Saturday, 6 June 2009

Oh! I'm thinking! It hurts!

The other day, I had an interesting discussion with Helg. She published her essay on kitsch and it provoked a storm of thoughts in me, too. I had pondered about the question of kitsch more or less intensively for years and it seems to me that kitsch is similar to true love – undefinable but when I meet it, I will know it.

I live in Florence. I tried to observe the cognitive processes in the minds of my fellow human beings that lead them to adore everything. Apparently, there is a strong association hammered to many people that Florence = The Art City, without any further explanation. It was hammered to me when I started studying art history, without any explaining what is so cool about the whole Florence thing and I developed a strong disgust towards all things Italian – a natural reaction, I guess, to being told that I absolutely have to adore the beauty and quality of this or that artwork without being explained where the beauty and quality lies. Especially when the art works were presented on faded slides made from faded reproductions in old books and when I had certain doubts whether the professors actually saw some of those.
Then, by an evil twist of fate, I found myself in Florence. I found out that the professors lied. That not all Florentine art, Renaissance or otherwise, is so great and lovable, that great chunks of Florentine history need to be known to actually get the point. I had to find my way of perception and son I fell in love. It's a Florentine way of love, deep and irreverent.

The street vendors here in Florence sell reproductions, standardized format A2, of art works or their croppings. My fave are those two little angels that can be seen at the feet of Sistine Madonna. They have a space-defining functionin the painting but their direct background is only clouds, it is thus relatively easy to crop them out. You can get these cute angioletti on fridge magnets, postcards and whatever else as a nice and typical souvenir of Florence. I wonder how many people are actually aware that the Sistine Madonna is kept in Dresden?
The other day I was waiting for something to happen at the piazza of Santa Croce. They wash the streets every morning or so, the church itself stands on a platform seven or eight stairs high. I found me a dry and clean place on the stairs, sat down and was sitting, without noticing that I'm exactly on the axis of the church and that while sitting, my face is around the same height as of those standing under the stairs. I was happily idling and watching the buzz when a bunch of Japanese tourists arrived. Their guide told them something, they made a bajillion of pictures and dashed away. Yours truly in a philosopher pose, chin in my hand, is probably shown around as a typical example of lazy idling native but the question is: what do the people actually see? The facade of Santa Croce is 19th century. It looks pretty and neat, much prettier than the Boboli sandstone as seen on the sides of the church which are not covered in coloured marbles. What do the people see, I wondered? Do they see anything else but stage setting declared beautiful, cultural, worthy seeing? When I hang around the town, and it's not the first very touristy town where I've lived, I sometimes listen to the guides giving long, overcomplicated speeches. “Now at your left, you see an Early Renaissance palace that was built by Master Mason So-and-So on the order of the Lord John of Anywhere and Podunk in 1456, but the top floor was built only after a fire that damaged the building in 1569; the reconstruction and enlargement was conducted when Lord Nathaniel of Anywhere and Podunk, grandson of the earlier mentioned Lord John of Anywhere and Podunk, returned from his voyage to France and Italy from which he apparently brought...,” performed in rather monotonous voice because the guide is retelling it every day. The tourists don't get much, I can say. They weed out indicators of pretty and interesting and forget the names, dates and such pretty fast. The impression of participating in something culturally elevated and important however stays.

Why would people want to take part in a feast of art and architecture when they are not interested in it? I don't know. Some vaguely perceive it as a cultural activity and cultural is positive and they want to be perceived positively, too. Some do it because the others do. In fact, I don't find these motives absolutely negative; after all, I read many a book just because it was fashionable among my high school friends (and we wanted to be big girls and very intellectual ones) and I found many of them actually interesting. With books, it is maybe easier because people are used to handling language more than dealing with visual images; words are usually more straightforward, too, while visual images tend to be more metaphorical. In one of his essays, Erwin Panofsky states in his Studies in iconology that there are three levels of meaning:
At Level 1, one sees a painting of a woman holding a child. In a sense, it's the pure form only perceived.
At Level 2, the person puts it into an adequate cultural and historical context and understands that since the figures have haloes and maybe other defining paraphernalia and features, it's not a woman and a child but Madonna with Baby Jesus – it's the conventional meaning of the subject.
At Level 3, one is able to find out, based on deeper analysis, why the Madonna with Child is depicted this way and not another, or, as I'd say, What the hell this means, because according to Panofsky, art works do not exist in vacuum.
I would personally add Level 0: Oh! Pretty! Shiny! Pink!, especially created for tourists and snobs. And no, Real Art doesn't mean that at L1 you see a cat, at L2 you see it is a little tabby kitten chasing a fly and that L3 is a cognitive awakening of Oh, kitten makes me happy. This is a mental process defined for L0, sorry.

It is the appeal to primary brain circuits (somewhat metaphorically speaking, I'm not a neurobiologist but should some be around, feel free to elucidate) while pretending to be something elevated that constitutes kitsch, and it's done using pop-cultural references. Sentiment comes on its own while the viewer perceives. Angels are cute and do not need any further interpretation (even if there can be one), it's Raffael, for dog's sake, it's Culture, everybody knows that angiolini plague art work since forever (not totally true but for an ordinary viewer, it may well be) and they are oh-so-sweet.. Now it needs the pretty shiny to be dangly to get a cat toy and the whole family may content.
There is a strong urge to create and to decorate in every human being. Nowadays, this urge is suppressed by entertainment neatly packaged and delivered in perfect form – who would bother to sing when one can download all the music of the world and play it?, who would bother to draw when there are picture books? who would bother to dance when one can watch TV and see things moving? Authenticity of expression gets lost in this process, the idea of authenticity disappears too... and soon enough, the originals get kitschified. I remember seeing Caravaggio's Fruit basket. It was bland. I expected it to be bigger, more colourful, shinier. I bet that many people get disappointed because they expected Florence and anything in there to be bigger, more colourful and shinier. The 19th century facades are the most colourful ones and less worn, many a painting is smaller than imagined and doesn't have any pretty and decent frame and being a tourist is so tiresome! so one has to cling to the imaginary.

Five minutes younger twin brother of kitsch is intellectual snobbery. After the first person, and it might well be a caveman, became aware that whatever he likes is also liked by others and more to that, kitschy, he decided to refuse it and be different.
Being different is another strong force in each individual's psyche. As in many other aspects of human thinking, there is a duality between being different and fitting in – what would be the point of being different when the rest of the crowd wouldn't understand it? Understanding, of course, need not be deep, fair enough when the rest of the crowd applauses the audacity... and at a certain point, even this stance turns to kitsch.

How to escape the circulus vitiosus of kitsch changing to snobbery and back? It's in one's mind. I'm aware why Sta. Croce looks better to general crowd from the front. I know what's behind those angels. Now, why then I indulge in plaguing the house with blown glass birds every Christmas? Why I wear that many silk flowers in my hair on kitschy hair days? I know that it's kitsch but I enjoy it. After all, life is short and generally miserable so why not afford oneself something plainly likeable, be it pretty shiny dangly?

1 comment:

  1. Tak dneska to byla kurnik hluboka myslenka.