Drawing on the term kitsch as it is used in the art world to mean art that either uses rubbish (literally) or that sentimentalises everyday experiences, political kitsch is designed to reassure and comfort the observer/consumer.
According to Catherine Lugg at Rutgers:
"Kitsch is art that engages the emotions and deliberately ignores the intellect, and as such, is a form of cultural anesthesia. It is this ability to build and exploit cultural myths - and to easily manipulate conflicted history - that makes Kitsch a powerful political construction."
Political kitsch, she says, tends to make facile use of symbolism, to reinforce national mythologies and to exploit conventional, constructed political 'realities'. It colonises the receiver's consciousness and pacifies rather than provokes. In the US, political kitsch tends to play to 'homey American certitudes'. In England, former Prime Minister John Major tried to do the something similar when he said:
"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers."
He was ridiculed because too much of the population already found these notions of Britishness utterly alien.
Populist and demagogic politicians from Peron to Berlusconi, from Chávez to Chirac all tend to use political kitsch to win the hearts of voters, appealing to cultural notions that are often out-of-date, colonialist confections. Right-wing governments tend to exploit the popular mistrust of 'welfare mothers' exploiting the system to get welfare benefits, while left-wing governments tend similarly to exploit popular mistrust of bankers, financiers and Jews.
As Guy Rundle says:
"Milan Kundera - who seems to have popularised the concept of political kitsch - noted two types of it: one was the utterly cynical and empty propaganda, characteristic of East European communism, believed by neither speaker nor audience, such as the relentless playing of revolutionary songs through loudspeakers that follows one of his characters even into the toilet of the work camp where she is billeted. The other is the kitsch Kundera encountered when he went to the West, and, standing on a lawn in New England during a sunset, heard the Senator beside him say (stretching out his arm): ‘this is what America is all about.’ Kundera’s comment: ‘and I think he truly believed that only in America did small children run across a lawn during a sunset.’ This latter form of political kitsch is often unknowing, but it is equally pernicious, since it relies on an effective dehumanisation of other cultures - it takes as specific, what is a general feature of human life."
David Wastell draws on notions of kitsch when he talks about 'bad science' in the UK public sector:
"In thinking about good and bad design, the idea of kitsch is helpful. Although, the term was originally used in connection with art, to distinguish between mass-produced imitations and original works of great quality, nowadays we use it to refer to anything second-rate and tasteless, the tacky stuff of gift shops and the like. But kitsch is not confined to the gift shop; it is ubiquitous. Launer (2008) talks for instance about medical kitsch, using the example of a recent UK government scheme to offer cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to large numbers of people with depression by practitioners given minimal training. Launer notes the CBT scheme’s popularity with politicians as a cheap, quick fix, and the public benefit it thereby confers in reducing unemployment and social security bills (Launer, 2008). Launer characterises kitsch as “the mindless confusion of what is banal, glossy, easy to produce and cheap, with what is complex, subtle, painstaking and unique” (p.111). The idea that a short course of treatment given by practitioners with very limited training can yield long-term transformation of people’s lives is pure kitsch. It is difficult to resist though, in giving us what we want in a simple prescription; who could be against it? In medicine, Launer advocates the evidence-based cause (“good, painstaking science”) as the antidote to its “plausible slogans”....
We all too easily associate political kitsch with communist regimes: May Day parades, simplistic slogans, sentimental images of happy workers in a workers’ paradise, political party posters evoking idyllic folkloric scenes (Božilović, 2007). But kitsch is everywhere once you get the nose for it. The VBS (Vetting and Barring Scheme) is pure kitsch, providing meaningless reassurance that all will be well, avoiding confrontation with unpalatable truths, that some children do die in appalling circumstances, and perhaps there is little that we can do about it. Its publicity, like so much other official documentation of the day, is even more obviously kitsch: glossy and sloganistic, chock-a-block with syrupy images of smiling, contented folk, kept safe from harm by the benign State. Propaganda is another name for it! When I compare contemporary policy documents with those of yore, the tawdriness is striking. I have a copy of Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife in front of me as I write this: carefully argued, nuanced and caveated, conscious of the limits of state power, showing proper respect for evidence; I will not say more.
Kitsch is ubiquitous, like a rash. In a letter to local authority leaders in 2010, Eric Pickles urged the case for “local innovation” to cope with reductions in government funding. In emphasising innovation, the letter would seem to make the case for design, but it goes on “that must mean sharing departments, officers and back office services between different local authorities”. In doing so, the exhortation for innovation produces its exact opposite; such prescription of ‘off-the-peg’ solutions is profoundly anti-design. Yes, shared services can work, certainly on a local level within a single authority, as we saw with Salford. But equally, the approach may fail badly, as we observed in several other authorities."
Incidentally, urban myths draw on kitsch - and so do memes and YouTube clips that go viral.
Catherine Lugg: Political Kitsch and Educational Policy
David Wastell: Managers as Designers in the Public Services: Beyond Technomagic
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