What is the predominant aesthetic of the twenty-first century? According to sociology professors Ruth Holliday and Tracey Potts, “we’re about to drown in kitsch. “A random survey of the British metropolitan main street provides ample evidence of the kitschification of everyday life.”
Kitsch can also be called cheesiness or stickiness. Specialists have defined kitsch as a tasteless copy of an existing style or as the systematic display of bad taste or artistic shortcoming. Garden gnomes are kitsch, just like cheap paintings for tourists, which are technically correct but express their “truths” too directly and too directly, often in the form of clichés.
Some people play with kitsch by using irony, which can lead to interesting results. Most of the time, however, kitsch has negative connotations.
Terrorism prefers kitsch
In politics, most dictators have tried to strengthen their authority using kitsch propaganda. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been called “the kitsch dictator and Saddam Hussein, who designed his own monuments in a Stalinist spirit”, is one of the few turn-of-the-century leaders who can debate his title. The taste of the nouveau riches in Russia, China, the Middle East and the USA excels in a kind of striking vulgarity that fits perfectly with academic definitions of kitsch.
Terrorism, whose graphic images have invaded our lives over the past two decades, prefers kitsch. Al-Qaeda propaganda delights in romantic offerings of sunrises, pre-modern utopias, as well as Gothic offerings of skulls and bones. Sociologist Rüdiger Lohlker, who analyzed jihadist aesthetics, wrote that the jihadi magazine Al-Qaeda Airlines ‘shows a fascination with gothic elements (skulls and bones) and kitsch’.
Videos posted by the so-called Islamic State (IS) offer even more explicit kitsch expressions as they cultivate the art of violence for its shock value.
Cultural identity theft
So why is there so much kitsch? Is there more kitsch now than there ever was? A lot of cheesiness was around in popular religious art, and Caligula is probably the kitsch champion of all time. Relief brought kitsch (then contained in Baroque art) to a temporary halt but we seem to be catching up again. The American screenwriter Kevin Williamson called Donald Trump in the National Review “the worst taste since Caligula”.
Trump goes back to the pre-Enlightenment taste of Absolutism: his gilded penthouse in Manhattan is full of marble, Louis XIV furniture and randomly composed historical themes.
According to my analysis, this attraction to kitsch has to do with the phenomenon of “deculturation”, a phenomenon in which a particular group is deprived of one or more aspects of its identity. The term has emerged in sociology in debates about the effects of colonialism and the subsequent loss of culture, for example in Pierre Bourdieu’s early work Sociologie de l’Algérie.
People have always needed truths to believe in. While those truths in the past tended to be transmitted through cultures, they are now increasingly produced instantaneously without cultural mediation. Kitsch uses this mechanism in the field of aesthetics. In today’s world, kitsch is redefining our perception of truth; it is a truth without culture or context.
The production of immediate, pure and decultured truths is most evident in the sphere of fundamentalist religions. Islamic scholar Olivier Roy showed that religious fundamentalism arises when religion is separated from the indigenous culture in which it was embedded.
Radicalization occurs when religions seek to define themselves as culturally neutral and “pure.” When religions are decoupled from concrete cultural values, their truths become absolute; fundamentalist religions tend to see themselves as providers of scientific truths.
Studies have shown that kitsch has its roots in an intrinsically narcissistic impulse. This is why it thrives particularly well in neoliberal environments determined by the dynamics of the information society. Social media is narcissistic because it enables individuals to regain their own selves without being confronted with the culture of the other.
Algorithms tell us which books we like, based on previous choices. The narcissistic structure of this model is obvious. Through algorithms, characters are quantified and classified according to the guidelines of abstract forms of excellence. In a decultured world, the self becomes the only remaining ethical reference.
When there is no cultural other, only the “I” will be taken for granted. At worst, this system produces self-centered “alternative truths” and conspiracy theories, which are “kitsch theories” because of their narcissistic, self-affirming structures.
“Kitsch truths” establish themselves autonomously by narcissistically affirming their own truth. In the same vein, alternative truths and conspiracy theories do not give false information (misinformation is the withholding of an existing truth), but they kitschify the truth. In the end, it leads to the total loss of truth.