Nostalgia is a kind of longing for the past. Using our helpful online etymology dictionary we learn that in the 18th century it referred to a “severe homesickness” (considered as a disease),” comprised from the Greek “nostos” meaning “homecoming” and “algos” meaning “pain, grief, distress.” More recently, nostalgia has lost its medical and even psychological implications and has simply been accepted as a natural component of memory.
There is, nonetheless, still often a negative implication with nostalgia, one that suggests an overemphasis on the past. Such nostalgia, when it takes material and/or aesthetic form, is referred to as kitsch. Itself derived from a Yiddish term, kitsch is the artistic manifestation of nostalgia. The rise in kitsch parallels a rise in manufacturing allowing for the production of objects meant for no other purpose than decoration and nostalgia. Here one might think of the porcelain figures that line shelves whose purpose, beyond collecting dust, is turning the past into an aesthetic object.
In order to better understand kitsch we might also look at the evolution of an image. In this case Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara that became a political icon, a pop cultural icon, and eventually a regular part of kitsch commodities.
In writing what he terms “totalitarian kitsch,” in his 1984 novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the czech author Milan Kundera writes “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. 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 that makes kitsch kitsch.”