Shit, Kitsch, and Other Things that Stink

In my last post, I suggested that one of the actions scripted by novelty salt and pepper shakers is conversing about them as artistic objects: the invitation to “observe them more closely–perhaps in something like the way we look at paintings or other art objects, with an eye to understanding both what they represent and the possible implications of the ways they represent it.”  I’d just like to qualify that comment a little, for it’s clear that while these shakers operate as something “like” art, the response they seem to invite is not the same as the ones invited by, say, a conventional portrait or landscape painting or an abstract presentation of non-representational forms and colours. There’s something about their littleness and their cuteness that’s asking for something different from more standard forms of aesthetic observation and openness to being affected by what one views aesthetically.

That something different seems to be an awareness of how small and how harmless the shakers are, how unlikely they are to actually produce deeply involved or emotive responses. Ion other words, they’re inviting a kind of safe simulation of aestheticism, an indulgence in the act of opening oneself up to the potential of art  to affect one, but within a safely narrow range of possibilities: you know when you choose to look at a novelty salt and pepper shaker as an object of aesthetic contemplation that it’s not going to alarm you in its potential to make you think new thoughts or to change your life forever.

In this way, I suspect, novelty shakers represent the kind of art (or non-art?) that the Czech novelist Milan Kundera calls, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, kitsch:  Talking about an acknowledgement of defecation and its products as an acceptance of the human condition as it is, Kundera says that not acknowledging such things in a claim to see nothing but goodness in the world is a form of agreement with the way things are that actually denies them:

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.

Denying shit–or perhaps, preferring and willing oneself not to be aware of it–is an insistence on a sort of perversely inhuman utopia–a place imagined as ideal because it is not connected with bodily functions and their implications of mortality.  Kitsch represents a denial of what the character Crazy Jane in a poem by William Butler Yeats once exuberantly proclaimed:

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

Viewed as this sort of kitsch, novelty shakers not only deny the existence of shit and the place of excrement in their safely miniatured cuteness and ceramic hardness. They also actively proclaim the importance of not paying attention to shit–of immersing oneself in the cutely miniature as a sort of safely diminished and relatively passionless diminution of a more complex reality as it actually is–a way of denying or perhaps more likely, conscientiously ignoring, the painful or pleasurable limitations of the human condition by replacing it with something less disconcerting.  In this enclosed and safely lifeless world, even skunks don’t smell, and are safely enjoyable as just plain cute:

With their clearly visible and normatively conventional gender distinctions (one wears lipstick, the other carries what appears to be a phallic green carrot) these googly-eyed creatures are hardly even animal at all; both have a pink blush on what surely must be their fur cheeks.  Blushing fur?  Really?  Diminished and de-shitted and made less alienly animal and more like us, these skunks represent an apparently safe escape from what we actually know to be a more complex and shittier and stinkier world, and therefore, they offer a not-so-safely disinfected world after all, but instead, an invitation to a life-denying willed blindness to the messier way and stinkier things actually  are.

Not suprisingly, Kundera goers on to read totalitarian political implications into kitsch, calling it totalitarian:

But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch. When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (be-cause anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously).

In the worlds of kitsch and novelty salt and pepper shakers, “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.”  In that way, in fact, the shakers really don’t invite the intense gaze of works of art; they invite merely the kind of quick glance that notes a comforting cuteness and familiar recognizability and then, satisfied by the confirmation of painlessness, slides off and away from details.  They offer, in other words, an invitation to not look too closely, to look without seeing too much.  The kinds of close looks I give to the shaker sets I’m describing in this blog are not, in fact, scriptive actions they invite.  I’m noticing too much, in too much detail, to preserve my complacent semi-blind and blinding appreciation of them.  Seeing them as totalitarian kitsch is to deny the efficacy of their totalitarianism and their kitschiness.

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