…or the racist kitsch and the kitsch of racism…
Thursday’s batch of readings builds on ideas we’ve been angling at throughout the semester, while extending Wolfe’s critique of white radical chic as a cultured form of classism and racism. They’ll also give us the chance to more fully explore how aesthetic categories are always embodied, and often operate to secure existing socioeconomic hierarchies and reify race as a function of taste. If you have the chance to check out more than the required texts by bell hooks, Tania Nyong’o and Alexis L. Boylan (pp. 42-48), I heartily recommend you review the blog post, “Black People Don’t Go to Galleries: the Reproduction of Taste and Cultural Value.” Dan returns to the front of the room to lead us up to the exclusive gates of the gallery and down the dark halls of kitsch, where it crosses the color line in a very vivid way!
In “Eating the Other,” the Other–that which is not the subject, object, or abstract of normative power–is exploited as exotic and tokenized to be figuratively consumed by those considered normal. hooks posits the normal as those with the most power in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal context. The powerful remain powerful, and assume the identity and functionality of oppressors that craft conditions where the Other is subjugated to be consumed by them. Typically, the Other is made desirable for consumption through instilling mass fantasy on oppressors who, in turn, characterize Otherness as pleasurably primitive, for which they romantically long for (hooks 27). Longing comes from the Others’ exotification; the Other reduced to a sexuallly or infantilizingly-exploited generalization. How the Other is exploited is typically tantalizing to the oppressor. The Other is imagined as less than the oppressor, yet when consumed, self-gratifying because the oppressor is consuming imagined difference. This difference, like the Other, is considered lesser. Consuming maintains the Other’s subservient position while fueling the oppressor’s social imagination to continue exploiting for consumption, having the effect of maintaining power, be that social, economic, political, etc.
hooks primarily discusses the oppressor as whiteness, as its norms, logics, and desires. White supremacy is upheld, especially in the U.S.’ post-formal slavery period through commodification. hooks states that “the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (hooks 31). Through decontextualization, the Other is commodified to a form palpable and violently ingenuine to whom it fails to imitate. Yet, mere commodifying signifies disinterest in sincerely knowing, but rather consuming on whiteness’ terms. The Other becomes attractive to consume within commercial culture, with hooks believing that “within the commercial realm of advertising [is where] the drama of Otherness finds expression. Encounters with Otherness are clearly marked as more exciting, more intense, and more threatening.” (hooks 26)
Its these attributes that develop white, racist audiences’ longing for racist kitsch. Though some try “to take ownership of it by modifying it…[to] produce” “pleasurable disgust” rather than “disgusting pleasure” (Nyong’o 374), Nyong’o states “racist kitsch cannot overcome its ability to reproduce scapegoating, because these practices of opposition inevitably reinscribe the object as a target for hatred and scorn (Nyong’o 388). With scorn retained, the sentimentality toward that deemed kitsch pervades. The problem with the failure in challenging racist kitsch through ownership is that the kitsch form remains stigmatized. With the stigmatization not dismantled, so to, does the racism of racist kitsch. For racist kitsch’s racism extends beyond content, but from the core of kitsch itself. Boylan suggests that “race binds nonwhites to popular culture and kitsch while never granting full acceptance or access” (Boylan 43). Whites can traverse Greenberg’s high art and kitsch juxtaposition, while the work of nonwhites is systemically funneled to the ridiculed category. Work of people of color is perpetually regarded as kitsch to be democratically consumed by the white, middle-class, from where kitsch found its fodder.
From there, my questions are:
Though the work of some people of color is appreciated and interrogated by white, high art circles, stark racial disparities exist in whose art is deemed high. Would mere equitable access to material culture not deemed kitsch liberate nonwhite artists from stigmatized kitsch, to allow more racially-democratic participation in numerous forms of material culture?
In many cases, we’ve studied kitsch being perceived positively and progressive based on social context (ex: socialist realism). Though some wish to subvert racist kitsch through ownership, developing pleasurable disgust to be reminded of ever present white supremacy, its history, and contemporary forms, the positivity of this different context is questioned by the kitsch never being destigmatized. Such is dangerous with most artists of color’s work being relegated as kitsch, with the category of their relegation always remaining negative. What other examples of attempted subversion to undermine failed undermine the attitudes of the form, which also fueled its negativity? Can material culture that is both in form and content ontologically problematic ever be subverted to position it positively?