Saturday, January 28, 2017

Kitsch and Tack

This is a picture of a plastic mug which exactly resembles a mug one of my colleagues drinks from. Every time I see it, I wince. It symbolises so much of what I hate about the modern world-- or should I say, the post-modern world?

I'm not complaining about the message. I've nothing at all against recycling, and I'm just as opposed to the 'throwaway culture' as Pope Francis. (Unlike the Maltese bishops and Cardinal Kasper, I'm also against the 'throwaway culture' when it comes to marriage.)

No, what really bothers me about this mug is the wasted opportunity that it represents. William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, famously wrote: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." It seems like a good principle to me. I'd go even further-- we should try to make everything beautiful, even the useful things. And not only beautiful, but meaningful.

Cave paintings were the first intentional mark that humans left on the world, and since then our species has been notable for its tendency to decorate every surface available to it. And we don't just love decoration for its own sake; we like to make a statement, whenever we get an opportunity. It might be naming a pet, choosing a keyring, putting a backround on our computer screens, picking a ringtone, or any number of other things. We turn almost everything into an opportunity for self-expression and proclaiming allegiance.

T-shirts are my favourite example. I''m always irritated when I see someone in a plain t-shirt. T-shirts can be so gloriously anti-utilitarian. You can put anything on a t-shirt; it's the ideal space. OK, it's embarrasing to see someone clad in a "This would look nice on your bedroom floor" t-shirt, or an "If found, return to the pub" t-shirt. But there are lots of very witty, fetching and intriguing t-shirt captions and designs.

Most of all, I like tasteful t-shirts. In fact, I like everything to be tasteful.

And here we hit a complication, and the real subject of this blog post. Because I reckon that there are basically two concepts which you might take as the opposite to 'tasteful', and which one you choose will say a lot about your personality and view of the world. You might consider the opposite of tasteful to be kitsch, or you might take the opposite of tasteful to be tacky-- or its back-formation, tack.

 I consider the mug pictured at the top of this article to be a supreme example of tack. It makes no effort to be picturesque, harmonious, graceful or decorative whatsoever.

Here, on the other hand, is a mug that many people would consider to be kitsch:

I very much wish my colleague used a mug like this, rather than the mug he uses. I don't think this mug is kitsch at all. I think it's tasteful and elegant.

The terror of kitsch is a terrible affliction on today's society, in my view. It so often scares us away from any visual display that is florid, grandiose, solemn, poetic, cosy, or sublime.

 I wrote an essay-poem on modern society's fear of solemnity. The fear of kitsch is closely related. (Indeed, the image I use to illustrate my essay-poem is Monarch of the Glen, a majestic painting which is frequently dismissed as kitsch.)

If contemporary society fears kitsch, it seems to have no fear at all of tack. Tackiness is especially common in advertising, where loud noises, silliness, irony, 'quirkiness', and deliberate ugliness abound. But it's also prevalent in many other aspects of life, such as television production-- take for instance those very annoying sequences where some activity, such as painting a room or cooking a dinner, is speeded up to a comical degree, to show the passage of time. Or the practice of having cut-away shots of an interviewee standing cross-armed, staring at the camera moodily. Common to all this is a lack of dignity and sobriety.

I can barely watch television any more, because of this.

Another example; I am frequently annoyed by the sight of a removals truck with a picture of two matchstick men on its side, with the caption: "Two Guys and a Truck". Doubtless they thought it was quirky and self-deprecating. But it's just ugly and contemptuous, in my view.

A final example of tack, encountered today: I saw a house with the name "Wit's End". My first reaction was to smile, but my second reaction was to think how tacky it was. A house deserves a serious name. Would you rather use that very rare opportunity to make a joke, or to honour a saint?

Funnily enough, my own attitude towards 'kitsch' is quite the opposite of the attitude which seems prevalent today. The general attitude today seems to be that kitsch is bad if you don't realise it's kitsch, but allowable if you do realise it's kitsch. If you do realise it's kitsch, you might put it up anyway-- either out of irony, or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. But if you don't realise it's kitsch, then you're showing yourself up as a dolt, a person of execrable taste.

My own view is that kitsch is OK as long as you don't think of it as kitsch. In fact, I don't thhink anything is kitsch as long as it's meant seriously. The awareness of kitsch, and the anxiety about kitsch, is a loss of innocence, a corruption. Kitsch meant sincerely is beautiful, just as a semi-illiterate love poem full of clichés is beautiful. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Our contemporary horror of kitsch bothers me especially, since I'm nostalgic for a Catholic and nationalist Ireland whose visual iconography is often dismissed as kitsch.

