How Mourning Becomes Kitsch

By Jonathan Wallace

kitsch, n. Sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

Along came a radical, oppositional and brilliant architect, Christopher Alexander, and wrote a book called A Pattern Language in which he recommended that people design their own dwellings. He provided a menu of elements which you could select and snap together. People began using his book to create their own communities. Years later, when Alexander went to view some of the results, reportedly he pronounced them to be kitsch.

Today, with the design of the World Trade center memorial, we seem to be watching a similar process, in which what began as profound national mourning culminates as kitsch.

Any great disaster in wartime presents a portrait of despair in search of a noble, reassuring narrative. Some wars such as the Second World War, find their comforting narrative, and others never do, such as Vietnam. In that case, despair only deepens, because it then appears that the dead died for Absolutely Nothing at All. Alternative, uncomforting narratives which can be imposed on the World Trade Center disaster are:

These are harsh words but I offer them for a reason. Most humans cannot rest very long with such cruel conclusions and must find more comforting stories. While it is hard to find a narrative that transforms the loss of life on September 11 into a heroic story (the people didn't offer to risk their lives or know they were going to, simply by reporting for work), many of the survivors still derive comfort from an understanding that their loved ones died for being willing participants in a secular culture of democracy, diversity, and opportunity. We take some comfort in the wide representation of nationalities, religions and cultures among the dead, and probably still at this late date, hope for changes in world culture which will mean they did not die in vain.

The problem with settling on a narrative which offers consolation is that we must then guard ourselves against anything that contradicts the narrative. It is heavily ironic, as are most Official Versions of democratic ideals, that a memorial for people who ostensibly died in defense of diversity cannot contain any diversity of opinion. The early uprising of survivor families against the inclusion of the free speech and drawing centers in the rebuilt trade center was the first major step towards kitsch. The rationale in both cases was that these museums might mount exhibits criticizing America, something that culd not be countenanced in a trade center memorial.

A memorable piece of advice in a software development handbook I read in the eighties was to "listen to the users, then ignore what they say." When we go to an expert, we must remember that we are not ourselves experts. The more general the need we express, the better an expert can recommend a solution. When we clog our own minds with proposed solutions based on very slight knowledge, we are likely to go in an expensive or disastrous direction. Most people are simply not capable of designing their own houses, and should not be entrusted with designing their own memorials either.

The memoirs of Maya Lin, the young woman whose design was selected for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, acknowledged to be among the most beautiful ever created, are instructive. She describes the political shitstorm that erupted over the abstraction of her idea, and the counterproposal made by some veterans' and family organizations that some statues of GI's be added, walking along the memorial as if it were a village wall in Vietnam. These statues were ultimately cast but wisely placed some distance away. Anyone who has visited the wall and watched the profound effect it has on family members who are seen locating and tracing their relation's name and leaving little offerings, knows that it succeeds as a memorial in a way that kitschy GI statues cannot.

The difference lies in McLuhan's theory of media. The Vietnam memorial is a cool medium, allowing us maximum room for mental action of our own--we must meet it halfway or more, as it does not presume to tell us what to think. The GI statues, by contrast, leave us no room at all, and tell us everything. In their presence, we are passive, but in front of the wall, we are active--an important and healthy element for the grief-stricken.

Now think about what happens when you allow the mourner to design the memorial. People are not very knowledgeable about their own psychology or the effects of different solutions. A mourner who is likely to have a more profound experience in front of a cool memorial would be most likely to design a hot one, out of ignorance. Cool media are counterintuitive to us; on paper to the uninitiated, they may look like nothing; you must see them in action in order to understand their effects.

While everyone involved has been very concerned with the needs of the victims' families, it is one thing to be extremely respectful of them and quite another to allow them to decide what will or will not be tolerated at the site of the memorial. The families' excessive involvement has already, by eliminating the free speech and drawing centers, pushed the memorial way too far in the direction of kitsch.