Donald Kuspit - Fool's Paradise
Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
William Shakespeare, King Lear, I, iv, 163-195
Again and again, Milan Kunc picture paradise in everyday visual language. But there is always something amiss in it, some jarring note, suggesting that it has a morbid underside. Thus the couple in Club Med (1992) drive a car with a death's head. Club Med is the capitalist paradise of petit bourgeois pleasures – of leisure time activities once reserved for the upper classes (golfing, tennis, and presumably extramarital sex) now made available to all, at a reduced rate. The brightness of the scene is compromised by the grim-faced blackness of the car, which also suggests the alienation between the couple, who stand on opposite sides of it. It is as though their relationship, for all the ostensible fun it involves, is a living death, like the car.
In Penetration of the Dialectic (Young East European Lovers in the Caribbean for the First Time) (1992), the young lovers still carry the hammer (his) and sickle (hers) in their heads, having traded their Communist paradise for a Caribbean paradise – a real material paradise, where red is not the color of the failed social revolution but of the successful sexual revolution (of passion rather than social planning). However idyllic their embrace, they are secretly linked by barbed wire, not love. Prisoners of passion indeed! They are also tempted by the American Express Card proffered by a crab, Kunc's version of the snake in paradise. (Both the card and the crab are the green color of American money.) The card is no doubt on their minds because they made the trip to paradise on credit: Eastern Europe being economically bankrupt as well as a social lie, who will pay the price for the holiday when it comes due in the socialist future?
Whether it is a capitalist Club Med or a Communist Caribbean, there is trouble in Milan Kunc's paradise. Indeed, the point of his art is to show that the wish to be in paradise, to make a paradise of society, is ultimately foolish and destructive of life: a social paradise, whatever its party line and however modernist form, is a fool's paradise. Kunc's art demonstrates that the dream of utopia, which professes to make life like poetry – as Marx wrote, in his utopia we'll work in the morning, write poetry in the afternoon, and read it to each other in the evening – in fact always betrays life by turning it into dull prose, that is, makes it seem banal, if not finally pointless. Indeed, the language of utopia – the place where the dream of utopia is most explicit – is the banal language of kitsch, that paradise of clichés (the fool's gold of thought) that invites us to enter a fool's paradise of fantasy. Milan Kunc uses this language to represent social paradise, as though to give it the lie from the start. But he uses kitsch against itself, manipulating visual clichés to suggest, however broadly and subliminally, the vitality of life that is the alternative to an insidiously life-sapping social paradise. His is a life-affirming art that on the surface represents the living death of modern social reality, proclaiming at every turn the big lie of its paradisiac ideality.
Milan Kunc's art, then, confronts us on two levels. On the one, it mocks the universal language of kitsch by using it in an absurd way, thus undermining the paradise of facile understanding it presents itself as. On the other, he mocks the idea of social paradise by representing it as a contradiction in terms, that is, he shows that it is all too human, suggesting that where there is human society there can be no paradise. Clearly, the construction of absurdity, the creation of a sense of madness – the method of radical, unresolvable contradiction – is the bread and butter of his art. This throws a monkey wrench into the methodical character of kitsch representation and into the methodical character of life in the social paradise. The ‘method’ of kitsch, which offers itself as the language of sanity, is in fact to create and indoctrinate everyman with utopian illusions about his life, that is, standardized descriptions of it (implicitly interpretations of its meaning), which imply that it is comfortably comprehensible and thus under complete control. The 'method' in the wish to live in a social utopia – presumably it is sane to wish to do so – is not dissimilar: it is to want to live in a world in which everything is rationally ordered and controlled. But in practice this means that everything is standardized into kitsch form, down to the climate of opinion, which is completely regulated. Both kitsch and utopia – and utopia is a kitschy place and kitsch is a kind of utopia, as Kunc implies – lack criticality, indeed, deny the need for it, since in them everything is understood, everyone's wish is instantly granted, and life is completely organized and sane-itized down to the least detail. Kitsch and social paradise, then, necessarily converge: the completely clear, self-evident language of kitsch is implicitly the language that will be used in social paradise, for kitsch can supposedly be understood intuitively by everyone; and to live in and in an emotional paradise where one's feelings and thoughts are completely clear to oneself and to everyone else.
