The most profound difference between originary thinking and the other forms of contemporary thought lies in its minimalist concentration on the mimetic foundation of human interaction, in contrast with the subject-centered narcissism inherited from the modernist era. The two principal models of the subject that emerged in this period, and that remain with us through all the metaphysical and sexual deconstructions of the postmodern age, are Heidegger’s existential Dasein as human being-in-the-world and, more often seen today, the subject that comes into being in Lacan’s fabled mirror stage in the impossible attempt to realize from within the external unity of its own image.
Because the individual confronts the work of art without the mediating force of the ritual community, the existential-psychological self is ostensibly appropriate to esthetics. In the empirical perspective of the worldly subject who comes upon an artwork, the apparently apposite categories are those it can relate to its own personal myth of emergence. Yet originary thinking suggests that the objects on which we confer value are most usefully understood, not as objectifications of our personal phantasms, but as foci of real or potential mimetic rivalry. Our private scene of representation cannot function without input from mediating others. The narcissistic vision of art forgets that the esthetic experience is itself mediated by the esthetic sign as the expression of an authorial subject. There is no desire aroused by the artwork that originates in the spectator/reader.
In a brilliant doctoral dissertation that, among its other qualities, constitutes a kind of disseminated summa of (post)metaphysical esthetics, UCLA Film student Nita Rollins defines kitsch in metaphysical terms as the “positive presentation of being’s transcendence as finitude,” or again as the “positive presentation of metaphysic[al totality] as historical (mis)taken for eternal.” Being itself is sought and missed in this phenomenon; in our naive desire for esthetic salvation, we commit the category-error of accepting the finite for the infinite, the historically bound for the eternal. How can originary thinking deepen our understanding of this archetypal modernist phenomenon?
The opposition between high and popular culture can best be expressed thus: high culture is the expression of the center, popular culture, of the periphery. One might, in Girardian terms, say that high culture is the expression of the central victim, and popular culture, of the peripheral crowd of persecutors. But the revelatory nature of this opposition is precisely what Girard would deny to Hellenic high culture, in contrast with the Biblical religions. The West is born from the convergence of two forms of identification with the sacrificial center–the Hebrew and the Greek–but only in the former does this reflection explicitly uncover and reverse the relation between victim and persecutor. Greek tragedies too let us identify with the central sufferer, but his sacrificial role is justified rather than denounced. No doubt Girard’s analysis, which sees tragedy as an imperfect unveiling of the sacrificial, misses the eidos of the tragic esthetic: the self-constitution of the subject in its acceptance of personal responsibility for its structural role, its arbitrary victimary “destiny.” The modern exchange system depends on such assumptions of mediated identity as well as on the moral vision of Christianity. But the fundamental distinction is nonetheless valid: the pagan identification with the victim never denounces its sacrifice.
Yet popular art is not kitsch. Kitsch is not a low but a middlebrow phenomenon, what someone else mistakes for high culture. Its scandalous existence is guaranteed by the marketplace; the very existence of the (in principle mass-produced) kitsch object demonstrates the existence of a category of people not offended by its tastelessness.
Thus we must supplement our category of high culture with that of esthetic taste, which permits evaluation of quality. Bad popular culture has nothing to recommend it, but bad high culture risks appealing to those unfamiliar with the appropriate criteria. For these criteria are not evident on the surface; a taste for this cultural mode must be acquired through an educational, in effect, an ascetic process–an askesis.
In originary terms, we first see the center from the standpoint of the periphery as an object of appetite we wish to possess. But the sacred center is a dangerous place. Cultural knowledge of this danger justifies the effort we make in learning to discipline our imagination to see the center of desire as a place of absence rather than plenitude, of suffering rather than bliss. High culture teaches us to respect esthetic form not merely as a barrier to physical possession but as a deferral of even imaginary possession in the service of the eternal renewal of desire. Kitsch strikes us as short-circuiting the process; it gives us some of the cheap imaginary satisfactions of the popular while pretending to keep us at the distance of high art: pictures not of women with big bosoms, but of girls with big eyes (and maybe just a bit of cleavage).
