism seeks accordingly to reform the structures of feeling of individuals, emancipating their affects from dependence and inferiority, and directing them towards an independence founded in cultural integrity. It must do so by deploying artifacts that are the symbols of national culture, parts that represent a whole that has often yet to be constituted: ballads or corridos, myths, tales, poetry, music and costumes, murals. Around these, the sentiment of national culture is to be forged in each and every individual.

To achieve these ends, cultural nationalists must deploy, in the name of tradition itself, the most modern techniques of reproduction and dissemination. Benedict Anderson has noted the importance of the press and its commodity forms, the newspaper and the novel, to the emergence of nationalism.1 We can extend the sweep of nationalism's dependence on the circulation of cultural commodities to include forms from the street ballad, cheaply produced and disseminated by peddlers, to radio, television, and cinema. Nationalist sentiment is borne by commodities whose circulation encompasses the whole national territory. And if every corner of the prospective nation is washed by this circulation, so too each individual must be saturated with the same sentiment without which the uniformity and unity of popular political desire could not be forged. Cultural nationalism requires a certain homogenization of affect, a requirement served not so much by selection as by proliferation, the dissemination of countless ballads, newspaper articles, symbols, and images that are virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, a considerable degree of stylistic uniformity, a simulacrum of the anonymity of "folk" artifacts, is indispensable to the project: stylistic idiosyncrasy would be counterproductive, stylization is of the essence.

Hence the apparent inevitability of the devolution of "authentic national culture" into kitsch. The commodification of certain styles, and the mechanical reproduction of standardized forms of affect that have traditionally been the hallmarks of kitsch have their close counterparts in cultural nationalism. Only here, the reproduction of forms is directed less towards the homogenization of the economic than of the political sphere. This political purpose requires, nonetheless, the production of novelties that are always interchangeable, and the immediate, untroubled evocation of affects that are the sign of each individual's identification with the nation. Rather than the auratic remoteness of the modern artwork, the products of kitsch and of nationalism must, by the very logic of their economic and political raisons d'être, appear familiar. Indeed, the sites that they occupy, often to the consternation of both their political and their aesthetic critics, are crucially domestic, those familial spaces in which national desires are safeguarded and reproduced. As Franco Moretti puts it, "kitsch literally 'domesticates' aesthetic experience. It brings it into the home, where most of everyday life takes place."2 The correspondence with the strategies of nationalism, which seeks to saturate everyday life, are evident, and by no means unrelated to the strategies of religious culture. The Sacred Heart and votary lamp vie for attention with icons of 1916 in not a few Irish kitchens.

This conjunction of nationalist and religious artifacts as domestic objects raises problems for the purely aesthetic judgment. The rigorous castigation of kitsch relies on the assumption of its impurity or authenticity, on its debasement of formerly integral styles into anachronistic stylization, on its tendency to neo-baroque excess. Kitsch is mannerism, sentiment congealed into attitude. Its relation to commodity fetishism in general lies both in its mass-produced standardization of affects and its apparent displacement of authentic social relations. The glossy surfaces and high color tones, the uncannily familiar yet novel melody, appear to condense feeling into sentiment and to furnish fetishistic substitutes in place of aesthetic transubstantiations.

For critics of kitsch, Adolf Loos's functionalist horror of ornamentation is typical, not merely in its castigation of mannered stylization or of impossible conjunctions--Grecian ashtrays or Renaissance hatboxes--but more pointedly in his assumption that consumers of kitsch suffer from an outlived primitivism of affect. Kitsch represents a desire for ornament and surface that belongs with savagery and is deeply antagonistic to aesthetic distance.3 Unlike, say, Marx and Freud, such a theory of fetishism unironically grasps the destruction of aura in the fakeries of kitsch as an effect of the aesthetic underdevelopment of the populace rather than as an inexorable consequence of the social and economic conditions of modernity. Not underdevelopment but commodity fetishism, which itself dissolves aura into availability and particularity into an advertising slogan, is the fundamental condition that frames the circulation of kitsch. As Adorno remarks, writing of "commodity music" in the refrain "Especially for you," the swindle "is so transparent that it cynically admits it and transfers the special to realms where it loses all meaning."4

