I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man. I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.
Alan Jackson, ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)’
When kitsch aesthetics and moral conventions converge, we observe the emergence of kitsch ethics. This occurs in objects produced to convey a moral, patriotic or political imperative in conjunction with objects that, while not created to convey those imperatives, acquire those properties over time. Meanwhile, an object’s aesthetics become intimately associated with the moral conventions that have created them, embodying a passionate advocacy of those ethics. Kitsch ethics reveal latent intimacies within and between objects, uncovering details about how they relate to the wider world. Two sets of twins demonstrate this: Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arches and the Twin Towers. The aesthetic and ethical dimensions of the objects fuse together and create new meaning through the adoption of each other’s characteristics. The moral conventions of the two twins are generated through efforts in nation state building all the while appropriating the simplistic, unrefined but magnetic characteristics of kitsch.
Saddam Hussein would play a crucial role in the bloodless 17 July Revolution of 1968, resulting in his Ba’ath political party’s ascendance to power. He would soon become president of the party and in turn Iraq. His reign would be marked by a variety of bureaucratic shifts: the country’s oil reserves and banks would be nationalised and members of his family and the Sunni religious minority he belonged to would occupy most positions of power, both to the detriment of Kurdish and Shia citizens. Enter Saddam’s Victory Arches, a tribute to ‘the monument that was Ba’athist Iraq; an infinite labyrinth of torture chambers built out of fear and decorated in Saddam’s image’.1 They epitomise how Saddam used history aesthetically rather than factually, steering Iraq in his desired direction. His tendency for anachronistic symbolism is exposed here; the swords themselves are representations of those used by Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas, companion to the Islamic Prophet and military commander throughout the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, the 636AD Arab victory against a Persian Shia enemy. With his arms gripping the swords of Qādisiyyah, Saddam’s contemporary conflict against a predominantly Shia Iran is placed in direct lineage with this historical battle, with Saddam its notable commander. Yet on 8 August 1989 Saddam opened his Victory Arches while riding a white horse, an act noted by writer Negar Azimi as a cavalier appropriation of Shia symbolism.2 In Ba’athist Iraq, history placed Saddam at meaningful but fabricated intersections; the winner of a UNICEF award and holder of the keys to Detroit also had the honour of being descended from Ali ibn abi Talib, the fourth Muslim caliph and patron saint of Shi’ism.3 Placing Saddam in respectable historical company, a preference for many in Iraqi society, was established. Saddam’s myth-making also projected into the future; the Victory Arch was conceived in 1985 to celebrate a victory the nation had not (and would not) win. The battle would in fact end with a United Nations brokered ceasefire. An invitation card to the opening ceremony of the monument explains: ‘We have chosen that Iraqis will pass under their fluttering flag protected by their swords which have cut through the necks of the aggressors’.4 Iraq, however, lacked the forging capacity to create the arches’ stainless-steel swords and bronze arms, instead outsourcing this work to European manufacturers. Such a blatant manufacturing deficiency betrays the arches’ central claim to Iraq’s puritanical power. Despite Saddam’s inability to forge his monument without foreign assistance, the Victory Arches proclaim Saddam’s state-sponsored reality through its aesthetic kitsch.
Kanan Makiya, a longstanding critic of Saddam and his Iraq, was one of the only expatriate academics to be widely circulated during Saddam’s reign. To him, Saddam ‘had become habituated to making his own reality virtually from scratch’.5 This self-asserted role as master of both past and present aggrandised him to self-identify as a ‘theorist whose current reality is always ‘proof’ of any assertion he chooses to make’.6 Saddam’s reality provided the moral framework for the Victory Arches’ kitsch ethics. His rule entailed the ruthless elimination of opposition parties, Ba’athi rivals, colleagues and friends. Kurdish, Shia, communist and religious communities experienced ceaseless brutality as Saddam commandeered the nation. With such a violently edited list of Iraqi’s deemed acceptable under Saddam, the only one consistently celebrated by the arches was himself. His own arms holding swords that confirmed his aspirational lineage, perhaps the Victory Arches' ultimate kitsch is its function as a vanity project. A kitsch ethics is assured, as the Victory Arches' aesthetics adopt the moral framework of Saddam’s brutally constructed reality.
Questions of sovereignty and nation building tie our two twins together. Intended as spires of international trade, tame in comparison to the bombast of Saddam’s twin Victory Arches, kitsch ethics would only emerge from the Twin Towers at a specific moment – their collapse. Emerging from the destroyed towers is a ‘Swarovski Crystal USA Flag Collar’ for US$350, purchasable at the current day 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s gift shop. Between the towers and collar lies a storied culture of memorialisation, a sentimental kitsch funded by the corporate sphere. In 2016 Coca-Cola and Walmart would come under fire for fashioning boxes of Coke and Sprite into the Twin Towers; overhead banners displayed a pre-Nine Eleven Manhattan skyline and the words ‘We Will Never Forget’. Benefit concert ‘America: A Tribute to Heroes’ was aired by every major broadcast network in the weeks following the attack. Included was a panoply of stars singing ‘America, the Beautiful’.7 During the 2002 Super Bowl, U2’s Bono would reveal an American Flag sewn into the inside of his jacket lining.
