In this age of heightened spectacle and surveillance, kitsch seems an innocuous form of cultural persuasion and political manipulation. Yet since 9/11 it has returned with a vengeance in the US, with an effective brand that might as well be called 'Bush kitsch'.
The word 'kitsch' comes from the German verkitschen, 'to make cheap', and an elitist concern about debasement pervades most accounts of the subject (it begins with art but hardly ends there). Kitsch has attracted - that is to say, repelled - novelists from Hermann Broch to Milan Kundera and critics from Clement Greenberg to Saul Friedlšnder, all of whom took it up at periods when technologies of mass culture and mass politics were intensifying: Broch and Greenberg after the dramatic rise of Fascist regimes in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and Kundera and Friedlšnder as the totalitarian regimes decayed during the volatile 1970s and 1980s. (The latter period also saw a camping of Nazi iconography, which provoked Friedlšnder in particular, and a parody of Stalinist representation, as performed by 'Sots' artists like Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid - 'Sots' is from the Russian word for socialism.) For these figures and others, kitsch cuts across culture and politics instrumentally, to the detriment of both.
LRB 7 July 2005 | PDF Download