Daniel Tiffany Interview About Kitsch (Part II)

by on Aug.24, 2010

This is the second part of my interview with Daniel Tiffany. Read the first part here.

Daniel Tiffany:
“Let me review the basic parameters of kitsch as a submerged economy of aesthetic provocation: Kitsch is a term associated in most people’s minds with certain kinds of artifacts, furnishings, or visual images characteristic of mass culture, often considered to be derivative, mawkish, or in bad taste. Debates about popular culture and aesthetic theory sometimes invoke the concept of kitsch, yet even the most astute contemporary observers usually overlook a central feature of the inaugural theorizations of kitsch: poetry is identified in the foundational essays on the subject as a primary exemplum and genealogical source of kitsch. Robert Musil, for example, in his essay of 1923, “Schwarze Magie” (Black Magic), responds to the question “what is Kitsch?” by anatomizing the work of “poet X,” who is at once a “popular hack” and a “bad expressionist.” In a more influential essay of 1933, Hermann Broch develops his theory of kitsch as a “Luciferian” phenomenon (fallen from the heights of Romanticism) in reference to the poetry of Novalis, Stefan George, and Mallarmé. Even more prominently (in an American context), Clement Greenberg’s essay of 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” initiates its polemical formulation of kitsch (heavily dependent on Broch’s ideas) by drawing a contrast between the modernist poetry of T.S. Eliot and the songs of Tin Pan Alley. (Greenberg, like Broch, points to Romantic poetry–Keats, in this case–as a progenitor of modern kitsch.) What’s striking as well about Greenberg’s polemic is that he places poetry at the junction of his notorious opposition of avant-garde and kitsch.
“The significance of poetry in modernist formulations of kitsch has been ignored by later generations of kitsch theorists: Svetlana Boym, Danilo Kis, Susan Sontag, and Celeste Olalquiaga make no mention of poetry in their studies of kitsch (though Matei Calinescu does, to his credit, consider briefly the properties of poetic kitsch). This ongoing critical lapse concerning poetry’s relevance to kitsch makes it difficult to answer certain kinds of questions: what are the properties of poetic kitsch and, just as important, the nature of its reception? What is the significance of the concept of kitsch for modern and contemporary poetics? How has the suppression of its verbal or literary qualities deferred a richer understanding of the aesthetic ideology of kitsch in general? That is to say, how will our understanding of kitsch as an aesthetic category be revised by excavating its vanished history with poetry? Questions of this sort, so rarely posed, may strike the listener as incidental, jejune, or irrelevant, to the topic.”

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