Tosha R. Taylor
Consuming Death Through Urban Kitsch
Just past the corner of 34th and East 5th in Manhattan, a dead woman greets passersby. Caroline Astor (née Webster Schermerhorn, 1830-1908) is rendered in grainy black-and-white; a low-res ghost who points tourists toward the site of her former home, now occupied by the Empire State Building. With increasing concerns about income inequality in New York City, the dead Mrs. Astor’s wealth is implicit in the text accompanying her image but the current socioeconomic state of the city is overshadowed by a ghostly encouragement to see iconic sites.
Death in New York is largely seen through objects such as Mrs. Astor’s cenotaph, which recall history whilst promoting tourism and consumerism. Manhattan’s cemeteries are seemingly invisible; there are two central cemeteries on the island, New York Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery, which are largely hidden from view and only permit public access a few days out of the year. However, signs of death linger throughout the city (and in similar metropolitan areas across the globe) in the form of kitsch, seen in tacky, bizarre, or sometimes even tasteless objectification.
Tackiness is often confused with camp, which Susan Sontag sees as characterized by “artifice and exaggeration” that is “disengaged, depoliticized — or at least apolitical.”1 Kitsch, conversely, arises from the “absence of love” that may still be found in camp.2 If camp gestures toward a depoliticized respect for its subject matter and historical precedents, kitsch turns them into figures and objects devoid of any greater context whatsoever. Cultural theorist Walter Benjamin described kitsch as “art with a 100 percent, absolute and instantaneous availability for consumption.”3 Death kitsch may thus certainly have an aesthetic value of some sort, but that value cannot be compromised by any greater social, political, or economic significance.
Signs of death and human destruction have been woven into the cultural fabric of many cities. London offers multiple tours centered upon the homicidal acts of Jack the Ripper. On the Genoan coast, tourists may observe the demolition of the wrecked Costa Concordia, upon which 32 people died when the ship ran aground in 2012. In the Vietnamese city of Hoi An, tourists are taken to the site of the Mỹ Lai Massacre, remembering the mass slaughter of many women and children during The Vietnam War. These activities belong to the greater phenomenon that has been termed “dark tourism,” first defined by Foley and Lennon as “the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites.”4 That said, death kitsch in urban spaces is not limited to tourism, though the two are closely associated. The commodification of signs of death, particularly in cities like New York, allow consumers to engage with death in ways that allow “instantaneous emotional gratification”5 — the very nature of kitsch.
The most glaring signs of death in New York are undoubtedly related to the 9/11 terrorist attack. Tracey J. Potts argues that this particular site can be distinguished from similar sites due to “the presence of a conspicuous commodity culture”.6 Tacky souvenirs featuring visual representations of 9/11 (the Twin Towers, the new spire of One World Trade Center, crude figures resembling first responders, etc.) accompany other tourist fare that harkens back to stereotypes of New York authenticity. A T-shirt reading “NEW YORK FUCKIN CITY” hangs next to one bearing the logo FDNY. The latter is a popular and wearable representation of the post-9/11 reverence for the New York City Fire Department, and specifically for those killed whilst responding to the terrorist attack.
It is, on one hand, unsurprising that FDNY as a logo retains its popularity even fourteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Wearing the logo promotes a sense of belonging to a group that has seen death, similar to that expressed by the inevitable “We are all [insert identity here]” statements that permeate social media after major tragedies. On the other hand, the letters’ visual similarity to that of Donna Karan New York (DKNY) lends the kitsch object an element of fashionability. The first responders who died on 9/11 and afterward (as the physical repercussions of their exposure to toxic material that day continue to manifest) are rendered personally invisible but symbolized without irony in a logo.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum’s gift shop has garnered criticism for its consumer offerings since its inception. In an article lamenting that “The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction,” Buzzfeed writer Steve Kandell refers to the shop as a “tchotchke shop [...] nothing more than the logical endpoint for our most reliably commodifiable national tragedy.”7 The shop received unintended fame through its overpriced offerings of kitsch objects that commemorate the lives lost on 9/11, including $39 hoodies bearing the words “9/11 Memorial Honor and Remember,” a $20 “commemorative coin,” and a $225 blanket embroidered with an American flag and the caption “United We Stand” (all still available at the time of this writing). In spring of 2014, after widespread Internet criticism, the shop removed a particularly bland (but still tacky) cheese plate from its offerings. What these and other objects for sale at the memorial have in common is an apolitical treatment of the deaths they purport to commemorate. They encourage the sense of gratification necessary for kitsch but require no further engagement. Consumption is thus presented as the method by which to mark 3,000 deaths.
