A philosopher attentive to the metamorphoses of hypermodernity since the 1980s, Gilles Lipovetsky defines our time as the "civilization of too much", whose kitsch would be both a dominant aesthetic form and a mode of existence turned towards things. Initially marked by the overload of junk objects, the bourgeois kitsch of the nineteenth century has now become a hyperkitsch invading all spaces of creation and life, from art to design, from fashion to architecture, from TV series to video games: the sign of the expansion of consumerist capitalism. Exploration with The New Age of Kitsch. Essai sur la civilisation du trop, book co-written with Jean Serroy.
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The "civilization of too many"
Mrs. Figaro. "Kitsch, the world is kitsch," you said in an earlier essay on the aestheticization of the world. Today, according to you, we have passed into the age of "neokitsch". That is?
Gilles Lipovetsky. – The kitsch universe has changed over time. In particular, kitsch, born in the years 1860-1880, recorded, with the rise of the mass consumer society, a major break during the Glorious Thirties. It was this upheaval that led sociologist Abraham Moles to speak first, in the early 1970s, of neokitsch. Our book is in this wake, emphasizing the new inflections that accompany contemporary hyper-consumer capitalism. It is often thought that kitsch is an essence, an aesthetic, a style, an invariable mentality. However, tectonic changes mark its history. Contemporary hyperkitsch is neokitsch which, taken to the extreme, shapes what Jean Serroy and I call the "civilization of too much".
Let's go back to the definition of the word, quite plastic. Several motives are attached to it, often negative: copying, junk, bluffing, overloading... What structuring trait could synthesize all these faces?
It is all of these traits – bad taste, junk, flashy, sentimentalism, too much – that define kitsch. Initially, kitsch refers to junk objects, copying, the world of industrial reproduction that makes intellectuals and artists vomit. This kitsch style was deployed in particular in bourgeois interiors: a flashy style marked by the proliferation of signs, carpets, hangings, trinkets, furniture from all eras that coexist without unity. Everything is excess, ostentatious display. However, starting from the consumer and hyper-consumption society, this logic of "too much" will spread to new sectors. What was initially limited to the "bourgeois home" imposes itself as an invasive aesthetic form, infiltrating more and more spheres of society: shopping carts overloaded with everything, avant-garde art, fashion shows, video clips, television series, luxury brands, modern design and architecture, but also commemorations, reality TV, cooking, tattooing, roundabouts, and even philosophy. We are living in the time of extreme and proliferating kitsch, expanded and oversized, and at the same time assumed and dignified. It is the spectacular reversal of its value and social status that has revived the issue of kitsch in our societies. Kitsch is not what it used to be. He, so long and unanimously vilified, has joined the walls of art: Jeff Koons, the most expensive living artist in the world, is exhibited at Versailles. What was associated with cheap is now selling for millions of dollars.
Kitsch is not what it used to be. He, so long and unanimously vilified, has joined the walls of art
But are a flashy object, an excessive text, an eccentric garment necessarily kitsch? Doesn't the aesthetics of overload have its own autonomy, detached from kitsch, a pejorative word, mocking?
Great traditions in India and China are characterized by ultra-visual color and are socially dignified and appreciated. Bright colors were valued in Greek culture and in the Middle Ages. The exuberance of forms is transhistorical, but has not been everywhere assimilated to vulgar taste: thus in our tradition, the baroque and, in the eighteenth century, the rococo. We are not yet talking about kitsch, which is directly linked to the industrial reproducibility of the bourgeois era. It is a recent historical social invention, but it can be considered as the form taken by a universal trend common through the centuries: the "permanent baroque" of Eugenio d'Ors. It is the poor, downgraded cousin of the Baroque.
"The idea that kitsch is idyllic no longer corresponds to the times"
Do you share Milan Kundera's definition of kitsch, i.e. the "will to embellish things and please", or a "total conformism"?
