The term ‘kitsch’ describes that element of ‘poor taste’ often seen in chintzy, factory-made objects intended to stir strong emotions in consumers who experience a heightened state of sentimentality through exposure to it. Kitsch, in its original form, gratifies vague yearnings and unmet emotional needs with mass-produced commodities that enrich the experience of falsely perceived nostalgia and virtue. It compels us to view the world not as it is, but as it appears once you erase its ‘flaws’, and all notions contrary to belief in the inherent, immutable qualities of goodness possessed by phenomenon ‘cleansed’ of all its bodily sins through industrial processes. Kitsch has the power to move, not just romance-deprived cat ladies, but compel entire nations to commit a mass murder/suicide.

Think Kathy Bates’ character in ‘Misery’ whose twee figurines become terrifying shamanic totems, encapsulating her own homicidal urges. Kitsch has long served as the visual expression of authority, which depends on the infantilization of society at large to impose an autocratic government’s absolute rule, while concealing its brute-fisted imperatives beneath a veneer of insipidity. Kitsch offers the illusion of moral clarity to state violence by depicting it as ‘valorous’ and/or ‘innocent’. Today ‘woke’ serves a similar propagandizing purpose, applying the “stunning and brave” label to the most egregious acts committed by adherents of the ideology, while urging everyone else to “be kind” and submit to totalitarian measures of confinement and censorship. Both kitsch and woke are ideological levers of oppression, deployed in times of manufactured crises to put a benign seeming spin on the malevolent objectives of the powerful.

Kitsch’s likely antecedents are the pre-industrial age talismans and amulets typical of folk religions, offering protection from evil and good luck to those in possession of them that would later become Christian artefacts. For ‘superstitious’ rural populations, these rustic totems were conduits to the spirit world, imbued with immaterial properties its holders believed elevated their humble forms to objects endowed with the powers of the supernatural. As industrialization compelled rural populations to abandon agriculture and a way of life largely determined by forces of nature, feudal relics, irrationally perceived to contain magical properties, would become obsolete within a system that calculated labor time and productivity mathematically and quantifiably, rather than seasonally and instinctually.

Something akin to these ‘primitive’ and superstitious gewgaws emerged in the middle of the 19th century (roughly the time ‘kitsch’ entered the vernacular) when wages were sufficient to purchase affordable facsimiles of bourgeois luxury. Low-priced, mass produced knick-knacks held their own near-supernatural sway over the aspirational segment of the working class eager to join the ranks of the newly formed nobility who owned their time and labor.

Once weather was no longer the sole determiner of productivity as the external forces of nature were being replaced with artificial, temperature-controlled interiors mimicking its functions, kitsch would commodify the missing elements of nature, and make mass-produced reproductions of them. The “agitations of the elements” became the anxieties induced by laboring inside factories and mills, and their calmer moments captured in representation and contemplated indoors.

As agrarian societies were transformed by science and technology during the Industrial Revolution, this near erasure of a way of life elicited a sense of unremembered nostalgia among those who felt increasingly displaced and dispossessed of any sense of belonging as familiar pastoral landscapes became de-personalized urban centers of industry. Time, no longer experienced in the cycles of nature, as continuity is replaced by the repetition required to perform mechanized labor under conditions imposed by bourgeois time-keeping in an environment geographically and psychically removed from any concept of ‘home’. Rootless urban dwellers, having become instrumentalized in the service of a secularly imposed order understandably attached themselves to ephemera conceptualized as ‘native’ to some magical kingdom in the distant present. What would emerge as kitsch had the power to transform the equally laborious tedium during “days of rest” into a perceived notion of leisure and indulgence.

The notion of sacredness hidden beneath these rough hewn forms, kitsch would make explicit in a glossy, machine-polished presentation. ‘Preciousness’ was expressed on the surface, an interiority externalized to make their appeal as consumer products overt and instantly gratifying. Objects themselves, rather than the properties they were meant to contain, transformed solemn worship of the divine into cooing adoration of its synthetic representation. Karl Marx observed this dynamic process that transferred the qualities of the machine into a commodity, noting, “it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it”.  Workers similarly underwent a systematic streamlining of their emotional and intellectual ranges to better serve their functions as consumers, instantly ‘moved’ by phenomena redolent of some implicit promise of salvation from the quotidian.

Kitsch can equally be described as “nostalgia for the present”, offering a simpering, saucer-eyed view of phenomena ranging from pets to political figures — even nations. It distills its subject matter down to an essence, free of any impurities that might disrupt uncritical communion with the object — the opposite function of art, which invites critical engagement with it. Kitsch posits a naïvely held view of petite-bourgeois refinement that transforms the profundities of the natural world into the banalities of the drawing room.

