In this strange era, in which the dominant intellectual pastime has become analyzing the moods and behaviors of the American President (not so different, one imagines, from life at Versailles in the mid-eighteenth century) an interesting question about Donald Trump seems, to me at least, to be whether his style is more Kitsch or Camp?
I realize this concern puts me in company with the last few remaining dandies and practically no one else, yet the question still bedevils me and feels like the Rosetta Stone to understanding his entire presidency, and really an entire sort of political rule. Because kitsch famously gravitates toward authoritarianism or, more accurately, authoritarianism gravitates towards kitsch. Even toward totalitarianism; it is as easy, for instance, to recognize “Soviet Kitsch” as it is to spot “Fascist Kitsch,” although the two are often indistinguishable from one another. But, aside from the fever dreams of certain fundamentalists, I would argue that there really has rarely been such a thing as “Totalitarian Camp” as of yet. Camp requires a certain self-awareness, or, conversely, a naive frivolousness, that quickly becomes toxic to true authoritarians and rubs against the grain of kitsch.
It is not particularly easy to distinguish between kitsch and camp, which are both usually taken to be genres of “bad art,” albeit particularly charming ones. As in most matters of taste, definitions tend to be inexact, which quickly frustrates the literal-minded. There’s more than a little truth, for instance, in art historian Alan Gowans’s complaint that kitsch is simply “art for art’s sake, which happens to be out of avant-garde fashion.” As for camp, the discussion begins and ends with Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” where she says precious little about the differences between the two, if there are any, aside from the note that “Many examples of Camp are things which from a ‘serious’ point of view are either bad art or kitsch. Not all though.” Sontag details a “camp sensibility,” which finds pleasure in certain kinds of exaggerated, artificial, frivolous, and theatricalized art and personas, but there are clear areas of overlap with an appreciation of kitsch, a type of stilted sentimental art. Jayne Mansfield’s mansion, for instance (as seen in the tour de force of filmic bad taste, The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield), was both extremely “kitschy” and a textbook example of Sontag’s “naïve camp.”
We can flirt with camp in a moment, but let’s start with kitsch since its coinage is a bit older, although not by much. The term was possibly devised by Munich art dealers in the 1870s who called certain works of gaudy, sentimental art “kitsch” after the German Kitschen: to smear, spread, smear together quickly, etc. Kitsch art is seen as rushed, cheap, trashy, frequently unfinished, and in some sense insincere by “serious” art experts. It’s a knock-off. The modernist writer Hermann Broch argued that kitsch is merely a “system of imitation… it can resemble the object of imitation in every detail… but the element of imitation is bound to show through,” adding that “Kitsch is the element of evil in the system of art.” Kitsch, in a sense, generates counterfeit emotions via a bogus image of reality.
Broch ties its birth to Romanticism, “the mother of Kitsch.” Following (and in spite of) the Enlightenment, Romanticist art and literature seeks to illuminate the individual’s feelings of the absolute, divine, or cosmic and to elevate the everyday to the spiritual realm; yet at the same time, it recognizes that this task greatly exceeds man’s resources. There is thus a tragic element to Romanticism. In kitsch, the tragic element is removed and the art attempts to impose what Broch calls a “completely unreal condition on reality,” to turn life into a “neurotic work of art.” Broch sees this neurotic element as the root of Kitsch’s much-noted connection to Nazism.
Kitsch is easy. Walter Benjamin described kitsch as “unadulterated beauty” requiring no intellectual effort. Unsurprisingly, therefore, kitsch was the art form of choice for most totalitarian propaganda. Milan Kundera, who knew well the Soviet Czech version, described kitsch as an aesthetic “in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it does not exist.” Kundera posits this as the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and political movements. I wonder: are those of us in the janitorial corps, who labor at removing traces of shit from public lavatories, agents of repression or prophets of liberation? The kitsch aesthetic would also have an obvious appeal to an avowed germophobe like Donald Trump, both politically and psychologically.
It also makes sense that kitsch became an issue of philosophical importance in the twentieth century, particularly by the time of the Second World War. In a famous 1939 essay, Clement Greenberg argued that the connection between kitsch and totalitarianism was simple opportunism. Greenberg considers kitsch “ersatz culture” and “the epitome of all that is spurious in our time.” A product of the Industrial Revolution, kitsch appeals to the masses primarily because it requires little time or effort to appreciate, unlike avant-garde art, and their working lives offer little room for either. Think of the mass popularity of Margaret Keane or Thomas Kinkade paintings. Since kitsch was “the culture of the masses” in Russia and Germany, promoting it was simply another of the “inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects.” His argument recalls Kundera but eludes the extent to which kitsch is a comprehensive aesthetic view of the world having deep ideological affinities with totalitarian ideology. Walter Benjamin’s description of kitsch as an “invitation to wallow in sentiment” could also apply to many, fairly potent modern political movements.