Milan Kunc in effect satirizes the totalitarian management methods implicit in kitsch style and would-be utopian society by using the former to represent the latter. This makes both seem like bad jokes. Kunc's pictures are deliberately disrupted and 'foolish' in their construction, suggesting the foolishness of and ruptures in the world they mean to embarrass into self-awareness. His art is a kind of praise of folly, and like Erasmus of Rotterdam he takes a certain humorous attitude to the world's folly – the madness in which it contradicts itself to the point of literally being at war with and finally destroying itself – which gives him a certain integrity and distance from it while carefully describing its lack of integrity. Milan Kunc wears a fool cap, as it were – his famous artificial naiveté, emulating that of kitsch, which is also secretly 'knowing' and manipulative (but Kunc's naiveté also bespeaks a certain romantic attitude to life, a wondrous appreciation of its mystery) – in order to be free to tell modern society the unhappy truth about itself.
In general, Milan Kunc plays one kitsch representation off against another, leaving us in doubt as to which tells the social truth. But the very play of opposites he sets in motion makes it clear that there is no one truth, social or otherwise – unless it be that of the 'truthfulness' of the stereotyped form in which all truths are ultimately represented. That is, the kitsch form in which every concept finds its vulgar death, achieving popularity with its dying gasp, in the process losing its subtlety never to recover it. Milan Kunc puts us in a double bind – in a contradiction from which there is no dialectical way out. This contradiction is typically presented in the simplistic, mediocre, ingratiating, fabricated, lumpen language of kitsch, which makes the contradiction itself seem peculiarly banal, fraudulent, and manufactured, and as such believable only by the naive and gullible. But Kunc contradicts kitsch itself, in that he uses it, a language supposedly free of ambiguity, to create ambiguity. Kunc ties meanings in knots that are impossible to untie, making kitsch, which is supposed to be easy to use and understand, suddenly seem very 'difficult'.
This is a way of seeing through kitsch to the life it represents, and thus of using it to show the critical character of life. Kitsch was invented by modern historical necessity as a common language and outlook that would preclude criticality and conflict. It would satisfy the potentially explosive masses with mass-produced fantasies. It would weld the world into a uniform, uncritical mass, a weight all the easier to move – by the same kitsch, now in its role of manipulative lever rather than 'consolidator' of the masses – because it was dead. But Kunc uses kitsch critically to create an uncommon outlook on life, showing it to be full of conflict. This is what makes it exciting, however troublesome it may be. He uses a popular style to say unpopular, debunking things.
Thus, in Always (1991) a woman's face is neatly split into bright young and dark old halves. In the former her skin is wrinkle-free and her hair blonde, and a star twinkles in her blue eye. In the latter her skin is wrinkled, her hair has become gray, she has a bit of a moustache, and a death's-head glitters – it is as white as the star – in her eye. She hasn't changed her make-up, apart from her eyebrow, which has become black instead of brown. Each half is a kitsch cliché. Taken together, they suggest the absurdity of society's sense of woman, and no doubt of herself, insofar as she conforms to society's idea of what she is supposed to look like. The young side is fantasy, the old side is presumably reality, yet both are presented in the same banal, standardized terms, suggesting society's effort to control the truth. Kunc makes the difference between being young and old transparently clear, but the transparency is borrowed from society, suggesting that it is part of a big lie – suggesting that to believe in the social rendering of the difference is to be a fool, for the kitsch representation of it is not the answer to the unresolvable existential problem of growing old, but rather an exploitation of it. (One wonders if there isn't an oblique comment on the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, ideal woman. Does the fact that she is intact despite her split into old and young parts indicate that she remains the Aryan ideal of German society despite the passage of years?)
Similarly, in Contemporary Monument (1992) the medieval gold background is as much of a cliché – standard procedure – as the representations of the leprechaun, the flowers, the television set, camcorder, and baby's dummy. It is the way Kunc combines them that makes the picture an intriguing contradiction. Thus, Kunc sets up an opposition between fantasy and reality, by putting the dummy in the leprechaun's mouth, making it into a baby, and juxtaposing it – a rare, mythical creature who can grant wishes, which is why it symbolizes good luck – with a commonplace television set, which in its own way also grants wishes, and epitomizes modern kitsch mentality as well as modern technology at its most accessible. But which represents enchanting fantasy, which disenchanting reality? The kitschy leprechaun looks more real than the television set, but most of the programs on it – perhaps all of them, including the news broadcasts – are also kitschified fantasies, promising, like the leprechaun, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the general fulfillment of one's wishes. Kitsch toys with our wish to believe, our gullibility, giving us a fantasy that seems believable, real, but in fact obscuring reality by simplifying it, 'resolving' it. (There seems to be a personal dimension to this picture, which probably shows Kunc's response to the birth of his son, whom he regards as lucky little elf – a symbol of the mystery and poetry of life – whose growth must be recorded and who will grow up in a television society.)