Nearly a century into kitsch’s reign over the industrializing nations of Western Europe, German artist Hans Belmer turned these idealized representations of innocence as embodied by Victorian ball-jointed dolls into painfully and impossibly contorted anatomical dummies to highlight the horrors of the Third Reich, and to subvert its science-based strivings for perfection with grotesque caricatures of it.

Unlike art, which is synonymous with creation, kitsch is produced by the same cadaverous hand that prepares a corpse for viewing. Necrophilia is never far beneath the surface of kitsch. Its inevitable progression from idealizing the dead forms represented in its simulacra representations of ‘life’ trivializes it to the degree that it can be violated in the most profane way possible without conscience or consequence.

Kitsch serves as the natural world’s embalmer, restoring it from a life-like painted backdrop to a rugged frontier era town square in some fictionalized but dimly remembered Main Street USA. ‘The Holy Land’ was similarly re-constructed along these lines by its Zionist architects, re-purposing the “holy” parts into temporal spheres of self-worship for its “chosen” immigrant population. Israel’s kitsch origin story provides the narrative necessary to maintain a nuclear-armed cult compound under the guise of a biblical theme park underwritten by the US taxpayer.

Kitsch conceals the covertly cynical, nihilistic worldview of the autocrat beneath a veneer of idealism and “innocence”. Thus, a German hausfrau could be emotionally enlisted into abetting holocaust, having gazed upon a portrait of a scarlet cheeked shepherdess wreathed in ribbons and flowers. Her husband might also fall into a state bordering on the erotic upon hearing an impassioned speech by Der Fuehrer summoning a vision of ravaged Aryan maidenhood at the hands of swarthy fiends.  While she remains transfixed in a miasma of ‘feeling’, he’s sprouting a rage boner.

In the past, kitsch could be weaponized to rally populations around the idea of a single ethno-state, ‘cleansed’ of the same impurities that offend the sensibilities of those who maintained aspirational homes in a provincial Bavarian village. Today, the same aesthetic impulse underlies Zionist settlement projects in Historic Palestine to erase its history, and rid it of it Palestinians. As fascism re-branded itself as “neoliberalism”, kitsch, too, underwent a cosmetic transformation. Its recent ‘cringe’ makeover disguises the oligarchic imperatives of plunder and impoverishment beneath a veneer of blandly bureaucratic platitudes.

Like kitsch, ‘woke’ is similarly preoccupied with the social (for now, at least) expulsion of “undesirable” elements ie: roughly fifty percent of the ‘wrong voting’ population within the US. Their presence only impedes the realization of an ‘inclusive’, technocratically ordered Nanny State populated by behaviorally modified human lab rats, divested of any notion of free will, as envisioned in the novel ‘Walden Two’ by psychologist/social engineer B.F Skinner. Nineteen Eighty-Four, written a year later, would take Skinner’s pie-in-the-sky musings on the non-violent means a government could exercise absolute control to its inevitable, violent conclusion.

Today, ‘woke’ is the preferred means of exercising absolute rule, and ‘cringe’ is the overarching visual style of the Professional Management Class — enforcers of the New Normal™ of centralized technocratic control. This trademarked aesthetic, called ‘Alegria’ in Big Tech graphic design circles, has been described in derogatory terms as “Corporate Memphis”, owing to its use of a Peewee’s Playhouse color palette popularized by the 1980’s Italian post-modern design style known as “Memphis”.  Alegria puts a cringe twist on Memphis’s design hybrid of Art Deco and Pop Art, replacing its irony-laden playfulness with the heavy-handed earnestness of a consulting HR expert outlining new rules of workplace conduct to the employees of Dunder-Mifflin.

This now ubiquitous art style upholds the idealized human form as absent of any revealing characteristic of sex or ethnicity, so that everyone resembles a non-binary coffee farmer on a Fairtrade plantation. With their outsized arms and nearly microscopic feet, these infographic ‘folx’ were designed to integrate elements of obesity and other “marginalized” identities with the military industrial/coffee chain complex, just as kitsch merged its own aesthetic with the corporate state.

The strategy of ‘woke’ is aimed at the same demographic who resisted Dubya’s kitsch appeals to their patriotism during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Turning explicit war propaganda into ‘Be Kind’ appeals for mass slaughters has been effective in rallying educated elites to the cause of liberal interventions. Ironically, this segment of the American voting population are the least able to recognize Genocide Joe’s similar assaults on their intelligence. Twenty years prior, Americans could be roused into warmongering with triggering buzz phrases like “support the troops”. In those days, the population could be divided between those who violently sentimentalized a slogan with yellow ribbons and bumperstickers versus those who sneered at them behind a mustache of foamed soy milk. Today, the latter is effortlessly swayed by more academic leaning jargon (corporate cringe).

