Kitsch as Aesthetic Criterion

Greens MP and Vice-President of the Bundestag, Claudia Roth (left, in case there were any doubt), at the Berlin Christopher Street Day.

Politischer Kitsch (Political Kitsch) Cicero Magazin für Politische Kultur, 25th February 2017. Mass production and the mass-media raise kitsch to the level of æsthetic criterion for our society. Politics can’t escape it either. Its kitsch is moralistic. We must simply be in favour of peace and justice. It costs nothing, and makes us feel good.

Mass societies love kitsch. It rhymes with their logic. Mass production, mass consumption, and mass-media raise kitsch to an æsthetic criterion: sloppy early-evening TV-series, unbearable music-shows, the stupid cacophony of hit radio, overpowering blockbuster movies; endless pap serving as “fashion” for the general population: the list goes on — across all areas of our pop-cultural reality.

Societies committed to mass consumption live by making the special and unique mass-producible. And above all, that means available. And so, artworks and monuments are distributed as knick-knacks all over the world, the best classical music venues given the candle-light treatment on CD, and van Gogh’s sunflowers printed on everything that will take an image.

With an air of indignation

“In the form of persistent alarmism, moral kitsch floods society, sniffing the wind always and everywhere for moral injury of every kind.”

Yet kitsch is not only an æsthetic category. There is also moral kitsch. And like its more vulgar sibling from the world of things, moral kitsch also lives by exaggeration, excess, and arbitrary extension. In the form of persistent alarmism, moral kitsch floods society, sniffing the wind always and everywhere for moral injury of every kind. Its attitude is one of indignation.

What is remarkable is that moral kitsch takes as ‘morality’ not only the observance of traditional norms, but also what previously would have been called decency and custom. For kitsch is always hedonistic. And so it endures wherever one can cavort  mercilessly and without restraint in the moral juices of human rights, justice, and equality.

A solemn show of sensitivity

Like æsthetic kitsch, moral kitsch also rests more than anything on sentimentality. Its specialty is the solemn show of sensitivity. Appropriately, it’s not about rational analysis, and absolutely not about the weighing up of different perspectives. Rationalism and cool reason are, in its view, simply cynicism. Therefore it knows only black and white, an optimistic world and a sad world. Concession lies beyond its horizon.

When moral kitsch reaches mass-consumption levels, however, it must organise itself politically. But democratic political activity seeks compromise, something that is foreign to the nature of kitsch-consciousness, which then establishes, with special fondness, the NGOs: and this is where moral kitsch comes into its own. Unburdened by considerations of Realpolitik, here it can indulge its moralising to the limit. Its instrument is that of the accusation.

Yet moral kitsch, as any kind of kitsch, goes after the masses and not just groups. Its  goal is to render the masses morally compliant. It’s always quite straightforward to occupy the high moral ground: one must simply be for peace, justice, and human rights. It costs nothing, makes us feel good, and releases us from the need to reflect.

Moral kitsch in politics

“As with every kitschy product, the patter of political kitsch must be both easily accessible and of no substance.”

Naturally, only the very few can withstand the allure of an intensely consumerist morality, — which is where the jargon of moral kitsch enters mainstream politics. The more so, when it gives politicians the means to promote themselves effectively in the media as sympathetic and human. The result is moral kitsch in its institutionalised form: political kitsch.

As with every kitschy product, the patter of political kitsch must be both easily accessible and of no substance. Above all, though, it must satisfy the consumers’ — in this case, the voters’ — appetite for sentiment.

The result is a dictionary of political kitsch, which gathers together clichés and constructions such as “social justice”, “community of values”, “solidarity”, “democratic values”, “international community” and the rest. They express little, but whoever delves under their surface discredits himself. This is how kitschy jargon becomes the sovereign arbiter of public discourse.

Politics also produces æsthetic kitsch

Unlike æsthetic kitsch, political kitsch has an element of appeal. It calls us to action, particularly symbolic action. And so we hold solemn vigils, organise solidarity marches, paint “welcome” banners or hold candle-light processions. In this way, political kitsch also generates the æsthetic variety.

Since political kitsch, like its æsthetic and moralistic cousins, is an essential prop of the mass consumption society, there is little hope of banishing it from public discourse. We shall just have to live with it. There remains only the possibility of exposing it for what it is: intellectual trash. Cicero