Kitsch, through its unashamed banality, reveals that modern life is no longer as marvelous and poetic as Baudelaire once thought it was, but Milan Kunc makes marvelous poetry out of it. Kitsch is an ultra-prosaic, banal language, suggesting that modern society, which produced it, means to kill the mystery of life, or show that there is nothing mysterious and enchanting about it, because it has been reduced to a cliché by modern understanding and rational management. It is presumably sane to be disenchanted about life. The idea that there is a mystery to life is a superstition, and the modern world seems to have put superstition behind it.
But Kunc's art strongly suggests there is a mystery to life, something irrational that cannot be managed, something that it makes sense to be superstitious about, because it always appears as an omen of vitality: and that is the mystery of sex. Kunc's art is permeated with enchanting erotic imagery, whether it be in the bizarre form of his Easy Rider motorbike series, 1992, or in the innumerable images of women that fill his work. The most unwittingly heroic aspect of Kunc's art is perhaps his ability to make sex still seem mysterious in a society that has kitschified it to the point of apparent speciousness, suggesting how disillusioned by it modern society really is – and to achieve this re-enchantment of the erotic by the manipulation of the kitsch representation of it. It is ultimately about the redeeming power of woman's sexuality, as the one true source of vitality and pleasure in a society that betrays its members with its fakeness and destructiveness.
Again and again woman appears in Kunc's art, as a mocking, seductive presence, as in the Dionysian diptych Ladies And... and ... And Gentlemen, both 1992. In a similar diptych of the same year, Landscape Between Siena and Florence and After Siena, the suggestiveness of the landscape in the first work is 'realized' in the breasts of the woman that form the second landscape. The landscape, which is a familiar Kunc composition of fantasy (castle) and (economic) reality is dominated by these overarching, 'fantastic' breasts, on which clouds in the form of poodles happily play. There are many visual puns in these works, and in Kunc's images in general, which it is not possible to go into in detail here. (The tunnel of course, is the woman's vagina. It symbolically appears in other images, for example, an untitled 1986 work and Autumn [1986-1987]. In both the floral pattern is emblematic of woman – a force of nature, as it were.)
The irrational body of woman is the alternative to the 'rational' dismemberment of the body in war and its demythologization accomplished by the anatomical reduction of it to a number of physical parts, which are rationally displayed in so many Kunc's pictures, often set in a female landscape, as though in contrast to their raw 'rational' look. In general, image after image shows Milan Kunc's obsession with woman, in disguised or undisguised form. (One of my favorites is Miracle , in which an udder in the sky drips milk, forming a path on the earth.) Even Kunc's early Communist-proletariat works show males and females erotically involved with one another, despite being in uniform. In the last analysis, the Club Med and Penetration of the Dialectic (mentioned above) are about the power of Eros that binds man and woman, not about ideology – or rather about the power of sex to undermine ideology, to show it to be beside the human point. In the end, we all make greater fools of ourselves when we fall in love, than when we commit ourselves to an ideology.
Thus Milan Kunc's works, while a comic critique of ideology, suggest that we return to the naiveté of love, which is part of their 'divine comedy'. They remind us that we are creatures of natural instinct as well as citizens ready to ruin our lives, even die for an ideology. In reminding us of this basic fact of life, Kunc's pictures show they are statements of conscience in more ways than one. And in using the pseudo-naive mode of kitsch to express his conscience, Kunc shows that he has the profound conscience of a clown, indeed, shows that conscience has become a clown. That is, it has to put on a clown's face to have any kind of effect. Only the fool could make Lear aware of his folly. Also, the clown's funny face suggests that joie de vivre, in whatever distorted form, is still possible, however banal and insane society is. Indeed, the good humor of joie de vivre always seems foolish and out-of-place, yet is always necessary, in a sick world that is more absurd than it.
Milan Kunc shows us such a world, in all its necrophiliac folly. Many of his images deal explicitly with death, and all implicitly deal with the death of the imagination in kitsch. At the same time he shows us the 'foolish' vital alternative to it (which includes making good imaginative use of kitsch).