Kitsch presents a nuance-free and sanitized version of seduction (sparkly unicorns, cozy, fire-lit cottage interiors painted in excruciating detail). Woke, on the other hand, deploys deliberate ambiguity (word salads) insisting that beauty only lies in the eyes of some officially appointed spokesperson from a “marginalized community”.  Worship ‘them‘ — or else!

In contrast to the movements that have propelled social change from grassroots community organizing, today’s (CIA) agents of change implement their top-down directives through a complex, globally connected network of alphabet agencies, corporations, NGO’s, foundations, non-profits, and think tanks. Propaganda has always relied on infantile, easily grasped tropes that alternately vacillate between bellicose chest-thumping and moist-eyed appeals for a return to some idealized version of the past, free from whatever plague (rat, bat, or human) is preventing its re-realization.

Historical revisionism remains a key component of fascism, and kitsch has long served as its mass-produced porcelain handmaiden, providing simulacra evidence of a glorious past, untainted by defeat and steadfast in its innocence. This is also true of woke, which also aligns itself with totalitarian governments (figure)-headed by Davos-appointed bobble-heads, cheaply purchased by AIPAC, and placed in cabinets. History, for the demographic that considers itself “left” is “problematic”, as historical figures of note cannot provide sufficient evidence of their adherence to the cultural norms of the present. Rainbow flags and nose rings signal their intent to lock you down for the duration of the next flu season, or cancel you for life, just as brown shirts and swastikas conveyed malevolent intent towards non-conforming ‘others’.

More than an easily dismissed aesthetic embraced by easily-swayed ’simpletons’, kitsch has long been a powerful political tool deployed to neutralize critical thinking within populations slated for technocratic control; the stateless propaganda put out by the private sector to diminish its labor force’s capacity to think, just as governments deploy their own infantile, easily-grasped rhetorical tropes to condition the population to violate ethical norms. (Live, Eat, ‘Prey’). In its politicized form, kitsch can be seen as both a companion and precursor to state violence. In more recent years, woke helps to make war a permanent, election-proof feature of the National Security State by appropriating radical movements and ideas in its vernacular to ultimately neutralize them.

Woke has largely replaced kitsch in its association with fascism and the role it plays in assigning a banal, pastel hued-aesthetic to the barbaric practices of the West: Covidism, Genderism, and Zionism have become the gospels of ‘Cringeianity’, the crusading state religion of the neoliberal West. Zionism remains beholden to the kitsch narrative that has sustained it for over a century, becoming increasingly out of step with its NATO-aligned benefactors. These profiteering genocide enablers try to maintain Israel’s image as a largely vegan, “liberal democracy” in an attempt to quell a growing groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause among young voters, even though “The Jewish State” itself has abandoned this decades long subterfuge, boldly touting its theocratic imperatives to wipe out a biblically prescribed enemy (Amalek).

Israel’s psychotic break with every nation existing outside it has morphed into full blown schizophrenia, evident in its ongoing PR failures that have had the unintended, reverse effect of inciting international condemnation, not against “Hamas”, but Israel itself. Its official spokesman Eylon Levy was recently fired after his confrontational, fact-deficient deflections to even the most softball questions lobbed at him by deferential “journalists”, made the British-born Israeli government mouthpiece a liability to his Zionist paymasters, being pressured themselves by the Biden Administration to take their open boasting of committing genocide down a notch.  “We can deliver as promised that Palestinian-free seaside resort/natural gas refinery thing-y for you guys, if you’d just stop with the hollering. Geez, I can’t hear myself not think”.

Vacillating between kitsch and cringe, the Israeli leadership can’t seem to grasp why the American electorate is increasingly questioning its decades-long support for “The only democracy in the Middle East”. Here’s a clue: A growing majority can see with their own “lying eyes” a genocidal regime in the throes of collapse, and taking the rest of the world down with it. “Forty beheaded babies” that no one ever saw is perhaps the kitschiest of all Israel’s ploys to garner the international support necessary to continue its retaliatory attack on “Hamas” in the wake of an event that never happened. A fashion show to raise public awareness for a “mass rape” that equally never occurred is its cringiest attempt yet to conceal its military failures on October 7th, and its complete moral collapse in its aftermath.

The Zionist state is clearly struggling to convey its contradictory message of committing violence and claiming victimhood. How does one convince an International court of opinion that a brute in steel-toed boots sustained life-threatening injuries while kicking a toddler strapped inside a carseat? How do you further de-humanize the victim and make a victim of the aggressor?

