Interviews

An Encyclopedia of Kitsch

Flower centerfold from Sara Cwynar's The Kitsch Encyclopedia, published by Blonde Art Books. All photos courtesy of the author for use on Hyperallergic.
Flower centerfold from Sara Cwynar’s ‘The Kitsch Encyclopedia,’ published by Blonde Art Books (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — It took a while for me to actually sit down and stop flipping through the channels and start leafing through Sara Cwynar’s gorgeous book, The Kitsch Encyclopedia. Published by Blonde Art Books, a project of Brooklyn-based curator/publisher Sonel Breslav, Kitsch Encyclopedia is in many ways the inverse of Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), playing on the absurd and thoroughly kitsch concept of categorizing kitsch into a loose web of alphabetical orders. But with the inclusion of such entries as “Disneyland,” “America/Utopia,” “Existential Crisis,” “iconoclast,” “icon,” “journalist,” and the idea of “living in truth,” we are left with the question: What’s real any more? 

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Alicia Eler: In the introduction, you describe the premise of the book, discussing the intersection of kitsch, media, how the visual archive we live in can skew our view of reality, and how it has in many ways replaced reality entirely. With that in mind, what was reality before and what will it become as this visual archive continues to grow?

Sara Cwynar: The idea here is that we had more of a direct relationship with the lived world, you could even say “nature” before the massive sped-up proliferation of image culture of the last few decades — that you experienced things as they are. Now, I feel like I remember things that I have never actually experienced, or when I think of an event (9/11 and the image of the towers falling is the oft-discussed image of this) I think of it’s image and the endless TV replays of that image. I pull up an idea in my mind, I often think of a picture I’ve seen of it. As this shared visual archive continues to grow, there are pictures on pictures on pictures to make up your view of something, but whatever its index in real life once was is long gone.

Chinese food from The Kitsch Encyclopedia
“C” is for Chinese food

AE: What drew you to Milan Kundera, Jean Baudrillard, and Roland Barthes as the basis for discussing kitsch in Kitsch Encyclopedia?

SC: The idea of “hyperreality” or of living through images and screens and losing touch with any referent to actual reality is Baudrillard’s from Simulations. This idea is not that new now (it’s from the 80’s, it’s actually from before I was born!) He was obviously writing before what the internet is now and I think these are important ideas to revisit and also are the foundation for a lot of present discussions about image culture and how new technologies change our relationship to the world. Kundera and Barthes are discussing very similar things — the way that images help to skew reality, to build a new world on top of the old one — so it made sense for me to bring these three texts together to formulate this definition of kitsch for my own use.

AE: Kitsch according to Kundera — “the means through which complex human experience is distilled down to simple, sentimental motifs and ideas.” I would argue that network TV operates in a similar way, as this sort of flattening of real-life into consumable images. I was also thinking about this lyric from the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: “When fact is fiction and TV reality.” How could network TV be categorized as kitsch?

SC: I think TV sort of flattens everything and dictates how you are going to view selected parts of the world (for example, a lot of nuclear families, a lot of beautiful people, a lot of political bullshit), although I think the idea of the passive viewer of television who just receives images doesn’t apply as much to the way we all watch TV now. We can pick from so many speciality channels and choose everything we watch to such a degree now, and it doesn’t even require a television, it’s not this experience where you sit in a living room and everyone in America watches the same channels at the same time. But I think U2 really got it with “when fact is fiction and TV reality”! What Baudrillard means and what kitsch is to me is this idea that the TV image is more understandable, more real, more familiar even than whatever its real life counterpart was — this is kitsch in the sense of the book.

"W" is for Woman
“W” is for Woman

AE: I really enjoy the discussion of Baudrillard, which posits that “the real is always preceded by its simulation; we are living in a world of signs created virtually, by the media, in an atmosphere without any grasp on reality, perhaps without even a desire for it. The image has become more real than the object to which it refers.” This makes me think of Baudrillard’s discussion of Los Angeles here: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” I do see that L.A. is mentioned in the “America/UTOPIA” section, which suggests that Los Angeles is a perpetual motion picture (pgs. 3 & 33), which makes me think of Thom Anderson’s film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which discusses the ways that L.A. has been used in motion pictures. How else do you think Los Angeles fits into the Kitsch Encyclopedia?

SC: Baudrillard has this funny, really condescending view of America, he has a whole book (“America”) where he drives around the US and talks about how absurd everything is (my favorite line is “America is a giant hologram … ”) but he was also obsessed with it. I think this view of Los Angeles being so simulated and so built up and fake that Disneyland is actually the most real, honest place in comparison is a bit insane. But it also drives the point home that we often miss what is false about our lived environment (for example, in LA I think of the weird Scientology buildings, of surgically enhanced people, of movie premiers and gated communities filled with shitty cheap jumbo houses). It is easier to say Disneyland is totally fake, it obviously is, but at least it wears that falseness on its sleeve.

Iconography from The Kitsch Encyclopedia
“I” is for Iconography

AE: How do you see the rise of emoji, abbreviated texts on smartphone screens (the word “really” becomes “rly,” and “right now” is just “rn,” to name a few) as part of a new wave of kitsch that includes technologically driven flattening of communications? Or is this part of an ecstasy of communication (p. 132) that we’re experiencing?

SC: I refuse to get emojis for my phone! I think they qualify as kitsch in that they are images that stand in for words, that mean we don’t even have to talk anymore, just send a picture, distill it down to a crazy yellow smile face. I also love that thumbs up one though and it seeps into my real life, I keep giving people thumbs ups now! I think that’s a real marker of kitsch, when the image seeps into the real world and alters it.

AE: What is NOT kitsch right now?

SC: Love, I guess.

Sara Cwynar’s Kitsch Encyclopedia is available now through Blonde Art Books.

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