In the 16th century Germany, fir trees were decorated with apples, gilded candies, roses and colourful paper, reminding believers of the Tree of Paradise from the Garden of Eden. Martin Luther (German monk, theologian, university professor, father of Protestantism) started adorning trees with lights to evoke the image of shining stars. Soon Christmas trees started to be decorated with hand-crafted artwork. Over the centuries, many Christian households prepared their own artwork, sharing items with their family and community, weeks before Christmas. The Christmas Eve became the final culmination of spiritual and artistic preparation for the beautiful season.
The Holier, the Kitschier
Today, life is easier… We can grab a plastic Christmas tree from any hypermarket. As for the decorations, we do not need to be worried. In no time at all, our shopping baskets can be filled with red or golden painted (glittered or not) ping-pong balls hanging on a thread – sparkling and cheap.
Each year, Christmas time reminds us of the ‘holy’ power of kitsch. Year after year, anything that could carry any artistic or aesthetic value is slowly but surely replaced by worthless plastic, sponge and glitter, glued to paper. Today, in the high-pace capitalist world, the consumer-oriented market needs to respond to customers expectations. Items should fit into the traditional image of Christmas on the one hand, while still offering some artistic touches to consumers’ homes on the other. But how artistic are the products we are buying. It is enough to visit any big supermarket or hypermarket to get overwhelmed with the amount of products available that are nothing but yet another testimony to kitsch.
Examples of Christmas kitsch flooding the hypermarkets and small retailers’ shops are countless. Over and over again, a huge percentage of customers are involved in the pursuit of affordable and often cheaper goods, forgetting about their aesthetic value. Some Christmas items have become nothing but a terrible imitation of handicrafts, but the new explosion of kitsch also offers new ideas and new products which consumers buy happily and hang on their Christmas trees.
“The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil.” – Hermann Broch
Today’s traditions are obviously translated in cheap items. Their shape and form is dictated by media and perfectly adapted by many international producers. It would be quite unfair not to raise our chapeaux to the Chinese skills of kitsch-making. Thank goodness China recognised the value of what is nice and what perfectly corresponds to the consumer’s tastes of today. Unfortunately, not many consumers are aware that the word nice stands for a favourite adjective applicable to all kitsch items, while more valuable products are usually flattered by a different scope of adjectives.
So what is kitsch?
The word kitsch, along with ugliness or beauty, is an expression dictated by our intuition and personal tastes. It is not easy to define. Even specialists – historians, art critics, philosophers preoccupied with aesthetics – use the word kitsch to describe some works from different artistic fields, yet at the same time, they fail to agree about its meaning. Kitsch is characterised by the simplicity of expression which does not demand any intellectual effort. Kitsch simply needs to be nice. At the same time, it can be also a handicap, an imitation of an art work. Kitsch might be very cheap but it can also cost a fortune. And since it is safe and nice, it serves perfectly as decoration during feasts and big events.
While many historians argue about whether kitsch should or should not be classified as art, Theodor Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory (1970) suggests that: “Kitsch is art that cannot, or does not want to be taken seriously, while at the same time, through its appearance, postulating aesthetic seriousness,” This is due to the fact that “one of the defining characteristics of kitsch may be that it stimulates non-existing emotions. Kitsch neutralises them along with the aesthetic phenomenon as a whole.”
An aesthete would use any means to reach beauty. As our contemporary culture depends on constantly increasing demands for anesthetisation, the aesthetes themselves are striving against their own meanders. This is perfectly portrayed by the protagonist of Perfume: The Story of the Murderer (1985) by Patrick Suskind – where a boy, then a man who is deprived of any feelings or impulses, lives his life through purely intuitive, aesthetic norms. Realisation of an aesthetic ideal, which means to him a creation of a beautiful, almost miraculous scent, becomes his only purpose in life.
Christmas kitsch is universal
In some countries (Egypt being one of them), Christmas, along with Easter and Valentine’s Day, is in a big part expressed through what could be easily called as an “anti-aesthetic struggle” and definitely it is the best time for kitsch to come to the surface and to demonstrate its superiority over real works of art. Christmas kitsch is universal. Zhang Guoyang, one of the biggest Chinese producers of Christmas decorations is a world famous example of kitsch glory. Each year his company earns $100 million selling plastic Christmas trees and Santa Clauses of all shapes and sizes, along with many other seasonal items.
Christmas trees, dancing Santa Clauses, plastic bells, angel’s hair, twinkling garlands and other Christmas items available in many Egyptian stores are proudly carrying the “made in China” sign. Interestingly, most Chinese are not Christians and they do not celebrate Christmas. Even though the invasion of Chinese kitsch is not a shocking discovery to the modern consumer, it is still a rather painful reality underlining, over and over again, the decline of artistic values.
Christmas kitsch is pricking us with plastic fir tree needles and blinding us with the twinkling of the five colours Christmas tree lights. And when looking at the Cairo streets and shops, it is hard not to get overwhelmed with the amount of those Ugly Ducklings of Art, and that they will never turn into beautiful swans.
Today’s kitsch, whether expensive and pitiful imitations of art works or cheap Christmas items finding value only in its twinkling glitter, become integral part of our lives. But, at the end of the day, why should we worry? Houses are decorated and consumers are happy with their spending. As much as Christmas revives kitsch values, after the holiday season ends, the dancing Santa Clauses, plastic Christmas trees, colourful mistletoes and twinkling angel hair are forgotten. The trick is that during those few weeks that they are welcomed on the streets and inside households, the anti-aesthetic injection is being successfully served. The more we accept this shot of conformity, the more we’ll be prone to accepting other forms of kitsch during the remaining months of the year.
It does not seem that the zenith of kitsch will be crossed any time soon. All we can do is hope that the fashion of shiny stars along with Valentine red hearts and gypsum angels should not be related to artistic values.
Merry Christmas to all the optimists
Theodor Adorno – a 20th century German-born international sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer.
Hermnann Broch – a 20th century Austrian philosopher and aesthete mainly known for The Death of Virgil and trilogy The Sleepwalkers (considered as two of the towering works of the 20th century).
In the second essay “The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age (1934) from his six essays titled Geist und Zeitgeist, he points at the close relationship between ethics and aesthetics in arts:
"The essence of kitsch consists of exchanging the ethical category with the aesthetic category. The artist pursues not a ‘good’ work of art, but a ‘beautiful’ work of art, what matters here is a beautiful effect.
The techniques of kitsch, which are based on imitation are rational and operate according to formulas, they remain rational even when their result has a highly irrational, even crazy quality."
[This is based on an article by Ati Metwaly published in The Art Review, Jan-Feb 2009 issue)