The Unbearable Heaviness of Kitsch
Posted July 14, 2021
In 1980, Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Set against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Kundera focuses on the writers and artists who committed suicide after relentless harassment and smear campaigns led by the Soviet secret police.
Undercover agents, after inserting themselves into the social, intellectual, and cultural fabric of Prague would target, gaslight, and psychologically destroy individuals who spoke out against the State and held ‘dangerous anti-Soviet ideas.’
To rub salt in the wound, once the targeted individuals were dead, Soviet officials would attend their funerals and heap praise on them, portraying them as noble servants to the USSR.
“The Soviet propaganda was ruthless,” Erik J. Larson wrote in his book The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, “but it was not wrathful and stupid. It had a particular purpose. That purpose was to purge the country of deeper and more profound (and contrary) expressions of the meaning of a country, a people, and a life. The Soviets were purging Prague, and all of Czechoslovakia, of its shared history, its traditions, and its sense of what was valuable and worth fighting for.”
Once the free-thinkers were silenced, the Soviets would then be free to impose their worldview without serious or organized opposition.
Kundera called this Soviet culture foisted upon the Czech kitsch.
Today “kitsch” is most often used to refer to gaudy, cheesy, and tacky decor or artwork. It’s a low-brow style of (usually mass-produced) art or design, often calculated for popular appeal.
At its root, however, the word means exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama. In this way, Kundera said, kitsch is “the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.”
Political movements are not so much defined by rational ideologies as they are by images, words, and archetypes that, when smashed together, deny more complicated realities.
Philosopher Walter Benjamin once said that kitsch offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort or transformation. The feelings provided by kitsch are fake -- they don’t elevate or evolve our mindset. Kundera would agree. In the realm of political kitsch, he says, “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.”
In our day, whether it’s “public health,” climate change, savior/identity politics, or “Great Reset” techno-dystopianism… the most extreme ends claim to speak for the “greatest good.”
And the underlying sentiment is always the same; kitsch.
The Seduction of Kitsch
Kitsch is seductive because, in a highly complex world of endless complications, it always has a simple story to tell -- often with a clearly defined enemy. And, alongside this simple story are simple solutions which, says Larson, “sweep away, with emotion, the questions and confusions people have about the problems of life rather than addressing those questions with serious, probing discussions.”
Consider Kundera’s definition of what kind of story captures the most support in the midst of an invasion of kitsch: “The one which is provocative enough that its supporters can feel proud of being different, but popular enough that the risk of isolation is precluded by cheering crowds confident of victory.”
Whereas the Soviets were in complete denial that anything bad could possibly happen on their watch, 21st-century kitsch, by and large, draws attention to the unacceptable to the exclusion of everything else.
The existence of opinions, facts, individuals, or inanimate objects that don’t conform to these sweeping images of dreariness is therefore deemed morally repugnant and unacceptable.
But simply zooming in on problems is not what makes it kitsch. What makes it kitsch is what Kundera calls the “second tear.”
The first tear is for the authentically awful things that happen in our world.
The second tear says “How incredible it is to be enraged and suffer together by that awful thing!” It is that second tear that tends toward, as Walter Benjamin said, instantaneous emotional gratification without effort or transformation.
It is that second tear that makes it kitsch.
It’s a Trap
As in the Soviet Union, many of those who burrow themselves in the kitsch narrative come to realize that their social world, and maybe their professional lives, will collapse catastrophically around them if they let even a sliver of doubt slip in.
On some level, they understand that those who call themselves their comrades today wouldn’t think twice before burying them alive tomorrow if they dare question the party line. That's unbearable. It’s infinitely easier to abuse and destroy everyone else who threatens that sense of social identity.
The most cunning part about kitsch, however, is it’s a two-pronged trap. Support it or resist it, you still get caught in its teeth.
In The Unbearable Lightness, Sabina is reluctant to join a demonstration against the occupation of Prague, despite being against the occupation.
She feels that “behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions, lurks a more basic, pervasive evil… the image of that evil is a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”
It’s the loss of individuality, spontaneity, autonomy, freedom of expression and association, creativity, ingenuity, all of the things that make human life dynamic and worth living.
These are the true enemies of kitsch.
In the USSR, when the ugliness, hatred, and lies became too much to bear, there was eventually a running to the other side -- led by the courageous few.
Every day is an opportunity to be ahead of the curve.
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today