Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The itch for "kitsch"


The latest AmPo meme seems to consist of tossing around the word "kitsch."

A fine word, and you don't even have to have read Adorno, or Broch, or Clement Greenberg to deploy it these days. (It might be good, however, to have read Kant on the Zeitgeist.) Use it, and it sounds like you're making a statement about values in art, about good and evil, about institutions and alienation. Or maybe Carmen Miranda's tutti-frutti hats. But I don't get much out of it, and don't know what it's shorthand for; what the heck am I missing? What's weird is that the concept itself has to do with repeating things until they become cliched: kitschified, as it were. And the word itself falls prey to this process, as recent blog comments about poetry in translation prove.

But the freshest use of the word I've seen lately is in a letter by T.J. Clark to the London Review of Books about an essay by Michael Hofmann about Stefan Zweig they recently published. Clark has no dog in the ring, he says, about Zweig - but he liked Hofmann's verdict in that piece on Gustav Klimt. And in his letter explaining why, Clark locates a "special place in the hell of reputations" for those who vied for the title of "greatest painter ever" in the early twentieth century. That place is reserved for Kitschmeisters, whom he wonderfully defines as "early specialists in [...] pretend difficulty and 'opacity,' pretend mystery and profundity, pretend eroticism and excess."

Would that we had a T.J. Clark for poetry, someone with a strong stomach who could apply that definition to American poets and poetry!

*
Addendum: "Sometimes, to attempt to be provocative, I assert that there is no such thing as Kitsch, that the whole concept is a performance of its own undoing, a kind of Performance Art that can be quite lovely, if rather pointless." - John Gallaher

17 comments:

knott said...

Klimt will be valued long after crithacks like Clark and Hofmann are forgotten

Don Share said...

I got no dog in that ring.

mongibeddu said...

I don't like Klimt, but the problem with a judgment like Clark's is that his description might just as well be applied to something I do love: "pretend difficulty and 'opacity,' pretend mystery and profundity, pretend eroticism and excess" — that might just as well be Sgt. Pepper's as Klimt! But, you know, having said that...Clark's a wonderful writer, and I love to look at art through his eyes.

Ben F.

Don Share said...

I like Klimt, but take Clark's point - and yours, Ben. In pop music, no question the "pretend" stuff comes off really well. I adore cod psychedelia as much as the real thing, and find a very fine line between them. But in art and poetry and, for that matter, criticism, I want to find explorations of the things Clark lists - minus the "pretend"s. The fake stuff deserves, maybe, another German word: ersatz.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, the problem is that what is "faux" tends to be thought of as "school" rather than individual works and poets...

But it's a slippery slope, isn't it? I'm never quite sure how to handle that moment when every cell in my body is saying, hm, something not right...

mongibeddu said...

Dunno if I can make a distinction as you do between pop music and poetry. Relevant in this would be Robert Duncan's defense of adolescent emotion and pretense in Caesar's Gate. But going back to the other point...a lot of the kitsch in poetry is in quotation marks ... which makes it camp in my book. A notable exception: parts of Merrill's Changing Light at Sandover (which also qualifies as pretend mystery and profundity — tho the difficulty and eroticism are real enough). And I like that poem!

Good ol' ersatz.

Don Share said...

I do make the distinction, though without prejudice; poetry and pop are as different as meat and vegetables, though I consume both with pleasure & curiosity & (usually) nourishment! Duncan is/was many things, but he's not rock and roll (thank goodness).

Time for a V8 (low sodium).

mongibeddu said...

Just a minor point: I meant I can't make a distinction btwn pop and poetry with regard to "pretend."

Using German and French to say fake is probably what Johannes meant in the first place by "translation is kitsch." Or maybe not. Anyway, I'm more tchotchke than kitsch. In over my head here.

Henry Gould said...

As I understand it, kitsch takes the given cliches & myths & sacred cows & corruptions & mannerisms of its culture & manufactures sellable artifacts therefrom.

Klimt does the opposite. He takes the usual (in this case, twilight 19th-cent. Viennese) bundle of cultural shibboleths, & makes something of dazzling & unique splendor out of it. That's art, not kitsch.

Don Share said...

Phoney-ness (i.e., the pretense to difficulty and opacity, to mystery and profundity, to eroticism and excess) is a clear asset in pop music and rockcrit (Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer come to mind), but not, I'd say, in poetry or litcrit - else Blake lived and died in vain!

mongibeddu said...

Well, you either believe in pretending, or don't. I do. Blake indeed! He is as silly as Henry Darger, and just as wonderful. But I'll stop now!

Don Share said...

Blake was pretending, eh?

Maybe the point would be clearer if we hearken back to Clement Greenberg's 1939 essay in Partisan Review, which begins:

"ONE AND THE SAME civilization produces simultaneously two such different things s a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society. Here, however, their connection seems to end. A poem by Eliot and a poem by Eddie Guest -- what perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to each other? Does the fact that a disparity such as this within the frame of a single cultural tradition, which is and has been taken for granted -- does this fact indicate that the disparity is a part of the natural order of things? Or is it something entirely new, and particular to our age?"

mongibeddu said...

See, to me the Four Quartets are dreadful and "Over the Rainbow" wonderful. And no, I don't suppose Blake was pretending. But still, his prophetic books have the charm and power of make believe, that's why I love them.

Don Share said...

Well, I love Four Quartets AND Over the Rainbow, but for completely different reasons. Really, though, we agree - unless you dislike Gene Vincent's version of the latter!!

mongibeddu said...

I didn't know that one! Just heard it on YouTube. What a career he could have had in Doo Wop!

Larry Sawyer via Facebook said...

The argument against complexity has always seemed akin to those who might fault a symphony for having too many notes. Interesting post.

As for complexity vs. simplicity isn't it a bit reductive to say that poetry falls neatly into one or the other categories? The case could be made that WCW's poetry is ensconced in both pigeonholes, for example. Simplicity of presentation, but with underlying conceptual complexity.

I've noticed the popularity of the kitsch critique these days, too. But does the idea of discussing kitsch seems all the more relevant in America where we glorify it? Interesting piece on "fake" authenticity:

http://www.facebook.com/l/7b9bc;www.hermenaut.com/a5.shtml

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Don Share said...

"Phoney-ness (i.e., the pretense to difficulty and opacity, to mystery and profundity, to eroticism and excess) is a clear asset in pop music and rockcrit (Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer come to mind), but not, I'd say, in poetry or litcrit - else Blake lived and died in vain!"

Bless you, Don Share, for keeping it real.

Maybe someone here could come up with something better than Blake.


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Good luck!