This definition has its share of truth that needs to be qualified. The Sulpician images, the totalitarian ideologies, the soothing images of consumerism correspond well to this approach. "Only happiness", as we say today. The kitsch denounced by Kundera is none other than the "mirror of the beautifying lie". He is right, but he has not perceived the contemporary metamorphoses of the phenomenon. Today, various kitsch artists such as Gilbert & George, Pedro Almodóvar, David LaChapelle, Damien Hirst, Wim Delvoye, Paul McCarthy do not hide the tragic dimension of existence or its horrific aspects. The idea that kitsch is idyllic no longer corresponds exactly to the times. And Kundera's definition cannot take into account what can be irony, second-degree, but also creative, singular, innovative in hyperkitsch: see Jean Paul Gaultier, Quentin Tarantino, Joana Vasconcelos, Maurizio Cattelan.
You speak of an "XXL kitsch", with its spectacular effects in all sectors of life...
Initially, kitsch is related to small objects, an Eiffel Tower in a snow globe. Now, it is on a completely different scale, in the gigantic pastiche urbanisms in China, mega-shopping centers, huge amusement parks, the development of tourist places, bling bling cities (like Dubai) that kitsch is deployed. Hyperkitsch is a proliferating, inflationary, hypertrophic order: Bollywood, the Indian Hollywood, produces 1,200 films a year. The flood of sentimentalism on Netflix is dizzying. Kitsch triumphs on the scale of mega.
So we would all have become "Homo kitchicus"?
Kitsch is just as much an attitude, a mode of existence turned towards "things", an ethos focused on consumerist happiness. In this respect, we all have something kitsch in us, yes. Because we have all become hyperconsumers.
Kitsch is just as much an attitude, a mode of existence turned towards "things", an ethos focused on consumerist happiness.
Is the now vaunted sobriety the symmetrical form of ultrakitsch?
Today, we do not vomit kitsch, we are afraid of it, because it participates in the carbon industry leading to planetary disaster. We are no longer in cultural criticism, we are in planetary existential fear. Too many objects, too much obsolescence, too much disposable... Sobriety movements call for an end to consumer hyperkitsch as a deadly machine.
" READ ALSO Gilles Lipovetsky: "The time is to dream less and better"
"Kitsch gives lightness, it allows a form of easy escape"
"It is a kitsch that fortunately poetizes the world," you write nevertheless.
Kitsch has this merit that it is perceived and loved because it gives lightness, it allows a form of easy escape. I don't think we should burn the kitsch. Just do this little thought experiment: is a world purged of kitsch desirable? I don't believe it. There is a charm of profusion, excess, stereotypes, "nunuche", glitter. Who hasn't enjoyed buying a crazy gadget, watching variety on TV, dancing to a summer slow, listening to languid songs? What we suffer from is too much kitsch, not kitsch per se. Excommunicating kitsch is a moral attitude: it is not mine. There is no civilization without light forms. Moreover, not all kitsch sucks; there is even brilliant kitsch, for example in Victor Hugo, Wagner, Mahler, Fellini. If there were only functional, rational, minimalist art forms: what a bore!
Your work since the early 1980s has shed light on the structuring motifs of our hypermodernity: emptiness, authenticity, lightness, aestheticization... Do you see a continuum between these themes?
The expansion of consumerist capitalism and the dynamic of extreme individualization seem to me to be at the heart of the cultural metamorphoses of hypermodernity. The great social upheaval of our time is the hyper-individualization of lifestyles, attitudes, aspirations in all groups of society.
What do you think is lacking in our time?
It is not the lack of principles, values or even direction, but the effective implementation of these. We see this with the issue of the climate crisis. We know what is imperative to do, yet we are far from achieving the goal set by the Paris Agreement. We have a considerable amount of studies on desirable reforms in business management: but in the end, dissatisfaction grows, the quality of life at work is far from satisfactory. The civilization of too much is also that of stress, lack of quality of life, lack of meaning and recognition.
Hence the taste of a civilization of "less", as opposed to too much?
I do not believe in degrowth, voluntary simplicity, happy frugality. Personally, I recognize myself quite well in the ethics of sobriety, except that it is illusory to believe that it is the solution to the climate crisis. There is kitsch in all of us, and there will no doubt be more and more. Go talk to the Chinese and Indians about voluntary simplicity, and you'll see... Nothing decisive will happen without the immense decarbonization of industry. It is not the 'least' that will save us, but an ever-increasing investment in creative intelligence and imagination, in scientific and technical innovation. I do not believe in "less", but in more school and cultural education to make desirable objects other than fashion and brands, and to move towards more beauty and quality of life.