The pervasiveness of this memorial kitsch is best shown by its impact on other, more critical, representations of the Twin Towers. Artist Paedro Lasch reflected how in the five years following Nine Eleven ‘it was incredibly hard to get [artworks] shown if it wasn’t a very simplistic, sentimental and nationalistic representation’.8 Exploring the towers in a contemporary art context wouldn’t occur until The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) September 11 exhibition in 2011. Chief curator Peter Eleey would reflect that despite its reproduction as ‘likely the most pictured disasters in history ... 9/11 seems to remain, a decade later, underrepresented in cultural discourse – particularly within the realm of contemporary art’.9 What the show deems ‘sayable and seeable’ about Nine Eleven is demarcated by ‘those who said and made things that elicited intense criticism’,10 a standard of acceptability arbitrated by memorial kitsch.
While an infrastructurally negligible loss, the destroyed Twin Towers’ symbolic value was expansive, forging an aesthetic culture of memorial that would combine with lexicon and bureaucratic shifts into a formidable kitsch ethics. A revised character would be produced as the United States responded to the destroyed towers: the de- personalised and fluid ‘terrorist’ for an agitated twenty-first century. It would occupy an archetypal antagonistic role devoid of justification for actions beyond an intention to harm occidental subjects and destroy sovereign stabilities. White identity often excuses agents from being classified as terrorist; even attacks done in the name of Al-Qaeda like Charles J Bishop’s 2002 flying of a light aircraft into a Bank of America tower (causing no casualties other than himself) are interpreted as aberrant rather than ‘organised’ and rooted in terrorist ambitions.Osama Bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’ on his terrorism is notably sequestered from public record, done so in favour of a simpler justification for his actions: an un-translatable and indiscriminate hatred. Bureaucratic shifts would accompany this evolving language, with similarly sustained impacts. State surveillance capabilities were significantly expanded by the Patriot Act, signed into law by October 2001 and state departmental organisations were revised—various agencies were reorganised under the ‘homeland security’ unit while departments such the Transport Security Administration were created. The aesthetics of post-Nine Eleven memorial culture combined with the ethical frameworks of new bureaucracies and lexicons to create an international epic, the Global War on Terror. From this comes the rationale for the United States occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s, and a temporal convergence of the two twins. A critical response to the destroyed Twin Towers was the neutralising of a terrorist threat, soon to be identified as Saddam Hussein. The Victory Arches' would enter a state of metaphysical failure, being taken under military control in a green zone. The strength of the United States was maintained while Saddam’s Iraq crumbled.
Consistent across examples of kitsch is a belief in itself— Saddam’s arches passionately believe in the falsehoods they perpetuate. This continues in kitsch ethics, with an object’s sincere belief in the moral framework it espouses. Backed by an exceedingly rich autocratic government and a moneyed culture of memorialisation respectively, the two twins have been potent in their narrative persuasion. The Victory Arches' power rests in its appeal as mass propaganda; Kanan Makiya describes how it ‘corresponds to a deeply felt collective need to believe in a mythology such as victory in the Iraq-Iran war’, a need that arises from ‘when the relationship between politics and society has gone profoundly awry through war, civil-conflict or revolution’.11 The Twin Towers also offer audiences a convincing belief pathway: military intervention in the name of a ‘global War on Terror’ becomes a viable option for collective grief to develop into. Local communities engaged variously with these stories. The voices of those directly affected by Saddam’s regime are unsurprisingly disappeared from Ba’athist Iraq’s historical record; they survive through diasporas, organised resistances and art. Various communities went into a state of defense following Nine Eleven; assault reports by Muslim’s to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would spike in the United States throughout 2001, and community-led vigils would take place across New York in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ collapse. Families and support organisations directly affected by Nine Eleven would unsuccessfully protest the inclusion of a gift shop at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. As truth becomes more difficult to discern in our contemporary moment, a framework of kitsch ethics can be of use. Knowledge is disclosed evermore aesthetically; kitsch ethics can uncover nefariousness hidden behind this knowledge, prompting action.
With time our two twins have changed. In late 2018, Iraq’s green zone containing the Victory Arches was opened to the public for the first time in fifteen years. The Iraqi government is currently reconstructing the Victory Arches. ‘We are a civilized people,’ said a spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, ‘and this monument is a part of the memories of this country.’12 The world’s largest museum collection of unidentified human remains can be found at present day ‘Ground Zero’. Entrance to the museum ranges from US$18-$26 but is free for families directly affected by Nine Eleven. Responding to criticisms regarding the 9/11 Memorial & Museum gift shops' tastelessness, museum President Joe Daniels said:
This is the united states of America and the number one thing is: if you don’t like what we’re selling, don’t buy it.13
Ava Amedia is a writer and performer. His writing has been published in Archer and The Lifted Brow.
Kanan Makiya, The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, I.B Tauris and Co. Ltd, 2004. ↩
Negar Azimi, ‘Saddam Hussein and The State As Sculpture,’ in On Democracy By Saddam Hussein, Paul Chan (ed.), Badlands Unlimited: Brooklyn New York, 2012. ↩
Makiya, op. cit. ↩
Peabody Awards, ‘America: A tribute to Heroes,’ 2001: http://www.peabodyawards.com/award-profile/america-a-tribute-to-heroes (accessed 11 March 2019). ↩
Pedro Lasch, The Impact of 9/11 on the Art World, Duke University, 12 September 2016: https://www.youtube.com/ ↩
Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), September 11, MoMA PS1, Long Island New York, 2011. ↩
Makiya, op. cit. ↩
Steven Lee Myers, ‘Iraq Restores Monument Symbolizing Hussein Era’, New York Times, 5 February 2011: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/world/middleeast/06iraq.html (accessed 11 March 2019). ↩
CNN, 9/11 Families say No to Ground Zero Gift Shop, 20 May 2014: https://www.youtube.com/vwewwatch?v=2KGnJTVCwtw (accessed 11 March 2019). ↩