Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Rising tide of kitsch
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Why are we satisfied with ugliness in boats and buildings, asks ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
I knew it. The trouble with design is not aesthetic, but moral; not bad taste, but
bullshit (though this may also taste bad). And just as scientists are now finding long-chain polymers in the blood of newborns, bullshit has infiltrated the land itself. Here’s how.
Bullshit has become a technical term; the moral equivalent of kitsch. Both hinge on the idea of phoniness – translating as moral unacceptability on the one hand, aesthetic unacceptability on the other. So, what is bullshit, exactly?
Bullshit, as defined by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his famous little book, On Bullshit, is neither lying nor truthfulness but requires, rather, a total disregard for the truth. The bullshitter may not lie, exactly, but wishes nonetheless to get away with something, something not “for real”. And while the holiday season might be expected to drop such irksome ideas into a deep well somewhere, a week on the Hawkesbury River had for me the opposite effect. Somehow, tooling about those succulent sandstone-and-angophora fjords threw into even harsher relief the cruel and unusual ugliness of contemporary leisure.
I know, I know; don’t start. Ugly isn’t a word you can use these days, now that post-modernism’s trickle-down has made everyone an expert and every opinion, aesthetic or otherwise, equally valid. And that’s fine. But, you go to the Hawkesbury expecting houseboats, right? Deep-shaded, veranda-fringed, elegantly drifting houseboats. That was the mental image: part Yangtze-junk, part Herrengracht-barge, part UK-narrowboat, with perhaps a hint of Mississippi paddlesteamer, Cornish trawler and Sydney Harbour tugboat thrown in.
Imagine my disappointment, then, in fronting for the first time what passes for “houseboat” on the Hawkesbury – the graceless, square tin box whose greatest design challenge is to carry bucks parties from public mooring to public mooring without actually tipping them in the drink (this in itself is a mistake) and whose greatest selling points are the wood-veneer kitchen and the number of on-board walk-in dunnies.
It’s not just the houseboats, either. The ubiquitous plastic stink-boat rising two or three storeys from the water and topped by faux-punk fishing paraphernalia is perhaps the greater offence, with no higher goal than roaring around the quiet bays by day and filling the still evening air with the cicada-surpassing generator-hum needed to run a cacophony of fridges and televisions and air-con and dinghy hoists.
Why? What possesses so diverse and (occasionally) sophisticated a culture as ours to declare itself satisfied with such third-rate holiday ware? Australia, after all, has its own noble and picturesque marine traditions. From the cutters and schooners of old Sydney Harbour to the Echuca paddle-steamers, Victorian couta boats and South Coast fishing trawlers, we have the goods in the heritage department. Even our modern tugs, trawlers and container ships have a crusty, Annie Proulx-type appeal. But the contemporary leisure craft is not a lovable creature. Not now; not, I think, ever.
I scratch around for explanations. Maybe it’s temporal. Maybe, in a century or so, today’s leisure craft will have generated its own improbable aura of romance – just as last week’s fashion disaster is tomorrow’s design classic. Somehow, though, I can’t see it. Or perhaps leisure is simply unattractive by nature; perhaps it has always been? But I recall the Baths of Caracalla, the Viennese Kaffeehaus, the Balmain 18-footers and I decide no, the kitsch of leisure is a strictly modern, mass phenomenon, straight from TV-dinner-land. Is it, then, simple economic pragmatism, a hang-over from functionalism’s cultural revolution? But why would functionalism foster stuff so unfunctional?
Finally, it comes back to this. Ugliness is not a strictly aesthetic quality. It’s about authenticity and its inverse, kitsch. Though it’s still not simple. Back in the 1930s, Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno and the boys were determined to draw kitsch and the avant garde as polar opposites. Gillo Dorfles, if you recall his 1968 classic Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, reinforced this, defining kitsch as phoniness; the clock that looks like a spaceship, or a spaceship that looks like a tomato. Frankfurt echoes this, saying, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony”.
Since the 1980s, of course, kitsch has become not only respectable but required reading among the avant garde, especially if it’s ironic, a camp affectation. (There may be a niche market for the bumper-sticker that reads, “It’s OK, I’m ironic.”)
But truth is making a comeback and with it, authenticity. As Frankfurt notes, bullshit is especially prevalent when, as in public life, people are required to speak extensively on subjects of which they are largely or wholly ignorant. Thus, argues Frankfurt, fact comes to be replaced by sincerity. And sincerity – that is the look, rather than the fact, of truth – itself becomes bullshit.
Milan Kundera, writing in 1981, gave kitsch an existential edge by defining it as the “absolute denial of shit” – a kind of sanitising totalitarianism in which grubby realities are blanketed by denial. And certainly there’s denial here. Denial, in those high plastic walls and after-deck barbecues, in the ship-board TVs and walk-in dunnies, of the entire experience of being at sea. The materials themselves – plastic, aluminium, fiberglass, laminex, all selected for cheapness, lightness and convenience – reinforce this disassociative effect.
But it’s not just about hardware. What we love in traditional boats is their working-ness. Work, rooted in necessity, has a cleansing and grounding effect on aesthetics. We find ancient Chinese weighing machines, for example, or Portuguese navigation instruments beautiful for being so finely shaped to their purpose; a non-working copy would be nothing but fake.
This notion of work or purpose establishes, of course, the traditional boundary between craft and art, or art and fine art. The fine arts are essentially purpose-free, their beauty enhanced by being so. Even now, when the expectation that art be beautiful has been thoroughly reviled, purposelessness is still expected; so art may be political (say, Rosalind Krauss) but never useful, for fear of becoming craft. In the functional arts, though, work or purpose has the opposite effect, bestowing a kind of aesthetic strength, while its opposite, unmixed leisure, brings flab.
This is detectable even in city precincts, so that a leisure-only zone (such as, say, Darling Harbour) feels shapeless and flaccid because of the simple absence of work. It’s at the core, too, of Sydney’s working harbour debate, where the proposal to extract from the harbour all work other than cruise ships and cottage industry will leave it loose and shapeless, like a mouth without teeth.
Some dim recognition of this drives the peculiarly decadent aesthetic in which leisure apes work: tracksuits with no intended use other than television-watching; utes with trays so high they cannot function except as status symbols; wealthy women who struggle for the starvation look; interior design in the pseudo-grunge “industrial chic” mode. In the marine industry, the same mind-set has produced “trawler-style” leisure boats, their plastic hulls moulded to imitate the planking of the working boat. Now that’s icky.
So tonight, as you imbibe your quotidian dose of TV-news spin, remember this. Bullshit is not just a moral issue, it is everywhere, in everything. Up every creek and resting gently on every mudflat, ready to plant in your head the long-chain carcinogen that makes bullshit groovy.
PHOTO: Adrift … Australia’s noble marine traditions, displayed in its tall ships, are untapped in modern leisure craft.