The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.2 (2002) 371-391
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Racial Kitsch and Black Performance
If kitsch is failed seriousness, as the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg has proposed, then the racist kitsch that we still occasionally encounter in flea markets, on trips abroad, and in galleries and museums of contemporary art might be defined as failed humor (see Figures 1 and 2). Kitsch, according to Greenberg, attempts to say something profound, but can utter only clichés. Its abject failure is an embarrassment. The sub-genre of racist kitsch, which was largely ignored by the modernists, attempts by contrast to say something banal. In its failed effort to move unobtrusively among the objects of our everyday encounter, racist kitsch unwittingly reveals itself to be profoundly laden with meaning. Attempting to remain ephemera at the periphery of our vision, racist kitsch in fact holds our gaze, stops our conversations, and in its demand for attention in spite of itself, is an equal embarrassment. 1
Racist kitsch is pretty disgusting. To well-meaning people today, and especially to those of us racialized as "others," the only pleasurable response to it is the pleasure of mastering the urge to laugh with the joke. Through disgust, we reassert our dignity and attain distance from the pleasure that the stereotype urges upon us. This oppositional distance places the racist object in a new frame, one in which the object is re-signified. From a token of mundane racist enjoyment, it becomes a totem of our racial survival. 2
Our disgust tells us that we are not the audience solicited by the object, that we are not the people who would find the object harmless fun. Disgust reasserts the boundaries of the body when it comes in potential contact with literal or metaphorical excrement. 3 The pleasure of disgust comes when we recover bodily integrity in the face of the dis-equilibrium presented by somebody else's shit. In the particular case of racist kitsch, disgust apprehends the object as a kind of body that we are not, or, at least, one that we are no longer. It draws a boundary, not only against the object's complicit audiences, but also against the object itself.
Strong disgust demands an immediate tactic or gesture to reassert dignity. The original response intended by the creators of racist kitsch, and now sedimented firmly into the unmemorialized pasts of white [End Page 371] supremacy, is simply to laugh at the object. A more contemporary and oppositional tactic might be to destroy the object physically and thus end the intolerable question of its significance. In this vein, some recent critics have objected strongly to the curating or creating of racist kitsch, even with an oppositional gaze or intent. In different ways, two recent critics of "black memorabilia" reject the possibility that such an oppositional curating or creative practice could succeed. Racist kitsch is simply "visual terrorism," Robin Chandler observes, and Michael Harris, agreeing, suggests that because such kitsch "is linked to, and a product of, white imagination," the "attempt to invert and reconstruct another's dreams inevitably keeps one tied to and preoccupied with that other rather than the self." 4
Such criticism amounts to a theoretical destruction of the kitsch object: it attempts to imagine or invent a discursive and cultural space in [End Page 372] which the object of racist kitsch might no longer matter. The space produced through this imagined violence is occupied by an undifferentiated and collective black self, one that need never enter into relation with another. Such an approach solves the problem of history, and of racism, simply by wishing them away.
Another contemporary reaction, only superficially opposite, would be to curate the object, or to own it, and in these acts of curating and/or ownership, to modify the object in such a way as to render legible upon its surface the practices of our disgust. What happens [End Page 373] when we attempt to collect or curate racist kitsch (see Figure 3), to take ownership of it by modifying...