The Best Kitsch in the World
I have a modest collection of Irish kitsch, with a small, semi-partitioned section of Northern Irish kitsch (the highlight of which is a Stormont fridge magnet). I have taken kitsch seriously for some time, and treated it as culturally significant. Since moving house a few years ago, my collection of leprechaun penholders, Irish cottages in snow-storm shakers and Guinness ‘ornaments’ has been kept firmly in a box. When I stumble across it occasionally I’m reproached by the sad looks on thirty-odd faces of the little people, desperate to escape and amuse me with their hints of possible mischief, or bring me good luck.
Irish kitsch exists mainly within an unnamed subgenre of kitsch which is the product of tourism. And this means that if I treat Irish kitsch with a pretentiously critical eye, then I’m utterly blind to the resonances of the other tourist kitsch in my house. A pair of uncomfortable yellow Moroccan leather slippers, which I once, unbelievably, thought I’d actually wear when I got home. I have Russian dolls from St Petersburg, bought only half-acknowledging that they were tat. There’s a Peruvian hat at the bottom of the wardrobe which no amount of Irish sunshine can make me wear. All these things have become mere reminders of the places I’ve been. What utility they ever had disappeared at the moment they were taken out of their country of origin, and in retrospect I realise that the fact that they were useful was just a temporary cover for my desire to take something home from the place in which I was a visitor.
Irish kitsch is spectacularly gaudy by comparison with any nation’s useless ephemera. Its crassness is in direct proportion to the strength of the nagging appetite of the tourist who wants some proof to themselves that they were here. And tourism has developed to such an extent that the boundaries between the kitsch and the artful are now obscured. The world of, let’s call it, ‘handcrafts’ is a good example. As a saleable form of Irish kitsch, cottage industry manufactures have been marketed since the end of the nineteenth century, both as an economic activity and as a form of tourist promotion. At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 there were two, competing ‘Irish villages’, one sponsored and organised by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Viceroy of Ireland. Lady Aberdeen was one of the first great, largely well-meaning entrepreneurs of Irish kitsch and her village included ‘a full-sized model bride with wedding presents, alongside a full-sized Irish cabin, with live workers making the goods’. It’s not an enormous leap from the fake Irish village in Chicago, replete with lace and linen, to today’s Aran jumper industry, of the kind Gerry Adams once wore on his Pauline road to the land of Gucci. And, handmade as they may occasionally be, such classy products are now no less tourist kitsch than an ‘Irish Mug’ (it has the handle on the inside. Ha!). Are the new t-shirts, sold on Grafton Street, which imitate the ‘FCUK’ logo with ‘FECK: The Irish Connection’ meant for the native or the tourist? The distinction which holds culture and kitsch apart is now unreliable. A few years ago Sean Hillen’s ‘Irelantis’ montages were everywhere in intellectual Ireland. Mainly using images from John Hinde postcards, Hillen created a comic-serious imaginary landscape out of postcard Ireland as a commentary on how Ireland was perceived. And a masterfully artful use of kitsch it was. Within a year there was a guy on Grafton Street selling his own versions of the ‘Irelantis’ idea. But these were simply romantic montages of ‘the beauty of the Irish landscape’, and were being bought by relatively discerning American tourists. This simple shift from kitsch to art and back to kitsch again shows how impervious to irony, how resilient in the face of criticism, Irish kitsch is.
The reasons for the admirable success of the Irish kitsch industry are many and various. Tourism as the long-term backwash effect of emigration is the key. Years after the misery and poverty which meant that large numbers of Irish people left the island, their relatively wealthy first-world descendents return to reconnect themselves with the old place. And here kitsch functions not only as a memento to take away but as a material object orientating the tourist-consumer in the culture. What could be more reassuring for a tourist than to see, and even buy, a leprechaun, a pair of Guinness socks, or model of a cottage which comes with its own tiny briquette of peat which can be burnt inside the model so that the chimney smokes? Irish kitsch goes out in to the world to teach the world about what Ireland is like. When the tourist arrives they find that the only thing that Irish kitsch is like, is Irish kitsch. And this works perfectly well. Kitsch, for these purposes, can be Ireland. And it allows for a vision of Ireland which is often better than the real thing.
In Dublin, Carroll’s ‘Giftshops’ are a phantasmagoria of an Irish kitsch emporium. The bright and the brash, the utter rubbish and the occasionally meaningful are beguilingly crammed together. Anything you could conceivably wear as a piece of clothing comes in an Irish form. The time (clocks) and space (doormats) of your home can be bought in Irish form. You can choose your materials with an eye to tradition (bog oak) or to the leftovers of a New York St Patrick’s Day Parade (green plastic). The whole stunning experience is finished by the continual round of music, which varies indiscriminately on each compilation CD to include the rebel song, the genuine folk song, the poem set to music and the song which makes fun of the lot of them. Carroll’s on Westmoreland Street, just before O’Connell Bridge, is the most Irish place in Dublin, probably in Ireland. I find it genuinely beautiful to look at, and almost moving in its mixture of sentimentality and undiluted low-budget commerce. Outside Carroll’s, Dublin can be grey, dull, noisy and expensive. Above all Dublin these days is a city of intense business. Inside Carroll’s it’s warm, pointless and not terribly costly.
Irish kitsch has an inner assurance about it which is not to be treated lightly. It could be dismissed as latent cultural nationalism of the most myopic kind. Equally it could be dismissed as a mockery of the same. It’s this blankness that I love about Irish kitsch. It feeds off cultural meaning. It only exists through ‘Irishness’, which it exudes as its very substance. And yet it renders all that pure meaning meaningless. In Irish kitsch form and content merge into a kind of pure semantic white noise, a cultural neverland, a Tir na nÓg of capitalism. What more could want from a cultural object than that it should transcend culture itself, and leaves us behind in a state of bewilderment and wonder?
[The Vacuum, August 2005]