The exact etymology of the word “kitsch” is unknown. Most likely, “kitsch” comes from the Bavarian jargon of mid-19th century art dealers and translates as cheap and imitation. (National variants of kitsch are known in many languages - Russian “vulgarity”, Polish “tandeta”, Spanish “cursi”, “schmaltz” in Yiddish, French “style pompier” and American “corny” and “tacky”). jargon is not so much because of the predominance of kitsch in Germany, but because German critics of the early twentieth century became the first theorists of both commercial and totalitarian kitsch.) Theodor Adorno described kitsch as a “parody of catharsis” an academic simulation of true culture, ”and Hermann Broch saw kitsch as“ sentimentalizing the ordinary and the finite to infinity. ” All these definitions are based on the opposition of the “finite” and the “infinite”, imitation and the original, mass and elite culture. Kitsch is seen as a secondary culture, as a false mimesis, a simulation, a “bad infinity” of mass consciousness. Moreover, kitsch is not just a bad imitation; he questions the original, takes power into his own hands, threatens to destroy true culture.
The kitsch virus is a global complication after a severe disease of modernization. Kitsch was seen as the stepson of modernization and related phenomena of mass literacy (or mass semi-literacy) and the creation of centralized art institutions, whether the “entertainment industry” or art policy in a totalitarian state. Thus, kitsch was identified with both mass and totalitarian culture. Greenberg wrote in 1939: “If kitsch is an official trend in the art of Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because the governments of these countries are bourgeois, but because kitsch is a popular culture in these countries and in others. Kitsch is a cheap tool to seduce the masses. … Kitsch keeps the dictator in close contact with the “soul of the people.”
The word “kitsch” appeared in the Soviet press in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in articles on the mass culture of the “rotten West.” In the 1980s, the word came into use, but unlike vulgarity, which combines ethical and aesthetic, kitsch is seen as a purely aesthetic phenomenon. Most likely, the foreign origin of the word contributed to its aestheticization and exoticization in the Russian language. The history and theory of kitsch, revealing the complex relationship between ethics and aesthetics, has not been translated into Russian and has not been the subject of Russian critics.
One could single out certain stylistic elements loved by mass culture – sentimentality, ornamentality, tearful psychological realism, eclecticism. “Democratic kitsch” was often associated with the cult of bourgeois coziness, a home hearth with patterned curtains and geraniums, and with applied arts and all sorts of cute trinkets, while “totalitarian kitsch” took the form of merry mass action, marching or dancing, fraternity. It is important not to reduce kitsch to the sum of stylistic features, but to consider its mechanisms, techniques and tools of mass manipulation. In this regard, Greenberg’s formula is particularly useful: “If the avant-garde mimics the processes of art and the processes of consciousness, kitsch mimics only its effects.” The kitsch machine devours the most avant-garde tricks and returns them chewed and digested. In Greenberg’s definition, we emphasize the word process. It is not the unity of style, but the exposure of the processes of consciousness, self-knowledge and art that most opposes kitsch.
Kitsch invites us to smile, but not to be ironic, to believe, not to doubt our faith, to have fun, but not to be surprised and not to enjoy. But even here everything is not so simple. Often you just want to smile and believe, not spin on the dizzying devil’s wheel of irony. Kitsch does not expose conflicts, contradictions and paradoxes, but, on the contrary, retouches, varnishes, cures symptoms. He proposes to build cheap bridges with gilded griffins over the abysses of human existence. The lover (and consumer) of art is often seduced and abandoned (which is accepted by him or her as due and inevitable), and the lover of kitsch is seduced and not abandoned. On the contrary, he is absorbed in the eroticism of the crowd, the orgy of the march and aerobics. Kitsch can’t just be “removed”. Kitsch is a dream of universal brotherhood, a dictatorship of the heart. Kitsch is a children’s tale for adults, published in mass circulation, a sentimental heavenly vision, where, in the words of Milan Kundera, there is no place for shit. It is a modern paradise of mass production, a paradise with all conveniences and without hell.
Although, of course, cheapness and imitation existed until the nineteenth century, the concept of “secondary culture” and the struggle against it are products of romanticism and then in the twentieth century of modernism. In the 1920s and 1930s, the kitsch and avant-garde contrasted in the title of Greenberg’s article were the Twin Brothers, Cain and Abel.
However, the coexistence of cultures in the plural did not in itself cause concern among Western writers. Many of them have never sought to create a single, national culture. Kitsch is not synonymous with mass culture in general or everyday culture (although in the hottest attacks on kitsch, these differences may shift). The kitsch formula is mass culture plus power (political or economic). Modernist critics are not against mass culture as such, but against its seizure of all-encompassing power, especially in the critical era between the two world wars. Later came the division into democratic and totalitarian kitsch, which directly touched on the problem of the relationship between taste and state power.
Kitsch is not just bad art, but an ethical act, an act of manipulation, mass hypnosis and temptation. Kitsch is a borderline phenomenon that confuses the boundaries between ethical and aesthetic, between art and life. Kitsch does not have a single antipode. In the 1930s and 1950s, criticism of kitsch was closely linked to the problem of intellectual responsibility in the face of fascism and Stalinism. In his report on the trial of the Nazi criminal Eichmann, the philosopher Hannah Arendt presents him as the personification of kitsch in life and in this connection describes the phenomenon of the “banality of evil.” During the trial, Arendt discovered that the architect of the mass genocide spoke the language of pure clichés from the beginning of the trial until his death speech. Israeli psychiatrists recognized Eichmann as perfectly normal, and Eichmann himself did not admit any guilt, considering himself a law-abiding patriot and servant of a great state. Eichmann uses the word “immoral” only once – in relation to Nabokov’s novel “Lolita”, which he was invited to read in an Israeli prison. No confessions from the victims or descriptions of the violence caused him such outrage. According to Arendt, evil is far from banal, but in some situations the banality of thinking, the inability to reflect independently can lead to violence, making a small man who loves the fatherland, a criminal. The man directly responsible for Holocaust policies is not portrayed as a demonic villain, but as a small man with great power. The evil of the twentieth century could be trivially everyday, almost non-individual, “mechanically reproduced.”
Kitsch is a style of thinking, not an art style. As for plural cultures, they have always intertwined. Mass and elite culture often borrowed from each other artistic techniques and images. Thus, in the second half of the twentieth century, advertising and design borrowed many techniques from the Russian and German avant-garde and French surrealism (previously chewed and neutralized), while pop art succumbed to the temptation of advertising, dressing it in the framework of alienation. In parallel with the struggle against kitsch, characteristic of the critical intelligentsia, poets and artists from the middle of the XIX century (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, etc.) were interested in the aesthetics of everyday and unfashionable and collected unnecessary items. They rebelled against the bourgeois good manners and shocked the bourgeois with their artistry of spirit, bad taste and bohemian creativity. In the 1960s, the art of pop art made mechanical reproduction its artistic technique.