The critique of kitsch not only mistakes its relation to modernity, as the critique of nationalism so often mistakes the relation of its apparent traditionalisms to modernity, but equally mistakes in both their relation to distance, aesthetic or historical. Not the stereotype of the savage subject to immediate impressions that lurks in Loos's scorn, but the tourist is the proper figure for the lover of kitsch. Not for nothing is the object that springs to mind so often a souvenir, a green Connemara marble Celtic cross or an ashtray embossed with a harp: kitsch is congealed memory that expresses simultaneously the impossible desire to realize a relation to a culture available only in the form of recreation, and the failure to transmit the past. Kitsch is the inseparable double of an aesthetic culture that continues to pose as a site of redemption for those who are subject to the economic laws of modernity, even in the spaces of recreation that pretend to emancipate them from labour. It is popular culture's indecorous revenge on aesthetic illusion.

As such, it is no less a vehicle for feeling, even if (as in the case of religious art), what it reveals is, in part, the impossibility of integrating aesthetic affect with modernity's fragmentations. The baroque intensities of wounding and mannered suffering in religious art, and the fascination with ruins and monuments in tourist kitsch signal the at-homeness of such artifacts in the domain of allegory. They point to the impossibility of achieving organic or symbolic integration of a life, or of a life with art, or of religion into the texture of daily life, precisely in their very insistence within the domestic space. In the very gestures it makes towards transcendence, kitsch preserves the melancholy recognition of the insuperable disjunction between desire and its objects. As Adorno puts it, "The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life."5

But suppose we amend that comment slightly, to read, "it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that your life has been wasted?" This rewriting brings us closer to what is at stake in the resistance of kitsch to aesthetic judgement, to its parodic relation to the redemptive illusions of high culture, and, more importantly, to what the significance of kitsch is within migrant or colonized cultures. Nowhere are the deracinating and alienating effects of capitalism felt more powerfully than in communities whose histories are determined by domination, displacement, and immigration, for whom ruins are the entirely just and not merely figurative indices of living dislocation. And nowhere is kitsch, from the family snapshot to the religious or national icon, more crucial to the articulation of the simultaneous desire for and impossibility of restoring and maintaining connection. Kitsch becomes, in such spheres, the congealed memory of traumas too intimate and too profound to be lived over without stylization and attitude. In the migrant community especially, kitsch is subject already to the conditions of inauthenticity that trouble cultural nationalist icons, and becomes doubly allegorical of an irredeemable dislocation. The detached fragment that is literally transported is less a memory than the representative of processes of memory which have virtually become unsustainable. It is at once the metonym of transfer and its effects, and a sign of the migrant's ambivalent relation to the new and dominant culture. Verbal, musical, or visual, the icon stands as a refusal of incorporation that simultaneously challenges a rejection that is in any case inevitable. Is it not the experience of virtually every migrant community to be articulated around icons that are despised by the culture from which we come as no longer authentic (as if its own icons ever were!) and by that to which we come as vulgar, sentimental, gaudy--as signs of underdevelopment and inadequate assimilation? Hence, doubtless, the importance and the recurrence of the feeling of shame in relation to such icons on the part of the assimilating migrant of any generation. The emergence of aesthetic judgement, if only as a regulative standard, has always been instrumental in the formation of citizens.

