Barackitsch and Mount Crapmore

AS the US convulses in the throes of economic holocaust and political revolution, it’s reassuring to know that some things remain exactly the same. I speak, of course, of Western capitalism’s unshakable ability to transform the sublime into retail ridiculousness.

If you’re thrilled by the election of America’s first black president and are desperate to express it with a cash transaction, you can now buy a set of commemorative glasses, a bottle of commemorative wine, a pair of commemorative earrings, or — if you’re feeling extra excited — a pack of commemorative condoms bearing the Big O’s beaming face and a “use good judgment” logo.

Also available is a commemorative Barack Obama $US1 coin usually sold for $US30 ($46) but now available for the low, low price of just $US9.95.

Now that’s change that’s just freaking confusing.

“The election of Barack Obama has once again demonstrated America’s greatest gift,” comedian Lewis Black said on US telly last week. “Our capacity to embrace hope and idealism and turn it into worthless, disposable crap.” Black was particularly outraged by a collectable victory plate produced in such a rush, its supposedly historic record of the election result listed 27 electoral votes as undetermined. “You couldn’t wait for Missouri and North Carolina,” he railed at the plate-makers. “You had to fire up the kiln.”

Black concluded that even before taking office, the president-elect already had a permanent place on Mount Crapmore.

One of the prime selling points of the Obamarabilia merchants is that buying their faux gold cufflinks and bobblehead lapel pins will enable customers to own a piece of history. Apparently experiencing the thing is no longer enough. Unless you’re able to purchase it in snowdome form, history just doesn’t count.

Still, given the undeniable passion generated by the Obama win (not to mention the classist undertones of so many condemnations of kitsch), it’s worth considering that trashy trinkets may also represent a very human attempt to express and pay homage to emotions and events that feel larger than life.

Academic Thomas Richards describes kitsch as “the miniature attempting to signify the gigantic”, while cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga says such forms seek to familiarise the ungraspable and materialise the transcendent. Author and investigative journalist Debbie Nathan also makes the point that the production of kitsch is not limited to (a) America, (b) contemporary events or (c) big business.

In her blog at www.debbienathan.com, she discusses Carnavalet, a French museum devoted to the history of Paris. “The coolest thing there is the collection of French Revolution tchotchkes,” she muses, “lumpily glazed plates and mugs celebrating `Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ as well as [a] lovely Bastille doll house, complete with toy guillotine that would probably decapitate a petite fille’s finger, or maybe a rat.

“Amazing how social movements for centuries have inspired the popular manufacture and sale of gobs of memorial junk.” Nathan writes affectionately of election-inspired street craft such as the Obama light switch plates selling in Harlem: “I love it when some person — in this case Obama — becomes so symbolically dense that his or her image overloads the conventional imagination of folk artists and craftspeople.
“When that happens, the image leaks out, like water from a overflowing bucket. It sloshes on to other cultural references. It’s wet and sloppy and joyful.”

Also moist and enthusiastic are the Tchotchkobama items on sale at www.etsy.com, a website specialising in the trade of handicrafts. Here, among the knitted cashmere slippers and ceramic Loch Ness monsters, are delightfully dodgy homemade Obama briefcases, crocheted Obama dolls, felt Obama finger puppets, screen-printed Obama undies and origami Obama peace cranes.

Other highlights include vegan-friendly hope-on-a-rope soap, a plaid pillow in the shape of Illinois, infant jumpsuits with an “I Need a Change” logo and — for the Democrat who has everything — a felt-based likeness of Obama made to look like bacon. Fittingly enough, many items come in an affectionate, cappuccino-y brown.

These bizarre whatnots will never be confused with high art. But if something as odd and amorphous as history must be rendered in knick-knacks, they do offer a far superior likeness than the cynical slickness of the con-job coinage and hasty plates.

- originally published in The Australian on 27-11-2009.

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