Sunday, 30 January 2011

On Kitsch and Sementality (Robert C. Salomon)
As the notion of "truth" requires "falsity," the very notion of "taste" in art necessitates the existence of "bad taste" and, consequently, bad art. But bad art, like falsehood, comes in many varieties and is subject to different kinds of objections. There is sheer technical incompetence, just to begin with (although artistic inability as such is much less fatal than it used to be); there is ignorance of the medium, the tradition and its history, the current fashions and the tastes of the times. For those outside the bustling art centers, what seems to be bad art may be just bad timing. There is unimaginative imitation and straightforwardp lagiarism. There is such a thing as having "no eye," the failure to understand color or composition. But there is also an "ethical" dimension to bad art, as in the depiction of the forbidden, the blasphemous, the vulgar expression of the inexpressible, the provocation of the improper and cruelty. [...]

Once upon a time, bad art was, above all, such use of unacceptable subject matter, evoking the wrong emotions and provoking the wrong reactions (e.g., visceral disgust and nausea)- but this too seems to have recently dropped out of the picture. These days, it is far wiser for an aspiring young artist to offend or disgust the viewer rather than evoke such gentle sentiments as sympathy and delight.

So this is just what is particularly interesting, from a philosophical point of view, about that peculiar variety of "bad art" called "kitsch," and, in particular, that variety of kitsch sometimes called "sweet kitsch. " Sweet kitsch is art (or, to hedge our bets, intended art) that appeals unsubtly and unapologetically to the softer, "sweeter" sentiments. [...] Examples of sweet kitsch are often mentioned as paradigm instances of bad art, but
the nature of its "badness" is just what makes kitsch philosophically interesting. [...]

What is wrong with sweet kitsch? Its deficiencies appear to be just what we would otherwise think of as virtues, technical proficiency and a well-aimed appeal to the very best of the viewer's emotions.

What is wrong with sweet kitsch, first and foremost, seems to be its sentimentality, its easy evocation of certain "sweet" emotions. But what is wrong with sentimentality,a nd sentimentality in art in particular? I think that the heart of the problem lies in our poor opinion of the motions in general and in particular the "softer" sentiments. [...]

By the end of the [19th] century, "sentimentalist" was clearly a term of ridicule and abuse, connoting superficiality, saccharine sweetness and the manipulation of mawkish emotion. Kitsch was its artistic equivalent, and artists in Paris who had been praised only a century before as the "geniuses" of Official Art became figures of loathing and ridicule in retrospect, mere curators of kitsch who produced paradigms of "bad art" which we keep in our museums only for the sake of the historians, and as contrasts to the great art of the "Refused" in the room next door. [...]

To call someone a "sentimentalist" in ethics is to dismiss both the person and his or her views from serious consideration, adding, perhaps a disdainful chortle and an implicit accusation of terminal silliness. Sentimentality is roundly condemned in the arts as well, and to call a piece "sentimental" or "kitsch" is to say that it is very bad art-if, indeed, it deserves recognition as art at all-and to cast suspicion on both its creator and its appreciative audience. [...] Kitsch and sentimentality lead to brutality. Sentimentality and kitsch reveal not only woefully inadequatea esthetic sense but a deep moral flaw of character.

What's wrong with kitsch?

I think we can narrow down the leading candidates for an argument to six: (1) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality provoke excessive or immature expressions of emotion; (2) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality manipulate our emotions; (3) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality express or evoke "false" or "faked" emotions; (4) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality express or evoke "cheap" or "easy" or "superficial" emotions; (5) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality are self-indulgent and interfere with "appropriate" behavior and, perhaps the most dominant charge; (6) the claim that kitsch and sentimentality distort our perceptions and interfere with rational thought and an adequate understanding of the world. The charge is that kitsch gives us a false and fraudulent, overly "sweet" and benign vision of the world (or certain
beings in the world, notably children and puppies) and thus somehow "blocks" our larger, nastier knowledge of the world (children and puppies too). Underlying all of these charges, indeed, is the suspicion that kitsch and sentimentality are modes of distraction and selfdeception, shifting our attention away from the world as it is and soothing us instead with objects that are uncompromisingly comfortable and utterly unthreatening. [...]

If someone responds tenderly to a little girl in a painting, is that not a good indication that they will tend to do so in the case of a real little girl? And if they respond with cold contempt to the painting, isn't that a warning, that this is a person deficient in essential human feelings? However sophisticated we may be, we respond to representational  art as if the subject in question were real and actual and the way we respond to art says a great deal about how we respond to life. It is not self-indulgence that motivates us to absorb ourselves in a painting and welcome the emotions it evokes. It is part of our emotional engagement in the human drama.

Once we remove from consideration those concerns that are appropriate to art and aesthetics rather than ethics, it seems to me that the real objection to kitsch and sentimentality is the rejection (or fear) of emotions and, especially, certain kind of sentiments, variously designated as "tender" or "sweet" or "nostalgic." But the rejection extends as well to the gloomier emotions, and Karsten Harries warns us: "how easy it is to wax lyrical over despair, to wallow in it, to enjoy it. This too is kitsch, sour kitsch." Mary Midgley points out that "thrillers" have much in common with kitsch and sentimentality, for they too distort reality and manipulate emotion (though different emotions and to a very different end). So what emotions are legitimate, "true" and undistorted? Can art evoke any ordinary human emotions without being condemned as kitsch? Is there any room left in our jaded and sophisticated lives for the enjoyment of simple innocence and "sweet" affection? The trumped-up charges against kitsch and sentimentality should disturb us and make us suspicious. These attacks on the most common human sentiments-our reactions to the laughter of a child, or to the death of an infant-go far beyond the rejection of the bad art that evokes them. It is true that such matters provide a facile vehicle for second or third rate painters, but if such incidents are guaranteed to evoke emotion it is because they are indeed a virtually universal concern. The fact that we are thus "vulnerable" may make for some very bad art but this should not provoke our embarrassment at experiencing these quite "natural" sentiments ourselves, nor should it excuse the enormous amount of sophistry that is devoted to making fun of and undermining the legitimacy of such emotion.

Solomon, Robert C. (1991) "On Kitsch and Sentimentality" 
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 1-14
Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics

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