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THE COMPAKATIST RITUAL AT THE BIRTH OF KITSCH Cälin-Andrei Mihäilescu Modernity has a condition, an aU too human one, that accompanies it Uke a sweet innuendo and a sour noise: kitsch. Not only is kitsch generaUy regarded as confined to the post-French Revolution realm of modernity, but modernity itself seems to have found in kitsch its proper realm of the famüiar and the inauthentic—its temptation. Subscribing to the common place ofmodern criticism that deplores media's inabflity to provide "authentic, Uved experiences," GuIo Dorfles writes that: Mass culture, being as it is at the root ofthe new distribution oftime, has killed all ability to distinguish between art and life; all trace ofa "rite" in the handing out ofcultural and aesthetic nourishment by the mass media . . . has been lost, and this lack ofthe ritual element has brought about an indifference in the onlooker when he is faced with the different kinds of transmissions and manifestations which are forced upon him. (30) There is no secret that kitsch is born with(in) mass culture; also, there is no secret that mass culture is made in the image and likeness of the media—in the "age of the world picture" everything might eventuaUy succumb to the McLuhanite tautology, "the medium is the message"— although such a disclosure may easüy put the mind to rest on the bedrock ofthe mythical opposition between formless matter (mass) and form (media). However, mass culture should not be reduced to the media, and kitsch should not be reduced to mass culture. "Kitsch" is a term that initiaUy—in the 1860s—denoted "bad taste": first in Bavaria, then in the whole of Central Europe, France, England, and the rest. A short, trenchant word (whose most probable etymon is the German verb kitschen, "to play with and smooth out the mud"), "kitsch" has rapidly won the competition with its Spanish and Russian counterparts, "cursi' (Gómez de la Serna) and "poshlost" (Nabokov 6374 ), and now is coextensive with bad taste everywhere, and not everywhere with a twist. A Central-European affair for most of its course in critical thinking, kitsch has been usuaUy associated, or even identified (Giesz), with the massification of culture in the nineteenth century and beyond. However, bad taste's is a tentacular empire, and "kitsch" evolved from a mere resentful label into more deUcate re-source of meaning. The sociological explanation ofthe genesis ofkitsch dweUs on the widespread corruption oftaste to status-seeking and display. "[P]lutocrats, nouveaux riches, the petty bourgeois imitating the old aristocracy" (Calinescu 225), the petty bourgeois that today form the general class in a classless universe , are the purveyors and conveyors of kitsch. Their gardens are adorned with Uttle white Popes and Kennedys surrounded by Ught Vol. 21 (1997): 49 RITUAL AT THE BIRTH OF HTSCH bulbs, leading up to steps guarded by two gypsum Uons. Omnivolent, anonymous nani digiardino look on and don't seem to regret anything: the owner is chez soi. From a cold distance that rephcates the Benjaminian distance separating us from the aura oforiginal artwork, kitsch, the "rear-guard" that accompanies the avant-gardes of modernity, is seen as a product ofthe industrial revolution which urbanized the masses ofWestern Europe and America and established what it is called universal literacy . . . [Kitsch is an] ersatz culture . . . destined for those who, insensible to the values ofgenuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture ofsome sort can provide. Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra ofgenuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source ofits profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes with styles but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome ofall that is spurious in the life ofour times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time. (Greenberg 10). More than 50 years later, one feels the need to oppose a sharper dialectics of "ritual" and "showing" (see below) to Greenberg's heavyhanded explaining away of kitsch as decayed high culture and an unfortunate side effect of the EnUghtenment. According to such a procedure...


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