Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Think about the poet Robert Bloomfield for a second if you will. It might help you to know that his name is probably pronounced “Blum-field”, you’ll need to know that because at a party next week someone will pass you a little-cheesy-pinappley-one on a stick and you’ll find yourself suddenly immersed in a discussion of early nineteenth century Suffolk poetry and the kitsch. You don’t want to appear stupid, do you? You don’t want to be saying ‘Bloom-field’ all night, only to be corrected at half-past eleven by some sour-puss from Durham who helpfully interjects: “Sorry, do you mean Robert BLUM-field?”
No, you don’t want that. I’m performing a valuable service for you here, and you are all grateful for these vital facts that I dispense into your willing ears. So, what will you need to know to get by at this party, then?
Well, he was born in 1766 and he died in 1823. His most famous work is his poem published in 1800, called The Farmer’s Boy. This is probably why Bloomfield will come up in the first place, because whilst I’m guessing the majority of you have never heard of this man before, in his lifetime this poem was a bestseller. It sold well over 26,000 copies in only three years, and was translated into Italian and French. His other works include Good Tidings (a poem in praise of the small-pox vaccination), The Broken Crutch (a poem in which a crutch actually breaks) and Walter and Jane, which we will return to later. Despite the immense success of Bloomfield’s sales, he died a very poor man and has been almost entirely ignored ever since. Which just goes to show, life’s crap.
But at this party someone, probably that blonde piece from Durham again, will lift one of the little-cheesy-pinappley-ones up from the mock Waterford Crystal dish (you will already have observed that it is in fact not crystal but some kind of heavy machine-pressed glass, and will have been wondering for some time whether the thing is dense enough not to break if you casually dropped it off the hostess trolley and onto the laminate floor) and she will announce to the room:
“Oh how clever, how wonderfully kitsch.”
As the room erupts into congratulatory applause at this girl’s knowing observation, your eyes will seek out the host and you will observe him nodding sagely to himself in the corner.
“Oh yes, I am quite the card,” he will be saying to his companion. Briefly you will wonder how you have got to know such awful people, before you will turn to the Durham bint and reply:
“I don’t think it actually is kitsch though. I think our host’s knowingness of the absurdity in placing cubes of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks negates the possibility of these objects actually being considered kitsch.”
The room will fall silent, and you will explain:
“It rests on two points, as I see it. Firstly, what is kitsch? Well, the kitsch tends to be that which forms false sentiment. For example, that porcelain figurine of a dog over there.”
You will point to a small porcelain figurine of a dog on the mantelpiece, it will be shaped like a poodle, but its eyes are larger than a poodle’s eyes tend to be, taking on an almost human expression of sorrow. It will have one paw raised in the air, as if to indicate that its inanimate foot has been wounded, but not in any serious way. The girl from Durham will sigh:
“Aww, how sweet.”
“Precisely,” you will retort, “we feel sympathy for the poodle, its paw is hurt, and it makes us sad when we look into its big black eyes. Only there is nothing to feel sorry for. The dog does not feel any real pain, and even if it did, it would not express its pain in the way that that figurine suggests. Real poodles don’t look like that, it is a fantasy portrayal which manages to fuse human and animal emotions in one object.”
“Anthropomorphism.” The Durham girl will announce to the room.
But one man, a Glaswegian called Harry, will step forward and look at the object up-close.
“I’m afraid,” he says turning to face you square-on, “that that figurine does not make me feel in any way sad at all. I think it looks silly.”
“Quite right,” you will reply, “that’s because you have a much better developed sense of sentimentality than that girl from Durham.”
“My name’s Judith.” The girl from Durham will reply.
“It’s an extreme example of kitsch, but the point is it was made to create exactly those emotions that the Durham girl is feeling. Take another example, here, this section from Robert Bloomfield’s poem Walter and Jane. The two protagonists have fallen in love, but now mistakenly believe that the other does not love them in return, they go to visit an elderly neighbour:
“What ails thee, Jane?” the wary Matron cried;
With heaving breast the modest Maid reply’d.
Now gently moving back her wooden chair
To shun the current of the cooling air;
“Not much, good Dame; I’m weary by the way;
“Perhaps, anon, I’ve something else to say.”
Now, while the Seed-cake crumbled on her knee,
And snowy jasmine peeped in to see;
And the transparent Lilac at the door,
Full to the sun its purple honors bore,
The clam’rous hen her fearless brood display’d
And march’d around; while thus the Matron said:
“Jane has been weeping, Walter; — prithee why?
I’ve seen her laugh, and dance but never cry.”
There, you see the point is made plainer. We are made to feel sorry for Jane, but what actually chokes us (believe me, it does choke you more when you’ve read the whole poem and watched them fall out of love) is not Jane’s feelings or psychological state, but the transference of emotion into the objects around her; the proud hen, the concerned flowers — none of these are real emotions, but they are what make us feel sad in the passage. The crumbling of the cake, for example, is the really sad moment, but of course cakes don’t feel pity.”
“I see,” Harry will say, “yes, that’s more subtle, but it is still kitsch.”
“It’s the ornament that makes you sad, and in some ways that is a bad thing. It means that we are not made to feel real pity by understanding quite why Jane is unhappy in the poem, we don’t have to play through her emotional state to get the gist of her feeling. It’s like what Adolph Loos hints at in The Bourgeois Household:
We have got Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo blisters one after the other in the last two decades from the various ornamented handles of our vessels.
The actual worth and substance of the object is lost beneath the frills put upon it. So actually we'd benefit from the poem more if we could understand what Jane is feeling, and why; help us understand ourselves, but all we learn is that flowers grow concerned when we are unhappy, which is of course not true.”
“You’re a wise fellow.” Harry will say.
“Yes, I know, I read about this on The Filter^.”
“Okay, okay but none of this answers why my little-cheesy-pinappley-ones are not kitsch.” The host will interject angrily.
“Well, that’s the second point of my argument, which is one of intent. Certainly the notion of a little-cheesy-pinappley-one is kitsch. It is a construct which is intended to speak of social sophistication, which of course it is not. We are intended to look up to the host who manages to source the exotic fruit of the pineapple, and who has the culinary prowess to pair it with the cheddar. Of course there is no skill in that at all, the pineapple is from a can, and the overall effect is dismal to say the least. It is therefore kitsch.”
“But I thought you said—“ the host will say.
“Ah, let me finish. Whilst the little-cheesy-pinappley-one is in itself kitsch, yours my friend, is not. Because you are aware that such a thing is not sophisticated, and so in serving these you do not intend us to think that you are a culinary master, but give an ironic gesture. You shift the meaning of these particular little-cheesy-pinappley-ones, and seem to be saying something quite different by them.”
“That’s true,” says your host, “but I know that the ornament of the poodle is ridiculous too, I own that as an ironic gesture as well.”
“Ah, but I think that that continues to be kitsch, because it is not your ownership of the object which denotes whether it is kitsch or not, but the point for which it was created. Indeed, the most kitsch object in this room is your laminate flooring—“
“My laminate flooring, but why?”
You will smile politely, and turn away from your host to continue talking to Harry, the most sensible person you will have met since July 2001.
“Well, that all seems sorted,” he will say to you, “only one thing I’m not sure you’re right on. Even though the little-cheesy-pinappley-ones do not have their original meaning, and are not signifiers of our host’s accomplishment in the kitchen, they are signifiers of his wit and intelligence. Now as you’re probably aware, our host is neither witty, nor intelligent, and as such don’t they become—“
“An interesting point, Harry, let’s get a drink.”
“Robert Bloomfield... he’d not very good, is he?”
“He has his moments.”