Yet migrant kitsch and the icons of the dominated are marked by a paradoxical discretion, by what they omit to say as a function of their allegorical mode, and of their double obligation. Their allegorical function is to gesture towards a trauma that will not and cannot be fully acknowledged--will not, by either the culture from which or the culture to which the migrant migrates. The emigrant is the living index of the failure of post-colonial states, and accordingly consigned as rapidly as possible to political oblivion and cultural contempt; the immigrant must be seen in the so-called economic good times, not as the return of imperialism's bad conscience, charged with as much resentment as ambition, but as one seeking the betterment offered by a culturally and economically more dynamic society. S/he must be seen in bad times like the present as a parasite seeking to feed off the vitality of the state s/he undermines, rather than as one more actor in the same global circulations of capital and labour as are transforming social relations with renewed and vicious intensity in every sector and in every region of the world.


Peter John Caraher in his kitchen. Celtic cross was made in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, and the harp was made in Portloise Prison, South Armagh, N. Ireland, 1986. Photo by Mike Abrahams/Network

In turn, the trauma cannot be fully acknowledged any more than it can be forgotten, by the migrant or the dominated, for the disavowal of that trauma has the effect of transforming a collective disaster into an individual or familial affair. In the reconstruction of both community and domestic life, the icon functions to contain memory: it at once serves to preserve cultural continuities in face of their disruption, and to localize, as it were, the potentially paralyzing effects of trauma and anomie. Take for example, the strangely moving image above the bar of the Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco, a building in which kitsch thrives at every level, from the architecture to the music. The image, part of a set of sandblasted glass panels that include a round tower and a map of Ireland, appears to represent an emigrant ship. Yet the millions of emigrants who left, and the thousands who died of fever and hunger in the "coffin ships," are represented only in the couple who occupy a deck that resembles a promenade, and whose gaze appears to linger backwards on the homeland, or possibly forwards to the land promised to them by the tourist board. Tourists returning or emigrants leaving, a peculiar sense of dislocation hovers in the midst of the nostalgic glow, while in the bottom right-hand corner, a lone old man stares out from a promontory. There is no evident connection, and it is impossible to tell whether he represents the next emigrant or a figure for the reduced but persistent peasant society from which, supposedly, the emigrants fled. In such an icon, the unspeakable trauma of the Great Hunger, and of massive emigration over the next century is at once preserved and suppressed.

Yet, even the most traumatic memory is never forgotten. If kitsch preserves, in its congealed and privatized, mostly portable forms, the memories of a community that cannot quite be a people, does it not also represent a repertoire that can, in given political circumstances, be redeployed for collective ends? In such cases, the political possibilities derive precisely from the availability of the icon, its constant circulation prior to any politicizing retrieval, and its accumulation in that circulation of individual meanings and attachments, ranging from a shared sense of affection to a shamed sense of stigmatization. In the contradictory range of feelings that attach to it, often simultaneously, lies the secret of the sudden mobility to which the icon can attain in spite of its debasement and devaluation as mere kitsch. One such instance would be the figure of Mother Ireland, a figure generally decried by the agents of modernity as a residue of atavistic Victorian Celticism, yet whose recirculation in the recent decades of the Troubles has transformed her into a site of profound contestations over the meaning and definition of women's struggles and their relation to republicanism and cultural nationalism. As the superb documentary by the Derry Film Collective, Mother Ireland, indicates, it is precisely the contradictoriness of the affects that attach to such icons that permits their transformation from scleroticized to dynamic cultural forms, forms available for contestation and revision. Something similar has been the case with the refiguration of cultural icons like La Malinché and La Virgen de Guadalupe within recent Chicana art and writing.6

It is important to emphasize, and by no means in disparagement, this fact that the sources of the icons thus refigured are so often exactly those which have been recirculated, commodified, apparently exhausted in the turns of reproduction and circulation. There is nothing atavistic or regressive in the cultural politics that reappropriates icons long denigrated as vulgar kitsch. On the contrary, what such art often maps is the problematic and often ironic interface between the economic and therefore cultural and political force of modernity, and the survival of the alternative spaces of the non-modern. Their political meaning lies in the jarring juxtaposition of motifs that are not so much traditional as they are attenuated by familiarity against motifs derived from the conditions of struggle against postmodern state violence. Some of Gerard Kelly's most powerful murals in West Belfast derive their iconography not from ancient Celtic manuscripts but from Jim Fitzpatrick's post-Marvel Celtic comic, The Book of Conquests. As he has remarked, this involved a quite conscious transfer in the art he was initially painting on handkerchiefs while in the H-Blocks, from the permitted kitsch of Ireland's official religious and commodity cultures to the stylization of Celtic mythology:

Prison was supposed to be a breaker's yard for republicans. You were stripped of your dignity, your clothes, anything that showed your identity. You were allowed to paint hankies of the Pope, the Virgin Mary, Mickey Mouse and things like that. They censored everything. [After reading Fitzpatrick] rather than do the Mickey Mouse things, I decided to paint Celtic mythology.7

Kelly's repertoire, not unlike that of contemporary Chicano muralists, is drawn from numerous sources, ranging from Sandinista murals to newspaper cartoons. At the same time, the mural as a form exists in situ, and often gains its exact meanings from its relation not only to a very definite community, but also to the forces of state power against whom the mural speaks in its very vulnerability and relative poverty of material resources. In this sense, it enacts an ironic reversal of the ways in which the state's counterinsurgency apparatuses have tried to produce a simulacrum of the non-modern "knowable community," where so much knowledge passes by intimate channels, in the form of computerized databanks that can access the name of your neighbor's dog, or listening devices that can eavesdrop on every living room or street corner conversation.

Irish Cultural Center, San Francisco, 1995. Photo by Ed Kashi

The effects of work like Kelly's, or of Mission District muralists, are not remote from those of Rubén Ortiz's video work Para leer Macho Mouse, with its extravagant and ironic deployment of Disney and commodified Mexicanisms, nor from his adapted baseball caps, in which a radical juxtaposition of the all-American headgear with the homeboy's appropriation of that dominant icon is spelt out in the adaptations of the very lettering that is supposed to signal legitimate affiliations. But instead they come to bear memories of expropriation, stigma, and resistance: 1492, Mestizo, Aztlán. Nor are such murals far from the work of John Kindness's double-edged play with the outrageous convergence of the kitsch of both dominant and unofficial cultures: the Ninja Turtle Harp, or the Grecian cab door, Scraping the Surface. Kindness's work plays in such images with the horror with which Loos observed Grecian ashtrays or Gothic chandeliers in late-nineteenth-century Vienna, and in doing so liberates from aesthetic judgments the same wit and mobility that allows subordinated cultures to rediscover in "kitsch" a rich repertoire for resistance.

Mural commemorating 8 IRA volunteers killed in action during ambush of Loughal Barracks, Springhill Estate, Belfast, N. Ireland, 1988. Photo by Laurie Sparham /Network



1 See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

2 See Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (London: Verso, 1987), p. 36.

3 On Loos's writings on kitsch, see Miriam Gusevich, "Decoration and Decorum: Adolf Loos's Critique of Kitsch," in New German Critique, no. 43 (Winter 1988): 97-123.

4 Theodor W. Adorno, "Commodity Music Analysed," in Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1992), p. 44. I have of course been inspired here equally by Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and will subsequently draw much from his masterful Origins of German Tragedy for my reflections on kitsch, melancholy, and allegory.

5 Ibid., p. 50.

6 See, for example, Cherrie Moraga, "A Long Line of Vendidas," in Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso por sus labios (Boston: South End Press, 1983); Norma Alarcon, "In the Tracks of the Native Woman," Cultural Critique, no. 14; and the artwork of Yolanda M. Lopez or Ester Hernandez. I am indebted to Laura Perez's essay "El desorden: Nationalism and Chicana/o Aesthetics," forthcoming, for drawing my attention to the work of these artists.

7 Quoted by Bill Rolston in "The Writing on the Wall: The Murals of Gerry Kelly," Irish Reporter, no. 2 (1991): 15.




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