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[Xmca-l] Verismo and Kitsch



In Leoncavallo's opera "Pagliacci", there is a love triangle in a group of
travelling Commedia del arte performers. They stage an performance for a
group of villagers (in which the theme of a deceived husband is
burlesqued). In the middle of the performance, the deceived husband murders
his wife, and the opera ends with the famous line "La commedia e finita!"

Leoncavallo tried hard to convince his audience that it was a true story
based on a murder that happened in his own family, but he was sued for
plagiarism by another author, and the  suit was only dropped when still
another author sued the plaintiff.. The evidence, actually, is that
Leoncavallo wrote the opera out of jealousy of his colleague Mascagni's
"Cavalleria Rusticana", which has a very similar triangle, an opera which
is often paired with "Pagliacci" to this day.

The idea of putting a play within a play and giving the real audience a
frisson of wonder about the reality of the stage death is certainly part of
art; it goes all the way back to Hamlet and even before (Shakespeare stole
the idea of a play within a play with real murders from Kyd's "The Spanish
Tragedy", which was showing while Hamlet was being composed.) But very few
people would admit that snuff pornography--that is, pornography in which
the actors are actually murdered--is a legitimate art form. So how to draw
the line, and why? And does the line tell us anything about the difference
between Kitsch and other forms of art.

Vygotsky says that art is a social technique of emotion--real emotion
brought about by unreal events. He also sees art as a process of
indviduation, not socialization. Where Bukharin and his "Proletkult"
movement saw art as being the "infection" of the masses by the emotions of
a lone artist, Vygotsky sees exactly the opposite--the individuation of the
emotion of an artwork by the viewer.

Snuff pornography doesn't and cannot do this: it's not a real emotion
brought about by unreal events but rather an unreal emotion (in relation to
what we would really feel if we witnessed a murder) brought about by real
events. But Hamlet can and does this: in fact, sensationalism is
deliberately deferred throughout the four hours of tergiversation by the
title character, and the sensationalist terror evoked by Kyd is brilliantly
transformed into intra-mental horror.

Kitsch cannot and doesn't do this: the emotions that Jeff Koons evokes are
not real emotions at all, since his art is all about himself and his
celebrity (and the same thing goes for Lady Gaga and a great deal of the
"knowing, winking" kitsch that passes for art these days). it is not art,
but rather a parody of art we are being given. As Adorno says, every form
of art has to have some vision of the good life, even if it is only etched
as a negative. But if the "good life" were simply is simply the commercial
success of the artist which we are ordered to vicariously enjoy, then what
we are given is a real situation with unreal emotions, as in snuff
pornography, and not an unreal situation with real ones, as in verismo.

Verismo--in Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana--uses an unreal play within a
play about an unreal play to create real emotions: "Actors have feelings
too," as Tonio says. There is some dispute about whether Tonio or
the murderer "Pagliacci" speaks the line "La commedia e finita". My own
view is that Tonio should say it, because the show must go on.

David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies