Illustration by Hannah Robinson
What is art? What is poetry? It is always hard and dangerous to provide a definition of any topic. A new trend of poetry is on the rise on social media: simple poetry, usually made by people who haven’t studied literature and where the main topic is romantic love. A lot of big publishing houses in Spain have started compiling these social media posts into books catalogued as poetry, and they have had a huge reception.
Herbert Marcuse, philosopher and sociologist, in his book Culture and Society, describes the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge. On the one hand, practical knowledge refers to the body and necessity (hunger, pain, thirst) and, therefore, to lack of freedom; without this type of knowledge we would not be able to survive. On the other hand, theoretical knowledge is supposed to set the human being free (ideology and God fills the emptiness of a demanding body). Around the 4th century BC, few people could access theoretical knowledge, but the practical was open to everyone.
However, later, Bourgeois society associated practical knowledge with lies and sin and theoretical knowledge became the only truth. A ramification of the latter was created for the people who were not highly educated or cultivated: kitsch culture, which was easy to understand.
When publishing houses release a book, such as Piel de letra (“Leather of letter” in Spanish) by Laura Escanes, a fashion Instagrammer, they promote kitsch culture. For example, the poem “Before you”, which says: “Before you, it’s me./ Because I love you/ but I love myself before” (translation is my own) says nothing at all. It has a façade of feminism, but its form is too simple. This makes people think that they consume genuine culture.
The predominance of feelings connects with our most basic instincts and neutralises critical thinking. It is not about making literature very complex and elitist, depriving it from emotions. Feelings are an intrinsic part of ourselves; it can be relieving to feel understood by reading someone else’s words that resonate with you. But it is necessary to promote reasoning and independence. Kitsch culture and simple poetry underestimate the ability of readers, as if they were not good enough to understand real culture.
When I was trying to get into Foucault’s work, I asked a university professor for advice about what introductory readings would help me through as preparation. “None. If you want to read Foucault, start reading Foucault”. It took me three hours to start understanding something of the first page, but the feeling of accomplishment I got after it was worth it and, with time, it got easier.
I truly believe that culture, not only literature but also plastic arts, cinema or even music in general can change mindsets and society. But we cannot tell people what to do or what to feel. Rather than a perspective from kitsch culture, we need to create a challenge, to provide space for culture to make an impact, to trigger critical thinking. It is this way that people will be able, step by step, to learn another way of reading.