22 February 2007

Children Running on the Grass

Filed under: Culture, Fiction — ktismatics @ 8:52 pm

Now that’s what I call happiness, beams the senator as he and his guest, a Soviet bloc refugee, watch a group of American children running through the grass toward an artificial skating rink. As if there was no grass in Communist countries, no running children. The guest imagines the senator tranformed into a Communist statesman, the same smile on his face as he looks down on the May Day workers’ parade from the reviewing stand.

The senator had only one argument on his side: his feeling. When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

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. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all political parties and movements. Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

When I say “totalitarian” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.

Kitsch has its source in the categorical agreement with being [see yesterday’s post]. But what is the basis of being? God? Mankind? Struggle? Love? Man? Woman? Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Communist, Fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international.

– Milan Kundera, The Incredible Lightness of Being, 1984

Within postmodernity can be detected the yearnings of a romanticism that values heart over head, intuition over evidence, foundation over superstructure, past over future, tradition over innovation, communal over individual, local over global. Are we preparing a breeding ground for a revival of kitsch? Or will our postmodern ironic self-awareness and ambivalence save us from ourselves?



  1. Funny, the same day that you wrote this I was thinking of how standardisation in education wants to get rid of variability. I can vaguely see how this produces a kind of kitch education, where there is no room for special skills or taste.


    Comment by Odile — 24 February 2007 @ 7:33 pm

  2. Our daughter’s English teacher assigns them writing assignments. She wants every story to wrap up neatly, and for there to be a happy ending. More ambiguous stories get a lower grade. This isn’t just my daughter complaining about what she felt was an unfair grade: the teacher is explicit about these expectations of tidy happiness. It seems like an overt attempt to instill a taste for kitsch in the children.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 February 2007 @ 11:43 am

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