Recently, while rummaging through my parents basement laundry room, I discovered a large cardboard box. Inside, between the faded baby blankets and moth-eaten linens were hidden dozens and dozens of doilies, all finely woven in crisp, white starched yarn in intricate patterns of double and single stitch crochet.
Through the years, my mother had been gifted these doilies by my grandmother and my aunts, who adhered to the traditionalist domestic credo that stated women should never sit idly, but instead should occupy themselves with feminine crafts like crochet, knitting and cross-stitch.
Though my mother never inherited this same aptitude in the textile arts, I took an interest in knitting and crocheting in high school and have remained a poor but enthusiastic crafter ever since. I insisted that my mother let me have the full contents of this cardboard box, and with a few exceptions (some particularly stunning and delicate antique embroidered curtains my grandmother completed as a newlywed, to be passed on to me on my own wedding day) she let me take home the lot.
Today, in my living room back home in Montreal, is a duffel bag stuffed full with more than thirty doilies, two hand woven rugs in bright colours, and, most treasured of all, an embroidered cloth with floral details that reads “nasa djeca, nasa radost; neka znaju sto je mladost.”
If a duffel bag full of doilies seems an absurd image, it is only because of what the doily connotes. The cultural semiotics of doilies, and other markers of Balkan aesthetics like them, bring to mind a whole slew of associations each with their own cultural, geographical, class and gender implications. Doilies, like a kind of woven mandala, represent the whole universe of kitsch. In this case, a uniquely Balkan kind of kitsch.
Kitsch, the ubiquitous “tackiness” and “poor taste” that is believed to dominate the artistic and cultural production of the Balkans, is the physical representation that confirms the backwardness the West has always suspected. Defined broadly, kitsch in this case describes the production of out-dated aesthetics. It is the polyester in our track suits, the 2 karat gold in the chains around our necks, the garish off-brand make up we swipe across our faces with gusto, the overstuffed living rooms of grandmothers whose enthusiasm for bric-a-brac and tchotchkes offend our modern minimalist sensibilities. It is superfluous, outdated, of a different era and a different place.
There is an unchallenged assumption that there is no culture in the Balkans, or if there is, it is of no value. Eastern Europe, it is believed, is a place of quaint traditions and humble folksiness, bereft of the grand traditions and artistic legacies of the West. In many ways, the Balkans represents a kind of anti-culture, working against the grain of Western European Enlightenment.
Of course, any critical observer would see the faults in this line of argumentation. The Balkans is home to great poets and writers, Nobel Laureates, thousands of years of fascinating and under-researched history, not to mention many contemporary artists doing exceptional work even today. Why then this frozen image of the Balkans?
Maria Todorova, in her essay “The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention” reminds us that the Balkans have been constructed in a particular way and for a particular purpose in the Western psyche. The roots of our modern understanding of the Balkans as the place of anti-culture, lie in the “the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian.”
Geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘the other,’ the Balkans became, in time, the object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations and have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ and ‘the west’ has been constructed.
Todorova argues that the Balkans are constructed as an “other” within Europe, the opposite side of the dichotomous labels of “progressive/reactionary, advanced/backward, urban/rural, industrialized/agricultural, rational/irrational, historic/non-historic” and so on.
In this way, kitsch serves as a visual shorthand for the inferiority of Eastern Europe. The doilies and knick-knacks that crowd our living room are therefore not just an aesthetic choice, they are viewed as a sign of our intellectual and cultural poverty, a hideous artifact of our historical anti-culture tendencies. The doily, like all other pieces of artistic production, has been placed within a hierarchy of aesthetic worth where kitsch is ranked very low, to be enjoyed only in moderation and with a protective veil of irony. Negative interpretations of kitsch promote a kind of classism that devalues the art and culture of individuals working without the approval of institutions and authorities of “taste.”