Daniel Tiffany Interview (#4)

by on Aug.29, 2010

[This is the fourth an final installment of my interview with Daniel Tiffany about kitsch. The other three were posted last week.]

Daniel Tiffany:
“”The transvaluation of kitsch in its relation to poetry must begin with a fresh look at the inaugural theories of kitsch (Musil, Broch, Greenberg, but also Walter Benjamin) in an effort to probe the significance of poetry–along the lines I sketched above–in their definitions of kitsch. Following this critique, one would want to develop a prehistory of the aesthetic ideology kitsch by examining more closely the poetics of Romantic imposture: Macpherson’s spectacular forgery of the Ossian manuscripts and Thomas Chatterton’s fabrication of the pseudo-medieval Rowley materials, but also the anonymous productions of the earliest editions of Mother Goose and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of English Poetry–all of which are symptoms of the emergence of literary antiquarianism, a wellspring of modern kitsch. Keats and Coleridge were huge fans of the Rowley forgery–Keats called Chatterton “the purest writer in the English language.” How bizarre!
“With this historical and theoretical foundation in place, one can confront the most entrenched and polemical feature of modern kitsch: its presumed antithesis to productions of the avant-garde. One might, for example, begin to destabilize the orthodox separation of kitsch and the avant-garde by examining modernist poetic practice in light of the dominant tropes of kitsch production: parasitism and the notion of an alien body “lodged” in the native corpus of art. Poetic kitsch thus begins to mirror–innocently but also grotesquely–the modernist practices of citation, automatic writing, and cryptography. The prospect of identifying Pound’s Cantos as a paradigm of high kitsch appears, like a flaming zeppelin, on the horizon.
“”Kitsching” the poetic monuments of high modernism immediately raises other questions, perhaps even more germane: what is the relevance of the concept of kitsch to the writing of poets associated with the emergence of pop art in New York City in the 1960s (and with Andy Warhol in particular), a moment in which the avant-garde becomes saturated with pop culture–with the fatal allure of kitsch. As a focal point in this context, one would want to reframe the early poetry of John Ashbery, in particular, who, among the poets of the first generation of the New York School (Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch), was the one most receptive to Warhol and pop art (and to the technique of appropriation, the key to the inauthenticity of pop and its correlation with kitsch). Ashbery took a strong interest in Warhol’s work from the start, contributing an essay to Warhol’s first one-man show in Paris in 1964 and producing reviews of other early shows as well. Warhol reciprocated the attention, describing Ashbery (in a public interview) as his “favorite poet.”
“One would want to pursue the investigation of kitsch into the writings of the second generation of the New York School poets, including Gerard Malanga, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Diane di Prima–all of whom collaborated with Warhol on various “mimeograph journals” and were markedly influenced by the book of Ashbery’s most flamboyantly associated with appropriation, The Tennis Court Oath of 1962. Berrigan and Malanga, in particular (who was Warhol’s studio assistant from 1963 to 1970, as well as a good friend of Ashbery’s), carried the technique of appropriation to extreme lengths. Malanga’s frequent sampling of lines from Ashbery’s poems, for example, recalls Thomas de Quincey’s plagiaristic relation to Wordsworth’s poetry, a circumstance reviving questions of piracy and fraudulence essential to the aesthetic ideology of kitsch.
“In the broadest sense, deconstructing relations between poetic kitsch and the many iterations of neo-formalist experiment in the present moment rehearses the challenges posed by pop art to late modernism in the early 1960s. Poetry is due for a similar moment: it’s pop vs. modernism all over again–and we all know how that turned out.
Ultimately, kitsch says: the faker the better. In the realm of art, lying is the only truth. Paradoxically, from this perspective, kitsch reveals itself to be an instrument of reason–Wilde and Kracauer are the crucial guides here–a tool of disenchantment. As a symptom of negativity, of resistance, kitsch places in question every myth, every article of faith. Kitsch flirts with nihilism: in human society, it croons to us, nature is a lie.”

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