The camp aesthetic, by contrast, requires a certain amount of time and effort to learn to appreciate. Its patronage is not associated with a particular class, but from the time of its earliest coinage around the turn of the twentieth century, camp has been associated with homosexual males. Camp is an aesthetic that purposefully blends high and low culture, celebrating art and performances that are over-the-top, exaggerated, ostentatiously and superficially glamorous, highly artificial, and often dripping in excess. Sontag calls camp “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.” While one common distinction holds that kitsch is a style of art and camp a style of performance, Sontag notes that a style of plastic art can also be camp, particularly “decorative art emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.” Certainly, the same qualities exist in camp fashion.
In fact, the modernist architect, critical writer (and large influence on Wittgenstein) Adolf Loos’s critical description of “good taste” in Vienna circa 1890 comes to mind here.
A craze for totally meaningless articles of decoration… a craze for satin-like surfaces: for silk satin and shining leather… as also for totally meaningless articles of decoration… Everything was mixed too, without rhyme or reason… there was a conspicuous absence of usefulness or purpose; it was all purely for show.
This is also what comes to mind when looking at the highly publicized pictures of Donald Trump’s gold- and marble-filled penthouse (which also strangely evoke thoughts of teeth).
Indeed, the entire Trump project, from the high-rise buildings to the ill-fated casinos to the Presidency, seems an exercise in grandiose self-expression worthy of Ozymandias. His persona is completely theatricalized and artificial. Strangely, one defense of Trump’s regular outbursts is identical to a frequent criticism: He doesn’t really mean what he says. There is an element of play to his pronouncements, of the flimflam man. Sontag’s “sensibility of failed seriousness” also comes to mind. Yet, what can terms like “kitsch” and “camp” possibly mean in an era in which the style and mannerisms of the leader of the free world are so exaggerated as to lie beyond parody?
To answer this, I would like to offer my own definitions of simple sentimental art, camp, and kitsch, and attempt to delineate what distinguishes the three categories. The usual caveats apply: these are inexact definitions drawing from my own subjective tastes and I am certainly neither a philosopher of aesthetics nor an art critic. However, I see the terms as fairly straightforward statements about how the person using them responds to a particular work of art.
- Sentimental Art is that which aims at a noncognitive emotional response independent of reasoning on the part of the viewer. To borrow from the important 2005 work by Jennifer Robinson, it is art that evokes responses “deeper than reason.” This alone does not make it kitsch.
- Many works of Sentimental Art evoke an emotional response by appealing to large and abstract categories with deep emotional resonance such as Romantic Love, Motherhood, the Fatherland, Friendship, and Home. This explains why most political art tends to be sentimental; it communicates directly with the greatest number of people. It is hard to persuade the masses with an intellectual case against “Family,” for instance.
- “Kitsch” is the term we use for art that attempts to evoke this sort of noncognitive emotional response and falls short in some way; it is failed Sentimental Art that leaves us cold. It misses the mark. The effect is something like receiving an extravagant Valentine’s Day gift from someone to whom we’re not particularly attracted; it’s uncomfortable and seems somewhat insincere, as if the artist is trying too hard. We use the word “kitsch” to describe both that failure and our lack of response that identifies the failure.
- With time and distance, most Sentimental Art becomes Kitsch, but not all. Nevertheless, all Kitsch begins as failed Sentimental Art.
- Camp, in contrast, is creative expression that exaggerates the individual in a grandiose way. If it makes an appeal to larger values, it does so only in passing and only for that purpose. If, as Kundera says, kitsch says “How nice to be moved, together with all mankind!,” then camp says “How nice to be loving this man or woman, together with all the world!” It overlaps with kitsch in that camp makes an exaggerated emotional appeal and falls short. We call it camp because it also leaves us cold. However, it’s more a sort of exaggerated self-expression, even in the case of home décor. I would suggest that camp arises primarily with the bourgeois middle class for this reason. Personal expression becomes the work of a life.
And so, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the Trump persona and aesthetic style is thoroughly camp. The emphasis is forever on this exaggerated, theatricalized selfhood, instead of drawing deeply from any particular abstract or sentimentalized visions of the world. We could hardly imagine a Trumpian version of Ronald Reagan’s kitschy “Morning in America” spots. Even a phrase like “Make America Great Again” seems to point more toward the idea of a political slogan than any vision of the nation. The driving spirit of Trumpism is the projected grandeur, strength, hugeness, and even radiance of the individual Donald Trump. As a personality cult, it is impossible to imagine the “movement” surviving past the Trump presidency, although there might well be lasting changes made to the American political structure behind the scenes.
The advertising guru Elmer Wheeler famously advised that merchants “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” This could easily be applied to many political leaders in an era in which the spectacle has come to replace any political center of gravity (see also: Justin Trudeau). In fact, what is happening now in the United States is the expected state of affairs in a société du spectacle in which the entertainment media considers itself to be kingmakers (or queenmakers). While much is made of Donald Trump’s behavior and mental state, it’s possible that these concerns will not turn out to be a real issue. Instead, the larger threat to the future of this society could be a citizenry that no longer wants to do the hard work of political organizing when they are not being dazzled by flickering images and theatrical displays.
Rufus F. Hickok is a freelance writer, cook, janitor, doctor of history, part-time editor, and singer in a punk rock band. Born in Virginia, he currently resides in Canada.