Who hasn't heard of Catholic kitsch? The Church has fought with iconoclasts throughout much of its history, and much of Catholic art-- high and popular-- is notable for its ornateness, extravagance, and floridity.

I did a Google image search for 'Catholic kitsch' and this was one of the first results that came up. I see nothing wrong with this.

Admittedly, there are examples of Catholic 'kitsch' which are much more out there. We've probably all seen the huge luminous statues of our Lord or our Blessed Mother, or the holographic renditions of Leonardo's Last Supper. But even those have a certain charm-- and I don't mean the charm of irony or quaintness. I mean genuine, straightforward charm. It's charming because it expresses devotion and reverence.

Similarly, Irish cultural nationalism has traditionally made use of symbols and conventions which are now, sadly, seen as only fit for the tourists. I'm talking about round towers, Irish wolfhounds, St. Bridget's crosses, harps, Celtic spirals, shamrocks, thatched cottages, rugged rocky islands, old men in cloth caps smoking pipes, etc. Granted, some of these are cornier than others, and many are archaic now. People don't really live in thatched cottages anymore. But I see no reason why they shouldn't continue to be used as symbols, as evocations.

Or take this poem, "The Exile's Return" by John Locke, a nineteenth century writer. I'll only quote the first verse. ("T'anam chun Dia!" pretty much means, "By God!")

T’anam chun Dia! but there it is –
The dawn on the hills of Ireland,
God’s angels lifting the night’s black veil
From the fair sweet face of my sireland.
Oh! Ireland isn’t it grand you look,
Like a bride in her fresh adorning,
And with all the pent-up love of my heart
I bid you the top of the morning.

Now, Irish people have an intense hatred of the phrase "top of the morning", since nobody has used it in living memory. But it seems it was once used. And John Locke was indeed an Irish exile and a nationalist, so presumably he used it with some authority.

As for the poem itself....I'm not going to claim it's great poetry, though it's perfectly competent. It frequently made me cry in my teens. But who would dare to write poetry like this today? Not even the most unabashed throwback.

We often hear the advice "be a tourist in your own country". I think we could take it to heart in many ways, including a kinder attitude towards "tourist kitch", and a willingness to have it in our own kitchens, on our own walls, and in our own bookshelves.

What symbols of Irishness do we have today? Well, there is always the Millennium Spire of Dublin. A huge steel spike that means nothing, commemorates nothing, and is downright ugly. Here is the victory of tack.

All in all, I think our society could do with a lot more kitsch and a lot less tack. Or at least, if we don't get over our fear of kitsch-- our fear of being sentimental, our fear of being corny, our fear of being clichéd, our fear of being trite--- we're just going to get more and more tack.


  1. Yes, I agree that there is a definite, and essential distinction between the blitheness of kitsch and the snarkiness of tack. (And this is a point on which I disagree with Roger Scruton, usually so enjoyably scathing about the soullessness of much modern art, in his attacks on kitsch). I'd take the Coronation mug and Our Lady any day. Your last point about needing more kitsch and less tack is a master-stroke.

    London is being gradually choked by whole skyscrapers that I would call tacky. The nicknames Londoners are quick to give them are telling: the Cheese-grater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Gherkin. They see through it; why don't the architects and planners? Thus the skyline of the city once presided over by 'Paul's high dome' gives itself over to kitchen utensils and pickled vegetables.

    But I don't like T-shirts, I'm afraid! If I had my way, men would all wear ties, possibly even on Saturdays...

    1. I can live with men all wearing ties!

      Yes, I was thinking of Roger Scruton's views on kitsch as I wrote this, and it seems curious to me that he takes the view that he does. But, on second thoughts, Scruton is quite a modernist when it comes to art and literature-- maybe not Turner Prize depths of modernism, but modernism nonetheless. Only when it comes to architecture does he seem to be a solid traditionalist. Thanks for your kind words.

  2. I want a Trump travel mug for work. Yay or nay?


    1. Fine by me. It would be even better if, when you pour hot liquid into it, DT makes the "a-ok" sign.

  3. Best Mug Ever. You know loads of Americans, sure you wifed one up, get it mass produced by one of them. We'll be loaded Mal. We'll be in the bigly big league. Sinéad.

    1. And it would drive liberals crazy, too. Wins all round.