October 9, 2005


Milan Kundera in the Unbearable Lightness of Being says “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 true function of kitsch: kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death….No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”

While I am not a huge fan of this book, these statements do resonate with me as I think of the kitsch in peoples houses in Powell County. A bible, forever opened to a certain passage, a book-marking, silk rose with fake dewdrops on its petals and lace along its stem keeps it open here, even as dust gathers on it. A porcelain duck with a humanoid grin and a figurine of a cherubic toddler that’s supposed to make us go, ‘Aww, I’n’t that kyyewwt” sit on the fake wooden coffee table with the bible. Similarly, the bare concrete houses in Tanzania or the bare wooden houses of Nicaragua bear tinsel and paper Christmas decorations year round to make the visitors go, “wow, these decorations are really quite something”. It’s easy to see the kitsch in poor households where the folding screen to curtain off death is not so well hidden. Coalmining accidents happen fairly often, people eat terribly and die of heart disease early in eastern Kentucky. The Lord’s word, especially when gussied up real purty helps give hope to those who live there. Tanzanians ignore the AIDS and malaria around them as well as they can, and Nicaraguans fear the Sandanista uprisings and tropical diseases too.

But kitsch is integral to the human condition, not just to the poor. Where then, can it be found elsewhere? As I look around my house, I wonder which of my belongings are kitschy and which are not. I find that several of my cherished objects from abroad, are probably kitsch because they remind me of something, and the reminding is what causes me to get emotional. The Maasai wedding belts remind me of the intricate beadwork of my friends there in Monduli Juu, though these particular belts didn’t come from my friends, they are generic (though authentic), bought in Ebony Alley. This is equivalent to the first “tear”, and the second tear that Kundera speaks of is evident as I think how amazing it is and how lucky I am to be able to know who those people are, how they spend their day in comparison to mine. I decide to figure out which of my belongings are not kitschy and I find that the least kitschy items are ones given to me, or things that I admired as a child. The worth of these items is measured in the love from the person who gave it to me, not in some subconscious superficial “wow, that would be cool hanging on my wall” sort of acquirement, or in the inherent appeal to me as a child before I became aware of self consciousness. Ennummerated, the least kitschy items as I look around my room include a batik of Mt Meru that I made, a pencil drawing of me done by an artist who I modeled for, a lint brush in the shape of a lion from my grandparents’ house, a rubbing from a Cambodian temple, a tingatinga given to me on my 21st birthday in Tanzania, cookbooks, a teatray made by my great grandmother, my sticker box which is an old cookie tin from England that my grandmother gave me, textbooks, a collage my sister made. I think textbooks make the list because they are purely functional. Does kitsch have to have some degree of non-functionality? I find it ironic that things given to me tend to be less kitschy because generally my outlook on gifts is that I don’t like them unless they are functional because I don’t want lots of shit that I don’t like hanging around my home. I want my surroundings to be rich but somewhat spare, and having lots of knick-knacks is not enticing to me. I think I would have labeled knick-knacks as kitsch before I read Kundera’s description, though I think that while there is certainly overlap, they are not necessarily one and the same. Hmmmmm……

1 comment:

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