Messy Kitsch (again)

by on Nov.18, 2010

People still seem confused what I mean by “kitsch,” fore example when I talk about “atrocity kitsch” and so on. The main reason for this confusion is that most people think kitsch must mean productions of mass culture, the original “kitsch” so to speak, the cheap mass-produced art that Clement Greenberg rails against in his classic “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch.”

[That’s Lara Glenum in the picture.]

What I’m talking about most of the time is the rhetoric of kitsch as it is used in contemporary poetry. Almost constantly, people use the metaphor of comparing poetry (and other arts) to that tasteless mass-produced war scene that Greenberg thought so lowly. It’s like a whole value system is in place based on the negation of kitsch (and, perhaps even more so, movies). Modernism originally defined itself in opposition to kitsch – the mass produced landscape but, also, related “Victorian corpse language”, another form of kitsch – so it’s no wonder modern poetry still uses this rhetoric.

Kitsch is tasteless but it also has other qualities. For example: it’s too visceral (and thus it doesn’t require the proper learning, as Greenberg suggests in his seminal essay), or it is not medium specific (it’s “excessive” of the medium). But ultimately it’s a charge of tastelessness, and I think poetry and art are especially sensitive to these charges since they are largely dictated by taste, even when that taste is cloaked in the language of ethics.

You can see anti-kitsch rhetoric clearly in Marjorie Perloff’s work; a lot of her arguments for the language poets were in fact that they opposed the suddenly low-brow aesthetics of the workshop poetry (she made langpo into a new incarnation of high modernism, which she is quite open about embracing). For example when she dismisses Merwin by comparing him to Longfellow. Merwin is nothing like Longfellow, but Longfellow is tasteless, so it works as kitsch rhetoric. (It is interesting that one of the few contemporary poets who actually invoke Longfellow is Joyelle but that’s another post). Or when Ron Silliman dismisses Quietism as not modern, as being the descendants, not of Emily Dickinson but of these long forgotten un-modern “quietists”. Or when Kenny Goldsmith dismisses “creative writing” because it’s old like an old kitsch landscape (essentially, it’s not “creative” anymore, the very thing he claims to be opposed to).

You can also see it at the foundation of the Workshop Aesthetics developed in the 1970s. You have to “earn the image” is probably the most central rule of the Workshop Aesthetic. You cannot allow the images to take over, to become excessive, you cannot become intoxicated by it. You can also so it in the continual attempt of these folks to say to anything “experimental” – that’s already been done, that’s old. (Though it doesn’t keep them from repeating their poetry in the name of “tradition”.)

One kind of “aha” moment I had about workshops was when retrospectively thinking about a grad workshop I was in when I was an undergrad at U of MN in the mid 90s. There was this really remarkable poet named Julie Cox and her poems were always brimming with mixed metaphors and ludicrous images and total melee, usually in poems about love, feminity and sexuality. Everybody always said she had to earn the images, there was too much, she needed to slow down, to focus. Even I learned that rule and started telling her to become more economic. How embarassingly stupid I was.

I think Lucas gets at a lot of these dynamics in his comment to my post about Blacki:

“… theirs is a political project aimed precisely at erasing distance. They confuse “private” and “public” space through the body. I think that’s where the political charge of this kind of thing lies, as well as its intoxicating effects. So of course it disturbs people.
It’s so interesting to bring this lens to poetry. When people are talking about my poems in workshop they often skip over the best words, e.g. “cock” and “anal.”
As for Marxists, we had a little reading after the 95 cent skool and I think i was the only one not to read bodiless Language-y poetry. Or one of the few. I felt kind of naked, even cheap in a thrilling way, while reading lines about my first ejaculation.”

“”Each time the encounter with identity occurs at the point of which something exceeds the frame of the image, it eludes the eye, evacuates the self as a site of identity and autonomy and – most important – leaves a resistant trace, a stain of the subject, a sign of resistance…” (Homi Bhabha)

Translation is kitsch too, as I’ve noted in the past. It creates too many meanings, readings, writers. The genuine is lost. It’s an exotic trinket but it also somehow “exceeds” our gaze.

As I noted in my post about Carolyn Forche and “atrocity kitsch” (Greenberg’s example of kitsch is a painting of a war scene if I remember correctly), she is intrigued by these – for her, for the workshop aesthetic -excessive, surrealisticky, grotesque poems, but she has to make sense of them as record, as “witness” – ie they are in fact “earning” their images, they are just economically witnessing absurdity and that’s what allows them to go all grotesque and excessive.

