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