The Ukraine is similarly swimming against the tide of international public opinion, and like Israel, veers between kitsch (NAFO) and cringe (NATO) to perpetuate the myth of a “plucky little democracy” up against the forces of evil. Its US-backed oligarchs didn’t receive the memo to “tone down the Nazi thing”, or if they did, they rolled it up into a paper tube and snorted what’s left of their military aid package. Zelensky’s old school kitsch persona of a “freedom fighter” is starting to wear thin, even his most ardent admirers in the West are starting to see through the artlessly crafted façade of a “leader” re-purposed from the spare parts of a Panzer tank and a moss covered garden gnome. Netanyahu’s own clownish, cartoon villain persona is similarly alienating the American electorate, who see in him just another chest-thumping ogre demanding their money.

Kitsch could be described as an embarrassing appendage to evil, its red-headed stepchild, if you will, and heir apparent to its vacated throne. Until its predations became normalized as “democratic” state power — synonymous with ‘banal’ — evil was the left hand path, chosen by poet and murderer alike. Its associations with the underworld eventually yielded underground movements to push back against an increasingly inane, top-down culture of conformity. Its heresies were the guiding principle of philosophers and pickpockets, courtesans and curio collectors; a cosmopolitan counterpoint to the stifling provincial pieties of its day. Its melancholic and aristocratic nature was manifested in the Victorian imagination as the life blood being drained from a parasitic feudal order, now driven to madness by the loss of its power and inherited privileges, whose seductive allure were an affront to the moralizers of the day. Kitsch represents this class in a more flattering light, memorializing them with Disney castles, and turning the fossilized remains of feudalism into Princess Di toilet roll covers.

Evil’s aesthetic was irresistible to the artists and writers, who turned fictional evil-doers into enduring legends like Count Dracula and Dorian Gray, emblematic figures of lost cyclical time, doomed to eternity by the imposition of a mathematically ascribed linear progression, the forward march of history detached from any semblance to the past.

Evil’s seething, centuries-long resentments reflected growing discomfiture with the advance of technology that would find expression, most notably in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. In this allegorical context, evil is conscious of itself and tormented by self-doubt. Opaque by its very nature and exclusive in practice, it had its own secret handshakes and hidden dungeon rooms. It dressed for every occasion, whether it was attending a masked ball or its own execution. It wrote obscene manifestos in prison cells. Being fluent in French and highly impractical was part of its charm.

Cringe, by contrast, is clueless, lacking in finesse, and any semblance of self-awareness. Rather than skulk unseen through an opera house, it performs a ‘gender queer’ version of ‘The Nutcracker’ at a White House Christmas Eve party. The Vampire Balls of yesteryear are today’s G7 summits/Furry Conventions. Where evil might have boldly proclaimed its intent to destroy mankind, cringe threatens to save us all through nano-technology and neo-pronouns.

In its vampire form, an evil-doer never crossed a threshold before an invitation was explicitly extended, unlike today’s predators who demand entry everywhere.  ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ lends a sympathetic ear to his would-be victims as he attempts to sign them up on the dotted line for eternal damnation. It seems a fairer, more humane approach to coercive salesmanship than promising “gender euphoria” in exchange for a duped customer’s sex organs.

The French artist Alexandre Cabanel depicted Satan just after crash landing on earth as a cruelly misunderstood young man, cast out of heaven by a rage-filled Old Testament patriarch, jealous of this angel’s unearthly beauty. Cabanel’s critics condemned the artist’s sympathetic portraiture, particularly the artist’s use of the “divine symmetry” with its implication that this creature surpassed God’s own handiwork, rendering him a superior rival. Stanley Kubrick used this now universal “common measure” (mathematical ratio 1:1.618 with an infinitely stretching decimal) of painterly perspective in his films to place evil correctly into its frame, subverting its “pleasing” proportions of harmony and equilibrium into a literal death stare. More recently, the unholy lopsidedly leer at us in on phone apps like Tik Tok, demanding that we respect their genders.

As a product of its particular time, kitsch lapses quickly into obsolescence, especially if the battle it was meant to valorize is lost, and once the fog of war is lifted to reveal its atrocities. Billions of discarded surgical masks at the bottom of the ocean are testament to at least one failed militarized push towards human extinction, just as disappearing “Slava Ukrainia” hashtags herald another impending defeat for the National Security State. The dustbin of history is overflowing with these embarrassing reminders of one’s own cheaply purchased complicity in civilizational collapse. Cringe, too, is fated to dissipate into some Pentagon server’s ‘cloud’ once it loses its stranglehold on the institutions corrupted by it, and exposed as the non-beating heart at the center of neoliberalism’s axis of diminishing powers.

(Featured Image: “Pride tees, California Adventure, Disneyland, Anaheim, California, USA” by gruntzooki is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Cropped by Propaganda In Focus.)


  • Jennifer Matsui

    Jennifer Matsui teaches English at a vocational college in Tokyo and contributed regularly as a freelance writer to She currently publishes her work at Playdough Republic on Substack.

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