#8 Fascist Kitsch

SS Gnome

Albeit on its radiant, lacquered face, kitsch alleges to be life-affirming, the readings for this week will argue instead for the death drive animating mass culture in bad faith under fascist regimes like Hitler’s Germany. The authors all condemn kitsch for promoting a smooth, polished picture of plentiful (read: healthy heterosexual) human life at the messy expense of actual lives deemed unworthy or un(re)productive. At the same time, they’re divided in how they deal with the issue of invalidity as an aesthetic-cum-existential question.

We’re lucky to have Maddie take us through these touchy readings from the perspective of disability studies in her blog post (below) and in-class presentation!

Our learning of kitsch thus far has been permeated with mass-produced, trashy depictions of popular culture — of garden gnomes, tiki coffee tables, and “high art” screen-printed onto t-shirts and mugs. Such a depiction (and also Benjamin’s assertion that kitsch can be used for revolutionary purposes) might have convinced us of the innocuous nature of all things kitschy. Yet the readings for Tuesday have led us down a darker, more toxic path, showing us how kitsch has a wicked side too. Two of the three readings focus on the “kitsch of death” in the context of fascism and the Nazi regime — specifically how the incongruity of a kitsch aesthetic and the themes and portrayals of death serves a Nazi vision focused on purity and racial/ethnic cleansing. The last (but certainly not least) reading by Tobin Siebers provides an extensive overview of disability aesthetics, arguably the anti-kitsch.

The Nazi-driven “cleansing” of Germany was in effect years before the Holocaust, and initially took shape in the form of a “euthanasia” program that wiped out thousands of those deemed physically and mentally unsuitable by the Nazis. This program was called the T4 program, and predated the Holocaust by about two years. Like much of Nazi ideology, it was driven by the notion that there were those whose lives were deemed unworthy — most notably for our purposes, the mentally and physically disabled — and that these lives constituted a financial burden and genetic contamination for the German people. The T4 program began with the killing of disabled children, but was later extended to such adults living in institutionalized settings.

It is worth mentioning the T4 program, as it represented the active enforcement of the Nazi aesthetic. Nazism itself was built upon the belief that there was a superior, more evolutionarily favored race of people — consequently, those who embodied any sort of degeneracy or defect were to be disposed of. Traces of the degenerate were to be wiped from books, classrooms, art, and any other cultural avenues; true Nazi art was wholesome, infused with nationalist and fascist themes, and depicted a body as strong and robust as Hitler’s ideal race. It is upon this Nazi aesthetic that we will examine kitsch for tomorrow’s class, as well as disability aesthetics, what Sieber calls the “aesthetics of human disqualification” (pg.22).

So, some things to ponder in preparation for tomorrow’s class:

Is Kitsch an ableist notion? That is, is it an aesthetic that is inherently exclusive to those who are able-bodied?

What larger cultural and societal anxieties do aesthetic disqualifications illustrate?

Also for your consideration, an example of ‘degenerate’ art/disability aesthetics by Otto Dix, about which Parker will enlighten us from his expert art-historical angle.

Prager Straße/Prague Street (1920)


6 thoughts on “#8 Fascist Kitsch

  1. Maddie, I think the “ableist” perspective of kitsch is precisely what makes it kitschy, if we accept Tobin Siebers’s argument. I think that it is particularly interesting to trace the progression of ableist kitsch from Nazi Germany with its production of images of “perfect” bodies (strong men and wide-hipped women) with the aesthetic that later developed in Israel (late 1940s/early 1950s). Images of strong, able-bodied soldiers (often blonde) meant to subvert the image of the scrawny Jewish Holocaust victim emerged in Israeli media, and appears remarkably similar to the earlier German aesthetic, almost as if the same images had been repurposed. I am curious about this “inheritance” of aesthetic from instigator to victim.

    • You two are both right on about this trajectory you perceive, which would seem to be at odds with itself, but is actually the synthetic progression of an earlier discourse. The “degeneration”/ fin du race diagnosed by Nordau morphs in its most malignant form into eugenics in Nazi Germany (but not only!). It also takes a turn toward the Zionist, as Nordau himself does. Both perspectives hold in place the sickening picture of Europe in the modernist era, at the heart of which is an effeminate, enfeebled Jewish figure. If anyone’s interested in following up on this question, I recommend Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Here’s a link: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520210509 .

      • In fact, the homosexual and the Jew are the quintessential figures of modernity. Matti Bunzl is the go-to guy on this modernist collocation. See his Symptoms of Modernity: Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

  2. Okay, last one–but you see how keyed up this topic gets your professor! Another great resource for folks wanting to delve more deeply into the (no) love triangle between the Nazi, Jewish, and queer questions should check out George Mosse’s Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectable and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. On ableism, there’s Carol Poore’s Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture, to which I’ve already referred one of the students in our class with successful research results.

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