The novelist Milan Kundera likes lists of definitions. I’ve still got a faded copy of a two-page spread from the Guardian in the 1980s where he set out his definitions of terms like Irony, the Novel, the West and so on. But he’s probably best known for his persistent scratching at the surface of this notion called Kitsch, a term which we would probably normally assume just to have fairly plastic aesthetic qualities, a comfortable sneer at overly sentimental art for example. Hipster shops in Spitalfields make a fortune selling knowing kitsch.
Kundera makes his own definition best in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“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 politicians and all political parties and movements…totalitarian kitsch must banish all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously).”
The first quote is a reminder of the kitsch Like button on Facebook. When someone dies, when someone posts a condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, when someone shares a video of Artic icebergs melting, the Like click is the automatic submission to the diktat of kitsch.
The second brings to mind more than anything the line of children holding little paper flags who welcomed Tony Blair to Downing Street in 1997. Blair, the High Priest of Kitsch, grinned at them and patted their heads with that nightmarish toothy grin. But it also informs the leaden-footed antics of Theresa May’s Kitschen Cabinet as they lumber towards some unforeseen and undemocratic compromise with the unblinking uber-bureaucrats of Brussels.
The character in Kundera’s novel who fights the kitsch urge most is the painter Sabina, but even she, towards the end, recognises the limitations as she reflects on a “silly mawkish song” which keeps springing to her mind:
“Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”