On Kitsch
Recontextualisation is just a way for alienated tasteful people like you and me, dear reader, to reconcile ourselves with the atrocious appetites of the mass. We make ourselves immune to The People's poisonous taste by sugaring a very bitter pill -- the realisation that they outnumber us ten to one -- with irony.

The mass buys Whitney Houston singing the contractual reproductive pop that is 'I Will Always Love You'. (Pronounced 'Eye hi hi hi hi hyeeee will alwaaaaaaaheys love yooooooohooohooohooo'...) The mass thinks modern art is rubbish. And so ironists like myself have infiltrated pop music and the art world, and started making work which might resemble the tastes of the masses, but remains recognisable to the cogniscenti as ironic.

We have discovered that the last refuge of credibility consists in celebrating the Badness of the Bad.

Less Like A Dog, More Like Truth

I have a photo on my desktop of a painting of a dog I saw yesterday in the window of Peter Jones, a department store on the King's Road, Chelsea. In the window, flanked by two hideous gold-stemmed lamps, it was a symbol of all that is wrong with Britain: the refusal of Modernism, the celebration of wealth, the valorisation of virtues like fidelity rather than, say, independence, innovation, and intelligence. In context, this dog summed up everything I hate about the land I live in.

But recontextualised, courtesy of my digital camera, the dog looks supercool. It reminds me of a T shirt I saw artist Tim Noble wearing at the Tate Gallery Turner prize opening, an alsatian Tim recontextualised simply by being Tim . On my desktop the ludicrously smug best friend of rich and senile Chelsea ladies starts to speak to me about Analog Baroque, or Jeff Koons' ideas about the Rococo and friendly commercialism. In fact, Koons's father's furniture store window probably looked a lot like this.

In its new digital incarnation, this dog speaks to me about recontextualisation itself, and therefore becomes a symbol of the reflexivity of the time we live in. It starts to look less and less like a dog, and more and more like Truth.

Thanks to this and a million other heroic efforts I have made in the field of ironic recontextualisation, I need no longer curse the hateful British, with their taste for chintz and licky-tongued fidelity. I can walk down the street in relative calm, savouring the irony (itself a good British virtue, essential to the avoidance of conflict).

As a Postmodern peacemaker I deserve a seat in the United Nations! Save my place in the House of Lords! I will accept my knighthood with a cheeky wink at her Majesty The Queen... just like The Beatles!

Sir Terence and Lord Richard

Consider the alternative. Let's say I follow my progressivist instincts and fight every battle, rigid in my belief that an Alexander Calder mobile is inherently and objectively superior to a wallmounted row of flying ducks. Let's say, like Sir Terence Conran and Lord Richard Rogers, I become a didactic Modernist, or a good taste gourmet. In this scenario, like Sir Terence and Lord Richard, I also end up getting a title and bowing at Her Majesty's feet. But it's twice as ironic as getting a knighthood for my Services To Postmodernism, because Modernism is not supposed to co-exist with an aristocratic system of privileges. Austere and ascetic, Modernism is like a religion. It will brook no co-existence with the premodern.

But as an embattled evangelist for the Modern, I would face a more serious problem, one that would finally undermine my whole enterprise. I would only have to flip through a copy of Wallpaper magazine to find that all the Modernist values I could still have espoused with some conviction in the 1960s have become, in the interim, totally kitsch. There is nothing more camp now than a Mies tower or a Charles Eames chair. Their very severity is what now makes them 'cute'. Their undoubted elegance is now bracketed by a very large and very visible pair of inverted commas. "Mies Van Der Rohe". "Charles Eames". Oh yes, how adorably "Modernist"!

In Postmodernism, you can run but you can't hide. All you can do is choose between kitsch which does not know it is kitsch, and is therefore all the more kitsch, or real kitsch, which is self-aware, and has attained a sort of posthumous grace by being revived in a new, more serious context.

Pop records made in Britain in the '70s by people called Gary (Glitter, Numan) find themselves revived in the '90s by a French neo-disco outfit, for example. Jean-Michel Jarre's 'Oxygene' is revived and recontextualised by the artist Georgina Starr in her video 'The Party'. Stuff which was kitsch to start with must feel as if it's died and gone to kitsch heaven when it wakes up in the late 90s. It was born as populist kitsch, and sold millions. Now it's woken up after a spot of beauty sleep to find it has intellectual credibility too.

The Internet, Blah Blah Blah

Are most people aware that the tat they surround themselves with is kitsch, self-referential up to its onionskin eyeballs, nodding like a Noddy alarm clock while casting its owners umpteen cheeky winks? I genuinely don't know. All I know is that this would only be a tragedy if we were still lumbered with an industrial system which squeezed minority products off the market, and left the 'tasteful' to struggle with mass market taste. In fact (and partly thanks to the internet, customisation, niche marketing, blah blah blah) we have a Postmodern system of production which makes a variety of different styles available.


If I cross town from Peter Jones in Chelsea, which is really a department store for my parents, to Same on Brick Lane, a thoroughly Postmodern furniture store which carries goods by Kartell and Droog Design, I can find products targeted at people like me. It's no less kitsch than the lamps and the faithful St Bernard back in Chelsea. The blobby Modernist chairs, for example, owe more to Bond movies and Barbarella than the Bauhaus. But it's kitsch which is self-aware. It's kitsch which knows what the time is, and has adjusted its watch.

Same is actually a lot more expensive than Peter Jones. And, if we agree that the cutting edge of the Postmodern tends to be in league with the trailing end of the premodern, it would probably be a more conformist gesture to fill your Hoxton loft with the tasteful, self-aware kitsch sold at Same than to clutter it oh-so-ironically with twee gilded and fluted stuff from Peter Jones. The truly avant garde should be confident enough to fill their homes with stuff which is still taken seriously across town, and make it clear that it's kitsch. That way, they would show themselves to be at the cutting edge of the recontextualisation game that defines the 90s.

Context Is Everything

The story so far... In Postmodernism, there is no place to hide. All that's left is to choose whether your kitsch is self-aware or naive.

Since this is the case, we might as well have fun with our shopping, and save a bit of money while we're at it, by getting everything from junk stores. Only trouble is, they've seen us coming, sniffing around for '70s and '80s office furniture, and they've put the prices up already.

Shit! Quick, what appalling monstrosity of forgotten design can we dig up, redesignate, and buy quantities of before the hip cotton on?

None. There is nothing left that hasn't been assessed with exactly this in mind. All we can do is make new combinations, and put the old stuff in new contexts.

As I was saying before the St Bernard started licking my face, in Postmodernism, you can run, but you can't hide. You try to speak, but all that comes out are quotes. All you can really do is choose whether your kitsch is upwardly or downwardly mobile, and what company it keeps. That's why context, now, is everything.

I was going to put a couple of porcelain lapdogs either side of my new flatscreen monitor. But in the end it was cheaper just to put a St Bernard on the desktop. That way I can change it next week, if I stumble across, say, a silver His 'n' Hers salt and pepper set or a Paul McCartney toby jug.



Momus, London, January 1999
nick@momus.demon.co.uk


Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts
On The NME
Story Of An Eye
On Transgression
On Shopping
On Curators
On Patronage
Index