Totalitarianism and Kitsch

by on Mar.31, 2011

[From Crispin Sartwell:]

“Totalitarianism – whether Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Suharto’s, or Saddam Hussein’s – is not only a political system; it is an aesthetic, a style of art. Or: aesthetics is politics; the way things look is an aspect of what they are. Forms of power generate symbols, styles, visual vocabularies. As we tear down the facade of Saddam’s Iraq, we’re getting further insight into the aesthetic principles of classical twentieth-century dictatorship.

The aesthetic system of totalitarianism is organized around a single image: the visage of the leader. This appears everywhere in all media all the time, expanded to hundreds of thousands of square feet of stupefyingly repetitive and banal public art.

Now it may be that Saddam himself, like Mao or a hundred other dictators, told himself that reproductions of his own face helped him control the country. Possibly, for example, he believed that seeing his picture all the time everywhere would inspire some sort of loyalty, or give rise to a Saddamist cult.

That gives you a sense of the comical and pitiful aspects of totalitarianism, because it should be obvious that people will typically regard the non-stop onslaught of a dictator’s face with a boredom that masks a slight but definite irritation. The real purpose is that the dictator wants to see his own face everywhere, wants the whole world to constitute a mirror.

Perhaps in his mind all the images are magical proxies of himself, and the country could be overseen by an army of giant Saddams. But all over the world, such images share the same destiny: to become pre-fabricated effigies: toppled, tomatoed, ridiculed, shot up…”

[Sartwell doesn’t use the word “kitsch”; I added that term because what he seems to describe is the kitsching effect of reproduction, the decentralizing effect of reproduction, the shoddy “effigy” that is Art.]

2 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    But is it possible that the kitsch only emerges retrospectively? At-least for me, one of the signal traits of kitsh is it isn’t scary, or that if it is it is quarantined or sanitized in some manner or another (put in a more than less officially sanctioned anthology for example); for example, although I actually totally agree that an SS look etc can now appear totally kitschy, that the uniform screams kitsch, I imagine that were I to see one in its period that I’d not be thinking kitsch but rather that’s terrifying; hmm, well if I was in a bitter humor mood maybe I would point at the boot-clomps like they’re barbies. Can a contemporary image repetoire (by which I do not mean contemporary production of a retro aethetic) ever be kitsch? Can kitsch ever be fresh, new, now, or is it dependent on, time-wise, distance. I suspect I am really trying to address atrocity kitsch, as kitsch seems like in some cases a hallmark of advertising aesthetics, and advertisements are very now, very contemporary; at-least the current ones: the older ones seem to get closer and closer to being visual art “proper.”

    Is it just me or is Eliot’s Wasteland really rather kitschy? A Game of Chess and all that gorgeous nostalgia–sweet thames run softly!

    Are there any acts which cannot, in the contemporary, be kitsch and, specifically, atrocity kitsch? I can think of an action/dynamic, and am not gonna state it for now as if I’m all wrong then I and some readers may just feel mad and although madness has massive mkitsch potential I’m not in the mood right now.

    Is (atrocity) kitsch the aesthetic of the too cool for a cheesy heart asshole?

    Am I crazy for believing Johny Cash, Katsch, to be the kitschmaster extraordinaire? At least retrospectively!

  2. adam strauss

    (I understand these notes may be too long for posting): I’m not sure why I wrote that as an image ages it becomes visual art proper; the opposite seems true to me now: for example, Rosie The Riveter seems to me tres kitschy, but I could imagine that image feeling urgent and very contemporary were I looking at it when it was created; or maybe I do mean time distancing makes art of an image. Kitsch makes an art of belatedness, of out of date?

    Examples illustrating how kitsch may be linked to the non contemporary and or periodization: the diorama feels kitschy—the box with the Indian village in the history museum etc, or better yet cave people; or heck natural history museums period: dinosaurs, Flintstones! Period pieces too: masterpiece theatre, Civil War reenactments, costumes, memorabilia of all sorts: Americana, and especially Americana a la TGI Fridays or not the actual artifacts but mechanical reproductions! Nazi memorabilia, war memorabilia period (well mechanized war at the least); though it may be too soon, surely the stealth bomber is on its way to kitschdom.

    Lacuna: although iterability and or mechanical reproduction (haven’t read the WB essay so not motivatedly twining to him) may imply distance, if distance is meant as getting away from an initial source or better yet set of space and time coordinates, this mode also makes possible contemporaneity as the reproduced image is clearly of the moment too by the fact that what happens in the moment is contemporary.

    Perhaps kitsch occurs in the lifespan of something when it goes from tool to prop in a storage-room for a theatre production. But then again a prop is a tool if it aids in a production!

    Is White Supremacy kitsch? I’d vote yes-no; is nationalism kitsch? Again, yes-no.

    Is famous crime–Jack the Ripper etc–kitsch whereas here-now crime isn’t? Kitsch; fame! Fame; undergrounds (funny how they so often take place on stage or emphasize staginess) and cult-hits.

    Is kitsch a time-slippage—a “past” existing in a present? Is it just me or is an “Old World” atmosphere very kitsch? Old-World as in moniker for a blah Italian restaurant of yore or ought to have gone out of business years ago (the food-snob me, apologies!). Is kitsch like out of date technology or rather using out-of-date technology to be in the moment: playing a cassette; riding a horse to the video-store (and via NetFlix the video-store kitsch). A bull lolling in-front of an ATM machine at a bank such that no cars can pull-up or maybe because I have almost seen this—some-one told me about the ATM incidence happening the past week and I more than once would see bulls and cows in commercial parking-lots during my visits to town while visiting the Navajo reservation—the effect isn’t affected enough; perhaps the scene needs to be recorded via photo–preferably cell or I phone–or better yet put in a home video! Is kitsch when seen becomes scene?

    Is kitsch related to primitivism (the art aesthetic not a moniker for societies)? Mm, maybe more related to primitive “the life”: super-racist period pieces kitsch? Kitsch intimate with racism?

    Keisha–like The Bangles (is that the name of the 80s band?) and knotting t-shirts etc–I suspect will become kitsch; right now though her artistry strikes me as utterly now and rather brilliant. “Back to the Beach” makes for a very interesting case of kitsch, I think, as it is both tres 80s/contemporary at the moment of its making, and also already a period piece via alluding to early sixties California beach culture.

    I suppose my next questions will involve sci-fi/ discourses regarding “the future” and their relation(s) to kitsch. Are quotation marks a mark of kitsch? Is there the chance that the more now one’s creation is, the more likely it will be kitsch thirty years later?