Drawing a Line in the Cheese
(in memory of John Entwistle)
Michael Shurkin

How dare I turn my nose up at the Abba musical Mamma Mia? The problem arose several weeks ago in a packed Washington theater. I admit that it was fun, yet at the end, when everyone stood up to dance and applaud, I wanted to boo. The affirmation of the audience horrified me. But how can I play the snob when I like Abba? How can I put the show down when I celebrated the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? How can I claim the aesthetic high ground when I willingly paid to see Blade II and loved every minute of it? To put the question another way, once one embraces pop culture, is it absurd to try to distinguish between good cheese and bad? Isn't fun good enough?

A good way to understand cheese is to begin with a similar word, "kitsch." The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who cunningly wrote a kitschy novel about it, defines the word as the "aesthetic ideal" of a "world where shit is denied and where everyone behaves as if it did not exist." Kitsch is "the absolute negation of shit in both the literal and figurative sense: kitsch excludes from its field of vision everything that is essentially unacceptable to human existence."1 Kundera regards kitsch as something sinister, for he associates it with totalitarian politics, deceit, and, of course, bad art. Ultimately what's wrong with kitsch is that it is meant to be taken seriously, and those who do so have essentially given themselves over to the perpetrators of a crime. Or they are just shallow.

Cheese differs from kitsch in its innocence. It does not ask to be taken seriously, aspires to be nothing more than entertaining, and refuses to pass itself off as art or truth. It is a willful silliness or shallowness that, while at times playing on the more uncomfortable aspects of reality, has the intention or the effect of insulating us from them. It's an affirmation of simplicity and fun, and often it operates within a sort of compact between producer and consumer neither to aspire to nor expect anything more. When we say that an expression of affection (i.e. "I'm really glad you're in my life") sounds cheesy, it is only because in our cynical age we are suspicious of such simple and straightforward statements.

Except in pessimistic moments when I sympathize with leftist conspiracy theories about multinational media giants using cheese to pacify the masses the way Kundera's totalitarian regimes utilized kitsch, I regard cheese as a fabulous thing. I learned this at, of all places, the municipal museum in Nuremberg, Germany, which conducts the visitor through the dreadful escalation of horror that led the city from proto-Nazism to total annihilation at the hands of the RAF and the United States 8th Army Air Corps. At the very end of the tour, in the dark depths of the museum's bunker, beyond displays of 500 lb. bombs an fire-fighting equipment, and past two dimly-lit installations playing, in turn, Goebbels' last radio address rallying Nurembergers to the defense of their homeland and Eisenhower's speech announcing the end of the war, stood a brightly illuminated war-era radio playing sunny American dance music. It was as if all the broody, dark culture of Nuremberg, with its climatic orgy of death, gave way suddenly to America's gifts of bubble gum, the jitter-bug, and joy. Western civilization is saved; long live Benny Goodman! Long live cheese!

1 Milan Kundera, L'Insoutenable légèreté de l'être, (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1987), 356-357.

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August 2002

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