Saturday, December 17, 2005

Christmas, or the Value of Kitsch

KITSCH: "The reduction of aesthetic objects or ideas into easily marketable forms. ... it is oriented to the masses and thus tends towards a lowest-common denominator so that anyone can relate."

It's Christmas time. According to the definition above, is Christmas a festival of kitsch? It is questionable, I suppose, in that most of the objects associated with it were never 'aesthetic objects or ideas' of any recognisable artistic value and so not 'reducible'; they were already symbols to which 'anyone can relate'. My question is, is that so bad?

As with so many things, it is only when you have to do without something that you recognise its value. This was the experience of the post-war generations, especially those at the bottom of the social heap and thus fully exposed to the revolutionary zeal of the decision-makers who built their houses. This lot were determined that the new world could be constructed only by sweeping away the old, all the forms and symbolic langauge now exposed as 'constructs' of the oppressors to keep the oppressed in their place. Once purged of this corrupt visual langauge, buildings of clean, rational lines that sought to represent nothing but themselves would house the 'new man'. This was the bloke who would embody and bring about (under the leadership of the same lot that built his house) International Socialism.

That's why kitsch is important enough to be denounced and publically scorned. It is the dead hand of the past. It doesn't challenge the status quo; it doesn't critique the structure of power; it doesn't raise consciousness. So why is there still so much of it about?

There is no better commentary on the failure of the revolutionary fantasies of the 20th Century than a mall like The Trafford Centre (in Manchester). It is massive, the size of a small town, and is kitsch from the foundations to the pinnacle of its great central dome. Mostly classical-Renaissance sources (like the majority of pre-sixties government buildings in the Anglosphere), but there are also themed areas such as Ancient Egypt, Venice, New Orleans and China, and it includes such unlikely decorative motifs as the lictor's fasces (minus the axe). It is also extremely successful. Coachloads arrive from the entire North-West of England for a day out ("350 FREE coach spaces"). If it didn't make so much money, you could call it a tourist destination. Those with any architectural taste abhor the place. However, it's a shopping centre, and as such, makes its customers feel at ease precisely because they know what they are dealing with and take it as seriously as it deserves to be taken. It doesn't challenge them, or deconstruct the shopping experience, but it does make going there pleasurable with the inoffensive fantasy of the good life (the classical motifs and the Tuscan landscapes in the pseudo-frescoes and the Disney-like fun of the variously themed areas). My point is that modernism, in 100 years of idealogical struggle came up with nothing better to replace it. And so in 2005, we have to fall back on imagery that would have been entirely comprehensible to a Victorian.

As would our Christmas. Yet how many of us can say why holly is the Christmas plant? What's that star all about? What sort of bloke is called Santa? Do you feel the onset of salvation before the image of a baby in a manger? But isn't this (the last one, I mean) the essence of Christmas? Without it, isn't Christmas just a sounding brass and tinkling cymbals? Isn't it just crass sales pitches, excess and the same soppy songs year after year? Isn't it just kitsch?

Yes, but ... valuable all the same. Because of the things we do at this time of year, the presents we buy, the thoughts of others, the contacts remade, the families re-united, the celebration of plenty in the dead season, the attention given to those with little to celebrate. And the 'spirit' that animates these acts is just as strong now as it has ever been, partly carried by all the dross that Christmas has gathered on its long journey. It is kitsch that still serves just because it is kitsch; ie anyone can relate to it.

No comments: