On my daily commute up Route 17 in northern New Jersey, past the gas stations, the Home Depot, the biggest shopping mall in the northeast, past the Bed, Bath and Beyonds, I go by a little Exxon gas station with a ‘landscaped’ waterfall near its entrance. It’s pretty big, and most of the year the water gurgles happily over the rocks, but recently it’s been frozen over, which is kind of attractive. Today, it appears that it was turned off, and it was bone dry. Kitsch, certainly. That word covers a broad spectrum of ideas from bad taste to a spirited denunciation of a zeitgeist that is surfeited with images and tawdry, specious, and dispiriting ripoffs of art. I used to get very overwrought about kitsch, but now, I think it’s not too important. What’s wrong with it, anyway? That little fountain draws on a venerable western cultural tradition stretching back to classical grottoes, through renaissance grottes, to rococo pleasure caves, and on to Disneyland. Think of the romantic, splendid ruins and hidden vales in the greatest English landscape gardens. Think of the ravine in the masterpiece by Olmstead and Vaux, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But just drawing on an artistic tradition doesn’t make art. Kitsch is the lazy man’s way to art – refer to, copy, imitate, but say nothing interesting. In the end, what’s wrong with that knock-off cataract on the highway is that it’s deadly dull. Like all cliches, it buries a kernel of truth and inspiration beneath a mountain of banal repetition.
Yes, fountains and waterfalls are intrinsically fascinating, and only a snob would attempt to claim otherwise. And as a civil engineer in the drainage business, I can attest that from my earliest days, the sight of moving water has been one of my greatest joys. If Exxon had put a real fountain there, even a boring traditional one, that would have been better. Or a pile of concrete rubble with water gushing over it – that would be a sight to see! But no, today, our rich and profligate production-consumption machine churns out stuff for our homes and landscapes, and you can buy a waterfall for your desk, your yard, or your business from a catalog. Do these consumers think of the tradition they have bought for their divertissement? There’s a link to Bonsai, the aesthetic of the reproduction of nature in miniature, the now fashionable zen, and so much more.
The best thing about kitsch is that it always can serve as the starting point for getting into some really good stuff.