Thursday, February 10, 2011

On Kitsch

I just finished reading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, and yes, this is my first time to read his work. More than a book about erotic experiences and intertwined love affairs, which is how this novel is usually “marketed”, I found it more philosophical and enlightening as presupposed by its title. I appreciate how it presented duality and challenged Nietsze’s concept of eternal return. It’s a detailed account on the human condition; an inquiry on the struggle of rational thought brought by the weight of emotions and painfully patterned beliefs.

How Kundera did not deny his I in the novel appealed to me. It becomes even more appealing when I think about how he integrated that voice in his work. It’s an interesting viewpoint for a reader to see that detached thought of a writer on the world he has created. I think it’s clever this style found its way into a novel, making it sound philosophical rather than preachy. But, enough about the writer. I actually found myself immersed in a particular thought hours after I laid the book down to rest.

Kundera stressed the true meaning of kitsch, which is: the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

Maybe what got my mind going on about kitsch is the fact that, as humans, we refuse to acknowledge things that are not ideal in our eyes. When we deny this reality, we deprive ourselves of the truth. Shit is a natural daily human function. To go about life being ashamed of it doesn’t quite make it right. We cannot resolve actual issues at hand with this mindset when we refuse what is actually there. Now, here is where the story relates kitsch with Communism, or any political movement for that matter.  The author writes: “The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on the base of kitsch”. And true enough, when Communism took over countries, it imposed idyllic views which made it a powerful mechanism.

Sabina, a painter in the novel, made art depicting duality. She describes the themes in her painting as “a knife against an intelligible lie revealing the unintelligible truth”. Later on, she mentions how she’s not really against communism; that her point is really against everything kitsch. However, by the end of her story, she acknowledges her longing for something idyllic no matter how much she has scorned it—kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

Isn’t it true that idyllic desires only intend to do everyone good? Well, of course it does. But just like Communism, most great crimes and tragedies sprung from good intentions. We’ve enough history books and newspapers to prove it.

Today, kitsch is defined by most dictionaries as (and I paraphrase): tawdry, vulgarized or pretentious art, literature, or anything resembling art usually with popular or sentimental appeal—I believe Sabina, as an artist, had an aesthetic dislike for kitsch. I’d like to believe she created tasteful paintings. This new meaning just brought kitsch to an entirely different level of pretension, and I’m not even talking about art. 

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