Kitsch can be understood as a monetized solution for the shame suffered by a culture’s middle class, a way to market their declaration of social mobility. By simultaneously romanticizing and condescending artistic elements of authentic, specific culture, kitsch renders them digestible for a wider audience and for profit than the original element would have otherwise attracted.
“The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends” Clement Greenberg Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939.
Greenberg, one of the most influential visual art critics of the 20th century, goes on to examine in his essay the relationship between the development of kitsch in relationship with social class and political manipulation. And while he describes kitsch in terms of an artistic style which had spread, even at the time of his writing, into the global he does not examine the relationship kitsch has with the tourist. Diverging at this point with the trajectory of his essay, I am interested in looking more carefully at the role of ‘cultural ambassador’ that kitsch has marketed for the benefit of the outsider.
In order for the appropriation and resulting mutation to meet the successful (read profitable) end it seeks, kitsch must attract a customer. When doing so internationally it must respond to a demand for culture made by an audience that constructs it’s own identity through collecting representations of the exotic. As a result the producers of kitsch are able to market their sanitized version of a culture from which they have removed themselves and the collector is able to recognize familiar social cues stemming more from a socio-economic language than from specific geographical locale.
While kitsch necessarily deals in cultural iconography it is not to be mistaken for craft, for the product of an artisan working within a culturally relevant vocabulary and set of materials. It is true that many artisans produce kitsch, and this can be understood as a response over time to the demand made by the middle class consumer for such easily digestible versions of culture and the extremely complex set of political networks which have placed many artisans in the crosshairs of profit. Sadly this combination of factors has resulted many times in the annihilation of the original inspiration and ultimately culturally relevant bodies of work. Nevertheless there is something more serious being whispered just below the surface of the flamboyance and manufactured nature offered by kitsch initially.
The traffic was thick as we approached San Luis Potosi, as all of the side roads connected to the highway from all directions. Ahead of us, a long procession of lightweight trucks packed to overflowing with bags of goods for sale and upon entering city limits the streets were also packed with people selling any number of items to the slow moving lines of vehicles. Commerce was in the air. Money changing hands, travelers of all ages dragging, hauling, and hoisting merchandise everywhere we looked. The whole city was close to tearing open and spilling all of us out into the desert.
Looping and looping around the pulsating central business district we were finally able to park the car and stumble dazed into the chaos. So saturated was the city that it took more time that anticipated to locate any vacancy for that night’s accommodations. Once settled into a large dark room without windows, we weighed our options and decided to remain there for the night. After having washed some pertinent articles of clothing in the bathroom sink and having engineered a clever line from which to hang them, we went to bed. Grateful to find that the car had survived an entire night of hustling and remained intact, we made our way back out of the city, quiet as it regrouped for the next evenings financial circus to begin once again.
Following the highway south, later that day we arrived in the small town of San Miguel de Allende. At one time almost unknown to tourists from outside of Mexico, San Miguel quickly gained attention as it’s neo-Gothic church at the heart of the town was ‘discovered’ by foreign artists and as a result several educational institutions were established. It became an important location for the study and production of Mexican art, as both foreign and national students were attracted by the chance to study with famous Mexican artists such as the prolific painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. This hybridization of the populous was nothing new as it had long since been a crossroads between territories of the silver-rich north and the commercial center of Mexico City – Spanish, indigenous and later Criollo peoples had been loving, fighting and trading in the area for hundreds of years.
Entering San Miguel for the first time was like driving right onto the glossy set of an idyllic Mexican postcard. It was the perfect, brightly painted, bougainvillea draped, Mexico only our fantasies could have conjured and we had arrived on market day. Gone were the suspicious tricks of hand and burdened masses of merchant pilgrims stuffed into the dark corners of a capital city. People did not wander the street selling wares, instead they were clearly organized into rows of shop fronts and doorways seducing pedestrians with images of Frida affixed to any number of objects, each shop striving to outdo the previous with it’s unexpected placement or juxtaposition. The whole fantasy reaching climax as the streets merged into the Mercado de Artesanias – the central crafts market.
Right in pace with the frenzy of ‘one of every color’ mentality and nearly floating on a cloud of ecstatic, if not somewhat voyeuristic, wholesaling of Mexican culture – we entered the market. It was here were the balance was tipped and I was able to comprehend the dimension of the world in which I had entered. Every passageway was lined, shoulder to shoulder, table to table, rack to rack with objects for sale in each and every internationally recognizable ‘indigenous’ format. It was intimate, it was personal, it had all been produced for me, to satiate my orgiastic longing to posses all of Mexico. In that brief pause of humid transactions, cash for culture, I recognized myself as fuel and my somewhat lecherous desire to collect, a choice I had made to prioritize owning over knowing.