Quirk & Kitsch: Quiescently Escapist

Michael Hirschorn has a nice essay (and podcast) on the culture of quirk–the “ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture, defined territorially by . . . the movies of Wes Anderson; Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Web site . . . and the just-too-wacky-to-be-fully-believable memoirs of Augusten Burroughs.” Recalling the battle over irony in the late 90’s, Hirschorn explains that

As an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions (on HBO’s recent indie-cred comedy Flight of the Conchords, the titular folk-rock duo have one fan), and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously. Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.

Hirschorn labels quirk a kind of opium of the hip–a self-branding ploy cooked up by Hollywood to give safe entertainment options to those who want to “think of themselves as engaged, aware.”

Hirschorn’s views reminded me of Clement Greenberg’s classic essay on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which observed that “once the avant-garde had succeeded in ‘detaching’ itself from society, it proceeded to turn around and repudiate revolutionary as well as bourgeois politics.” It also left a vacuum for kitsch to fill–“vicarious experience and faked sensations. . . . the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” When the mainstream embraces collectible teddy bears to support the troops, it’s easy to defect to the culture of quirk. Are there any solutions?

Since Hirschorn marshals an army of television shows and movies he finds defectively quirky, and I find quirk a pretty defensible reaction to kitsch, let me suggest correctives for both sides. To me, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a nice reality-check for any quirk-lover. . . a Juvenalian extravaganza constantly reminding its audience of the vapid, soulless Hollywood culture that can infect even quirky projects. On the kitsch-corrective side, perhaps buyers of the Hamilton Collection bear could also be sent a copy of James Gandolfini’s Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq.

In any event, Hirschorn deserves a lot of credit for looking under the hood of culture for its political implications. The personal is inevitably political.

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