But to use the term kitsch is not simply to turn away from those awful eyes. It is to turn away, in pain or in laughter, from the eyes of the spectators who gaze back into them. It is to witness the comic abjection of a marketplace that caters to the taste of those who have not learned the askesis of art. And since this askesis is never finished and evolves with history, the eyes we call kitsch can become smaller and smaller, until we can (oh horror!) see them reflecting our own.
Is Strauss kitsch? Tchaikovsky? Wagner? Couture? Ingres? Eugène Sue? Balzac? Dickens? Longfellow? Tennyson? In the nineteenth century, when the term kitsch was invented (cf. the French poncif, which refers to the stencilled stereotypy of proto-mass-production), artists felt the hot breath of the marketplace on their necks. Surely Mallarmé at least is not kitsch, since no one can understand him.
But comes the twentieth century, and the high-cultural pundits of the Frankfurt School, and all of a sudden the problem is solved. Art has an aura, or it doesn’t. Mass reproduction–stuff like movies, for example–is kitsch ipso facto, res ipsa loquitur, and quod erat demonstrandum. And it isn’t the people’s fault either, but that of those vile capitalists whose degradation of art is the least of their crimes. Kitsch now becomes an important category because it allegorizes in the realm of art the unfreedom of capitalism, just as the wondrous socialist utopia corresponds to art’s masterpieces. (Trotsky said, it is worth recalling, that in the socialist paradise, your average Joe and Jane would be like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, and from that terrain “higher peaks shall rise.” Ah, but then, Trotsky wasn’t a member of the Frankfurt School.)
Where does that leave our idea (Idea?) of kitsch? Kitsch is a reassuring notion. If we set our sights low enough on the scale, the relative becomes absolute, and our sense of superiority is jubilantly confirmed. Those big eyes don’t really disgust us so much as endearingly justify all that money mom and dad spent on our college education. (This endearing quality is expressed directly in the gay-originated phenomenon of camp–which merits an analysis of its own–where kitsch is cultivated in postmodern style for its very kitschiness.) In today’s ever-more-mimetic marketplace, kitsch is just a synonym for downscale (itself an upscale term for what we used to call low-class). Once cappuccino is sold on every corner, Denny’s coffee is kitsch. Once blue jeans or sneakers (pardon, athletic shoes) bear the names of Klein and Nike, the nameless ones are kitsch. Once pasta acquires a hundred varieties, spaghetti is kitsch–as Charlie Sheen tells his old man in Wall Street. Taste askesis spreads beyond art: never grab anything you can describe in English, always demand the brand name, the foreign word that connotes the learning process high culture requires.
How does this get us to the “positive presentation of being’s transcendence as finitude”? Well, being’s transcendence, or in other words, the transcendent nature of Being, derives from the sacred inaccessibility of the center, which the askesis of high art maintains inviolate. The kitsch object is “finite” because, as we have seen, it purports to provide this askesis while in effect it doesn’t. We enjoy the cleavage and then return chastely to the crudely hyperbolic spirituality of the eyes. Or to take Nita’s favorite example of “situational” kitsch, a Rembrandt in an elevator, we are uplifted by the cultural reference in a setting incompatible with esthetic contemplation.
But is our superiority to the spectator who thinks this is art really that of the infinite to the finite, the eternal to the historical? Isn’t it our superior taste itself that sets the esthetic criteria for the eternal and infinite, so that a yet superior taste would relegate ours to the finite and historical? Our intersubjective mini-analysis of kitsch retains the philosophical content of its metaphysical definition, but situates it in the real context of culture. Askesis is not just for esthetes, after all; it is the very essence of the human which, as readers of this column should recall, is defined by the deferral of violence through representation. And the ultimate askesis to which the esthetic contributes, and which Nita might call sublime (“Negative presentation of being’s infinitude, transcendence”), is to bring ourselves to recognize our fellow human, kitsch-lover or not, as our Other and not as our Object.