But I think in those corpses, you also find the translation corpse -the reanimated corpse – and it too – the translated text – has to be shored up, made to earn its keep, as historical witness. The wounds have to be covered over, the seance made legit.


Often the anti-kitsch rhetoric is conflated with ethics; which is why I think critiques of the Gurlesque anthology so often mixes bad taste with ethics: is it immoral or is it tasteless or is it both?

The Forche introduction to Against Forgetting is interesting if you consider Lucas’s comment about erasing the distinction between private and public “through the body,” because that is exactly what Forche picks up on about these poets as well, noting that they write in a kind of public space. (I can’t remember the exact language here).

I object to a lot of the discussions about poetry and the Internet. People like Stephanie Strickland and Katherine Hayles seem to me to try to erect barriers of what true “e-literature” consists of (the writer has to know “programming” for example). This to me is just another modernist anti-kitsch strategy of containing a world/sphere that is totally exploding poetry controls. Blogs are not true e-literature because it makes use of the Internet without knowing the real, genuine deep structure of the Internet.

Anti-kitsch rhetoric was one of my observations in my post about Basquiat in yesterday’s post: here’s someone who makes truly “public art” (graffiti) and erases that tasteful distance, and that’s what the art world of “white walls, white people drinking white wine” cannot quite stomach. They have to make him into kitsch (the “mascot” of a gallery world gone awry -with capital). Now that he’s a corpse, the art world can deal with him better. (Though I still can’t imagine the October people writing about him.)

Another thing about Basquiat: His art is the opposite of medium specificity. He paints on doors and windows, he writes “tar” and “pork” on objects that are not tar or pork, he draws figures (!) and blends it with minimalist grids etc. Greenberg of course was the big advocate of medium specificity. And it seems to me that the “earn-the-image” mantra is about regulating an excess in a similar way. And it’s certainly there in the way a lot of experimental poetry has rejected the image, metaphor, the simile etc as kitsch. Language should be language, black cubes should be black cubes, pork should be pork.

Only it’s not.

“Let art continue to be entertaining, escapist, stunning, glamorous, and NATURALISTIC – but let it also be loaded with information worked into the vapid plots of, for instance, movies.” – Jack Smith

The important point of course in all of this is that there are writers like Joyelle, Lucas, Basquiat, Jack Smith etc who are actually engaged with a part of art that is usually dismissed as kitsch – the body possessed by media, eye/wound/media, archaic costumes, graffiti bodies, mermaids, metaphors, phosphorus, spaceships etc etc. Ie it piles up! Why does it pile up? Because, as many commentators to my blog and montevidayo ave pointed out, my concept of kitsch is pretty nebulous. It’s nebulous because what I’m really interested in is not so much kitsch but a lot of the stuff that this negative, policing rhetoric tries to cover up.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. On Johannes’s Theory of Kitsch: Yeats, Owen, and Brian Turner - Montevidayo

    […] Joyelle McSweeney on Nov.18, 2010, under Uncategorized When I was reading Johannes’s post below, and how kitsch is used as a bulwark to protect the Highness of the High Modern, I immediately […]

  2. Barry Schwabsky

    I can’t help thinking that when you talk about kitsch you don’t really talk about the kinds of cultural manifestations that are usually mentioned as kitsch. Since you seem to be trying to revalue the term (much as Dave Beech, John Roberts, Malcolm Bull et al. did with “philistine” a few years ago) I wonder why you don’t talk about revaluing kitsch cultural artifacts. I’m thinking about this having just received bound galleys of a new anthology of essays on the art of Thomas Kincade from Duke U.P. Would you value a Kincade equally with Basquiat, for instance?

  3. Johannes

    You’re right. I talk about the way it is used as a criticism, metaphorically linking art to those pieces of original kitsch… And the way this usually has to do with some notions of the visceral, the “obvious,” as well as the translated and inauthentic. I’m totally uninterested in Kincade’s work, but not because it’s mass-produced… Did not read the philistine book. Will have to check it out… I suppose it’s better for me to say that I”m more interested in anti-kitsch rhetoric – and the artwork that dares to venture into the realm of aesthetics susceptible of being denounced as kitsch – than I am in the traditional ‘kitsch’ object.