The word “kitsch” derives from the Russian—keetcheetsya means “to be haughty and puffed up.” The late Columbia classics professor Gilbert Highet further defined kitsch as “anything that took a lot of trouble to make and is quite hideous.” He had his own favorites, including the architecture of Miami Beach hotels and overblown literature, particularly the poetry of Ezra Pound. Highet singled out that bard’s ode to Manhattan:
- My City, my beloved,
- Thou art a maid with no breasts
- Thou art slender as a silver reed.
- Listen to me, attend me!
- And I will breathe into thee a soul,
- And thou shalt live for ever.
Born in Idaho, Pound, a hick from way back, addresses Manhattan as a flat-chested maid and invites her to achieve immortality by listening to his paeans. Observes Highet: “This is like climbing Mount Everest in order to carve a head of Mickey Mouse in the east face.”
In the new millennium, perhaps the biggest kitsch peddler (or rather the peddler of the biggest kitsch) is the vastly overindulged “artist” Christo Javacheff. Together with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, he has just won Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s enthusiastic endorsement to wrap hundreds of Central Park’s trees in saffron-colored fabric. When completed next year, the installation will cover 23 miles of selected walkways in the park.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have had more practice wrapping than the Christmas sales help at Bloomingdale’s. Among other objects, they’ve enveloped the Reichstag in Germany, the Pont Neuf in Paris, some islands in Biscayne Bay, and a Swiss forest. On each occasion, they got themselves lots of ink and airtime and contributed nothing but oversize vulgarity to the scene they sought to obscure.
Cultural guardians in foreign cities have occasionally pointed out that Christo and Madame have harmed the environment and have added zero to anyone’s aesthetic appreciation of the nature or architecture they wrap. But here in New York, the most arrogant of all cities in other respects, one sacred cow exists: Art. All must genuflect to it, even if it is vulgar, pretentious, or downright stupid. Nobody wants to risk seeming a rube or a censor, after all—especially the mayor of the elites. Moreover, perhaps the construction will cause money to flood in, thanks to sightseers and tourists. Meanwhile, few officials will dare to notice—aloud, at least—the Emperor’s New Kitsch.