Conversation on G+ led me to this excellent old post by Roger GS. (Isn't it terrifying that I can describe a post from 2014 as "old"? Doesn't that thought send shivers down your spine?)
It got me thinking about Milan Kundera. It is kind of embarrassing to name drop Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because it has become a cliche and claiming to have read it has become a shorthand for a certain type of pseudo-intellectualism (and as a result the book perhaps has itself unjustly become part of a certain mode of kitsch). But I'm going to do it anyway, because the book is famous for a reason.
Towards the end of the book Kundera goes on a diversion and starts discussing kitsch. He comes up with what I think is the best definition of kitsch out there: "the aesthetic ideal [of the basic faith in human goodness]...is a
world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch."
The existence of shit is a metaphysical challenge to anybody who believes in a perfectly created world. If you believe that human beings are created properly and that human existence is a good thing, you would not hide shit. You would not lock yourself away in a bathroom but do it publicly, because to have a shit would be as normal and natural and good as eating. But people don't do this - they lock themselves in the bathroom. This must mean that shit is unacceptable to them, and this must hence mean that human beings are not created perfectly.
Kitsch is art which seeks to avoid and salve this fundamental metaphysical insecurity. Indeed, it is art which actively militates against shit by denying its existence at every turn. It is the pursuit of the complete opposite of shit - and hence the pursuit of reassurance about the perfect goodness of creation.
There is a lot more that Kundera has to say about kitsch. But let's begin with this (I think, true) observation that kitsch is the aesthetic ideal which denies shit. Is there an opposite sort of kitsch; a mirror image of kitsch; a kitsch that embraces, nay, insists on shit?
This is grimdark kitsch. Creation is imperfect, human life bleak, the universe apathetic if not actively baleful and hostile. Shit is not to be denied, but to be embraced. Indeed, to deny shit is to deny a set of fundamental givens about the nature of existence.
How does kitsch manifest itself? Kundera describes kitsch as something that must be shared by the multitudes - it has to be the kind of cliche which everybody knows and can refer to in their minds. He describes it, famously, as two tears. When somebody sees children running on grass and is moved to tears by the experience, the first tear says: "How nice to see children running on the grass!" The second tear says: "How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!"
"It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch."
Grimdark kitsch, similarly, is something that is shared by the multitudes.
Grimdark touches many different types of art and entertainment, but let's think about it in the context of OSR games.
When confronted with a horrible NPC death that serves no purpose, the first ironic smile of the grimdark gamer says: "How amusing to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!" The second ironic smile says: "How nice to amused, together with all other grimdark gamers, to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!"
When a PC goes mad due to having his sanity blasted by a pseudo-Lovecraftian entity, the first chortle says: "How deliciously fucked up!" The second chortle says, "How nice to see this as fucked up, together with all other grimdark gamers!"
When the party accidentally summon a demonic power which goes on the rampage and destroys a town, the first cackle says "How hilariously anti-heroic!" The second cackle says, "How nice to cackle at anti-heroic acts with all other grimdark gamers!"
It is the second ironic smile, chortle or cackle which makes grimdark kitsch kitsch.
Warhammer 40,000 is of course the epitome of grimdark kitsch, but you find it everywhere: in Irvine Welsh novels, in The Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, in Lovecraft's inferior successors, in any given slasher flick or torture porn film. The insistence on shit is as kitschy as its denial.