Saturday, April 26, 2014


Kitsch is one of my favourite modern Greek words. Rendered as «κιτς» for Athenians who struggle to pronounce the requisite voiceless postalveolar fricative consonant, the word can take on a multiplicity of manifestations, such as «κιτσάτο» in its adjectival form. Such is the flexibility of the modern Greek language, that a particularly acute case of kitsch can be rendered as «καρακίτς,» with the late lamented Malvina Karali applying it to females thus: «καρακιτσάρα.»

The concept of "black kitsch is alien to the English language, wherein the term "kitsch" exists as German loan-word, signifying  a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. In this sense, the term is generally employed to signify unsubstantial or gaudy works or decoration, or works that are calculated to have popular appeal. The very concept of kitsch is applied to artwork that was a response to the 19th-century art with aesthetics that convey exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama.

To the modern Greek, the term κιτς has slightly different connotations. It appears to be synonymous with the term «κακογουστιά,» implying a simplistic, caricatured aesthetic taste.  When coupled with conceptions of a Greek identity, the fusion forms an undercurrent of mutually accepted symbols and cultural identifiers, whereby one can claim membership of the fold.

Hermann Broch argues that the essence of kitsch is imitation, in that kitsch mimics its immediate predecessor with no regard to ethic: it aims to copy the beautiful, not the good. According to Walter Benjamin, kitsch is, unlike art, a utilitarian object lacking all critical distance between object and observer, offering "instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation." In other words, it is a form of art used to appeal to our emotions in a way that is intended to evoke quick approval without any attendant reflection.

Greek kitsch is all around us. It exists in the music we listen to, the symbols we identify with and the art we buy. Whereas Grand Tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought back souvenir replicas of the art they came across as a memento and for further study, the plethora of statuettes, kombologia and Suns of Vergina that clutter the shelves of "Greek" stores in Melbourne exist only to remind us of  who we are.

While various members of the community often argue that there is more to our culture than bouzouki and tzatziki, and we are lucky that in Melbourne, as compared with say, Chicago, our cultural awareness and expression is infinitely more complex and multi-faceted, when it comes time to showcase ourselves to the broader community, and to ourselves, the same methods are employed time after time: folk dancing, traditional music, the odd brass-plated Spartan, gyros and loukoumades, leading one to believe that Greek culture has either not progressed from the weapon wielding kapetanaioi of the nineteenth century or, that if it has, such advances as have been made have been rejected.  Examining the phenomenon in an excellent estimation of the most recent Lonsdale Street, festival, Neos Kosmos English Edition Editor Kostas Karamarkos had this to say: "Yes, in a street festival, including the Lonsdale Street Festival, you will find elements of folklore, simplicity and kitsch, but this is to be expected in a paniyiri and in any case, this doesn't negate the much more important positive outcomes of this celebratory weekend."

Kostas Karamarkos is correct in observing that we love our kitsch. That is its purpose. Yet rather than becoming hysterical about its prevalence, we would do well to consider that our need to distill our historical and culture into a few symbols that can be shared with everyone is a very ancient one. In his thoroughly provoking poem "Poseidoniatae" Cavafy describes how the Greek colonists of Poseidonia in Italy, having gradually become latinized, resorted to kitsch in order to preserve some semblance of a Greek identity: "The only thing surviving from their ancestors/ was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,/ with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths./ And it was their habit toward the festival's end/ to tell each other about their ancient customs/ and once again to speak Greek names/ that only a few of them still recognized."

The fact that Cavafy wrote in multi-cultural Alexandria, at a time where the prominent and affluent Greek community appeared to be at the pinnacle of its material success should not escape our notice. Yet Cavafy was perceptive enough to identify within the postulated kitsch ritual display, the elements of fear and guilt that underlay it: "And so their festival always had a melancholy ending/ because they remembered that they too were Greeks,/ they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;/ and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,/ living and speaking like barbarians,/ cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life." Thus, according to Cavafy, kitsch serves the dialectic of cultural assimilation and cultural distinction, cultural pride and cultural shame.


The capacity of unaesthetic art to provoke pride in one's origins should not be discounted. After all, it was a similar arbitrary distillation of cultural elements by the creators of Acropolis Now that led to a great cultural emancipation, whereby it became not only acceptable but also admirable to be a "wog." While those cultural signifiers may make us cringe today, it can be argued that via a similar process, such stock elements as blue and white colour schemes, pastiches of ancient Greek aesthetics and the like can evoke feelings of pride in many of us, providing motivation for further explorations within the abyss of Greek cultural experience or, at the very least, keeping us within the kitsch defined fold of the Greek identity.

In viewing our relationship to our own kitsch, it is worthwhile considering just how much of it we control, or how much of it is constituted by an identity of norms of appearances foisted upon us or assumed by us as a result of other's desires to see ourselves be portrayed in a certain way. How ancient Greek, or Big Fat Greek Wedding we truly are, may be pale in priority to our need to find receptors in others in which they can appreciate or understand at least a portion of our identity, however mythologized. Believing in and developing kitsch out of such a racist in origin phenomenon, truly presents as a fascinating development of one's own identity, internalizing within it, feelings of inferiority such as those perceived by Cavafy. Here caution is to be applied, for aesthetics without a sound core principle to underlie them, leads to extremism and feelings of cultural superiority that can ultimately culminate in racial intolerance and fascism.

 While it is therefore true that kitsch evokes cheap or easy emotions,  it is questionable whether this in itself, should be considered a problem.  Our reactions and emotions with response to art or situations in life do not always have to be refined, educated or profound.  The sort of relaxed and casual release that kitsch gives can be beneficial as it allows us to highlight a nostalgic or sentimental aspect to our consciousness of ourselves that can lead to a tremendous voyage of discovery. Attempting to make all aspects of our identity serious or critical is not always necessary, despite the dangers of cultural stagnation and implosion if we do not offer alternative critiques. Thankfully, in Melbourne, at least at the present, a vast array of alternative Greek voices exist and compete with each other, while for everyone else, there is always the blue and white themed Greek tavern  for solace. Driving in the suburb in which I reside, I always smile when I pass an incongruous, among the red brick homes,  whitewashed, blue and white house, complete with Greek flag, stylized painted peacocks and the word «Ελένη» lovingly painted upon the letterbox, paraphrasing the great Milan Kundera:  " Now matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is a part of the [Greek] tradition."

First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 April 2014