Kitsch Encyclopedia

Reviewed by Alison Cooley
Encyclopedia might be the wrong word for Sara Cwynar’s Kitsch Encyclopedia: A Survey of Universal Knowledge. The text is not a categorical rundown of all the kitsch on earth, but rather a kind of dialogue between New York–based Cwynar’s own magpie-like photographic practice, and three texts: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies.
Following Kundera’s formulation of kitsch (that kitsch is a pleasantly simplified, aestheticized version of life that allows its recipients to ignore life’s disagreeable or difficult aspects), Cwynar traces its analogues in Baudrillard and Barthes, and in her own writing. Rather than point directly to specific bits of kitsch as veiled symbols of specific bits of human suffering, Cwynar arranges and intersperses snippets of text among images laid out more or less alphabetically. It’s a matching game of real shit with sentimental motif, and it’s not always clear what belongs with what.
A matching game is exactly what I’ve made here, in response to some of the objects and truths in Cwynar’s book.
In formulating the categories below, I was struck by how crass it seemed to pair the levity of some of these silly objects on the left with the deep discomfort I felt about the political and existential misery listed on the right. But this is precisely Cwynar’s (and Kundera’s, and Baudrillard’s, and Barthes’s) point: that seemingly frivolous objects are squarely not that. Instead, they’re manifestations of our collective social and political demons.
Kitsch Encyclopedia ends up packed with Americana of a particularly dated sort: Watergate, Marlon Brando, baseball, Budweiser, rump roasts. Perhaps this is partly due to her choices of texts (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Baudrillard’s Simulations both having been published in 1984). But these nostalgic choices reveal something of the nature of kitsch too—that it is an amnesiac way of looking backwards, a displacement of the social turmoil of previous generations in an effort to repatriate beauty from the strangeness of propaganda. So I’ve inserted some of my own contemporary preoccupations here in the history of “human tragedy,” though the anchor they may find in “sentimental motif” could easily pull them out of time.
Kitsch Encyclopedia Matching Game
Instructions: Correctly match the sentimental motifs on the right to the human tragedies on the left. You can earn a point for every correct match! Try for a perfect score in this matching game!
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Sara Cwynar, Kitsch Encyclopedia: A Survey of Universal Knowledge, (Blonde Art Books, 2014)