While there is much to be said regarding the commodification of 9/11, it is not the only instance of death imbued with kitsch in the city. Just as London boasts a number of Jack the Ripper-themed tours, those looking to see sites of death in New York need only to purchase tickets to any one of the many local “haunted” tours (the aptly-named Dead Apple Tours, however, folded in 2014). The New Yorker Hotel commemorates the death of inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, who died in his room of ten years there, with a memorial room and plaque lauding his accomplishments. Words are put into the mouths of the dead, as with Caroline Astor, to advertise attractions. Furthermore, the season surrounding Halloween allows for a greater acknowledgment of the morbid and grotesque. Skeletal figures, inherently suggestive of death, fill the church of St. John the Divine for its annual Procession of the Ghouls. Year round, the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn allows visitors to explore the destruction of the human body through historical objects pertaining to death, disease, and post-mortem human biological studies. A kitsch dining experience is offered at the Jekyll and Hyde Club, which stages homages to classic horror, including the raising of the dead, around standard chain restaurant cuisine. The head shops lining St. Mark’s Place on the East side decorate their window displays with expressive artificial skulls and skeletons posed to dance around glass bongs.
At The Evolution Store on Spring Street in SoHo, where a human skeleton hangs outside the doors during opening hours, consumer kitsch meets scientific nostalgia. While not participating in the same tackiness found at the shops mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is a kitsch value to its products. The small shop offers wares related to both human and animal corpses, largely in the form of bones but also including preserved bodies of the latter. Some bones are real; others are not — in this way, these facsimile bones serve not as replicas of the creature to which they belong but as replicas of the decay of death. Here Benjamin’s concern for mechanical reproduction may inspire us to question at what point death is removed from the less expensive, artificial fare. All of these items are divorced from any of the social or political circumstances of the morbid science they reflect. At the same time, while the shop conforms to official ethical guidelines pertaining to the acquisition and sale of real bones and bodies, it is difficult whilst perusing their shelves not to wonder about the ethics of our own interest in literally buying the dead.
Coming towards the end of this discussion, however, a disclaimer should be made. As a new New Yorker and an avid fan of all things to do with horror, I have a personal and professional interest in the relationship between death and cities, particularly this one. I am also guilty of consuming death kitsch, from tacky decorations to more somber historical memorabilia. I visit The Evolution Store regularly to look at a particular animal skeleton I will never be able to afford, habitually repeating the visual consumption of an actual (albeit reptilian rather than human) corpse. It has not, then, been my purpose to completely lambast all kitsch representations. Death kitsch poses a significant problem, as evidenced by the offerings within the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s gift shop and the public’s response to them, but a “solution” to the problem seems unlikely, especially in major metropolitan areas. It may even be the only way such areas are capable of openly engaging with death. Death consumes — and in the bastions of capitalism embodied by major cities, it may itself be consumed.
Tosha R. Taylor recently completed her PhD at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, where she studied captivity in contemporary horror film. Now living in New York, she can often be found taking pictures of street art on the East Side.
1 & 2 Sontag, Susan (1982). Notes on Camp. In: A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 105-119.
3 & 5 Menninghaus, Winnifried (2009). On the ‘Vital Significance’ of Kitsch: Walter Benjamin’s Politics of ‘Bad Taste’. In: Benjamin, Andrew & Rice, Charles (Eds). Walter Benjamin and the Architecture of Modernity. Eds. Andrew Benjamin and Charles Rice. Melbourne: re.press, pp. 39-58.
4 Foley, Malcolm, & Lennon, John J. (1996). JFK and Dark Tourism: A Fascination with Assassination. In: International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198-211.
6 Potts, Tracey J. (2012) ‘Dark Tourism’ and the ‘Kitschification’ of 9/11. In: Tourist Studies, 12(3), 232-249. Web: 5 Dec. 2015.
7 Kandell, Steve (2014). The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction. In: Buzzfeed, 19 May. Web: 6 Dec. 2015.