Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas card kitsch

In this season of Christmas cards, my mind wanders again to the wonderful concept of kitsch.

Roger Scruton's recent essay on kitsch does not deserve to be lost in obscurity. He quotes Milan Kundera's classic depictment of the essence of kitsch:
"The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation*. "Kitsch," he wrote, "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!"

"Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this - it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, "Look at me feeling this - how nice I am and how lovable."

"That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens's most sickly death-scenes, said that "a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell".


"Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all."
Scruton criticises much modern art as superficial anti-kitsch: an attempt to shock, rather than pamper the emotions of the audience. But shock alone is not art - and neither is shallow irony:
"Take Allen Jones, whose art, currently on display at the Royal Academy, consists of female lookalikes contorted into furniture, dolls with their sexual parts made explicit by underwear, vulgar and childishly nasty visions of the human female, the whole as frothy with fake sentiment as any simpering fashion model. Again the result is such obvious kitsch that it cannot be kitsch. The artist must be telling us something about ourselves - about our desires and lusts - and forcing us to confront the fact that we like kitsch, while he pours scorn on kitsch by laying it on with a trowel. In place of our imagined ideals in gilded frames, he offers real junk in quotation marks.

"Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself - namely its money value. Even at this point, however, the pretence is important. The purchaser must still believe that what they buy is real art, and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody - even the purchaser - could have faked such a product."

I find the concept of kitsch quite hard to pin down. There is the element of emotional manipulation, which may even be self-manipulation as described by Kundera, where vanity and self-satisfaction perfuse the primary emotional response.

There is also something of the judgement made by the smart and cultured about art which pleases the lower orders. Suppose that those three ducks on the wall are genuinely appreciated by the dim and uneducated whose tenements they adorn. When our lips move into a smirk and we mutter "kitsch", are we condemning the taste of those who decorate their meagre habitations thus, or are we demonstrating our complicity with those cynical capitalists who fabricated the wretched birds in the first place, intending on an unsophisticated and blindingly obvious emotional response?


The Unbearable Lightness of Being.