Thursday, May 04, 2006

An Explanation of Kitsch

Love Gone Cold: A Model of How Kitsch Happens

What is kitsch? The word has taken on several meanings over the years, all relating in some way to inferior art. But, what do we mean when we call an object of art "kitsch"? Does the word point to a specific theme in the art, or some aspect of its composition? Does it pass judgment on the manufacture of the art object, or on its usage? Or does it perhaps say something about our individual experience of the art object? I would like to use previous theories of kitsch, particularly that of Kathleen Higgins, while drawing heavily from the recent work of Jenefer Robinson, in order to offer a possible explanation of what we mean when we call a piece of art ‘kitsch’.

Robinson’s work, in her study Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music and Art, details the emotional responses that some works of art provoke. She claims that emotional states involve a physiological process that begins automatically and at an unconscious level. Therefore, certain works of expressive art are “successful” in communicating an emotion by bringing about an appropriate physiological response in the viewer. Although it might seem odd at this point, what I hope to do in this essay is to situate Robinson’s argument within the philosophical literature on kitsch, which I will detail now.

The term “kitsch” was first coined by Munich art dealers in the late 1800s to describe artwork that was cheap or inferior. It initially meant ‘sketch’, implying that the work was rushed and half-finished, but it soon took on the blunter connotation of ‘trash’ or ‘muck’. A specific cultural implication was that ‘kitsch’ was artwork that appealed to the tastes of the Munich nouveau-riche, that it was essentially a bourgeois taste in imitation of art with true aesthetic value. Kitsch has since then accrued the implication of being the converse of aesthetically valuable art.

In general therefore, kitsch is held to be a genre of bad art; most theories of kitsch hold that it is a “certain type of aesthetically deficient art”.[1] Kitsch is not synonymous with any kind of bad art. For instance, we should not assume that kitsch is necessarily poorly executed. Many works of kitsch, such as those by the painter Thomas Kinkade, show skill in execution; a characteristic that we will see does not prevent them from being kitsch. Conversely, much amateur art is poorly executed, but is not considered kitsch. Early theoretical explanations of kitsch emphasized the mass marketability of kitsch; they characterized it as the sort of false artwork that was so popular as to threaten true culture. Theodore Adorno, taking a Marxist approach, dealt with kitsch as a product of the culture industry. He called it a “parody of catharsis” and argued that it is mass-produced art that distracts a population from its own alienation. This is art that does not challenge the dominant power structure in any way. In fact, it is not even art, but more an “ideological surrogate structured by specific class interests.”[2]

In fact, one of the most commonly cited criteria of kitsch is that it is artwork that aims at a sort of universal acceptance. Kitsch wants to be loved. But, this seems to explain the artist’s motivation in creating the art instead of how the art was created. Adorno’s definition, instead, focuses on a certain sort of mass production. I believe that this is unnecessary. We can easily imagine a shoddy artist creating a singular work of kitsch with no intention of distributing it. Much youthful art that aims at romantic persuasion can seem overly sentimental or kitschy when looked at years later. However, we do not create ‘romantic’ paintings for love interests with the intention of distracting them from their social alienation!

Secondly, the argument assumes that artwork that is created to challenge with a specific political intention, to challenge the dominant power structure, cannot be kitsch. While we might accept that ‘Soviet kitsch’ was intended as propaganda for a dominant power structure, I suspect we can find examples of social realist theatre that could qualify as kitsch for reasons that I will detail later in this essay.

Lastly, the argument suggests that a lack of political consciousness somehow makes mass produced art kitsch. It seems possible to find works of art that use whimsy to appeal to a mass audience, and which do not deal whatsoever with contemporary social issues, and yet not consider them to be kitsch. One example of this might be Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which appeals to a mass audience in a whimsical and relatively unchallenging way, and yet contains a surprisingly profound and poignant exploration of the childhood. This film has never struck me as kitsch although it seems to fit Adorno’s criteria.

Perhaps though, Adorno is only referring to a specific genre of kitsch. This would be kitsch that serves a specific political purpose; that it is a sort of propaganda. It fills a mass spiritual longing by directing it towards an imitation of authentic art. Clement Greenberg, whose approach is similar to Adorno’s, considered kitsch to be ‘ersatz culture’. I would like to return to this idea later when considering what genuine art achieves, what exactly is the aspect of this art that kitsch seems to parody?

Milan Kundera also links kitsch to propaganda, characterizing it as untaxing art that “excludes everything from its purview” that is unacceptable in life. It is idealized and aims at universal acceptance in a way that is self-conscious and normative. He 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… Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all political parties and movements.” This definition would seem to rely on a specific emotional response and again emphasizes “effortless catharsis”.

However, it also approaches a critique of sentimental art more generally. Robert C. Soloman has defended kitsch on the grounds of defending sentimentality. His argument is essentially that calling something kitsch harkens to a larger critique of sentimentality, starting with Kant, which can have the effect of condemning useful, humane feelings. However, I don’t believe that we see a piece of art and are moved in a sentimental way, and then call the work kitsch because we are uncomfortable with sentimentality. In fact, I’m not convinced that kitsch makes any tears flow. Therefore, I think we can save sentimental art and sacrifice kitsch.

Thomas Kulka argues that kitsch is simply parasitic on the emotions that it refers to. He gives three criteria for kitsch:
1) Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions,
2) The themes are instantly and easily identifiable.
3) Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the themes.
This model seems to describe certain aspects of the experience of viewing kitsch. I think Kulka is right that kitsch does not enrich our associations relating to the themes. Kitsch seems to require no reflection whatsoever, and actually does not allow reflection. It indeed offers us easily identifiable cues to certain simple emotions, although I am not sure what would qualify as a “stock emotion”. Also, it seems to me that certain lighthearted or joyous artworks, such as a Marx Brothers film, or certain Van Gogh paintings, could easily be misconstrued as kitsch according to this model.

The same problem comes up, to a lesser extent, in Kathleen Higgins’s similar model of kitsch. Higgins argues that kitsch “of the saccharine kind”, which she calls “sweet kitsch” makes a certain appeal to the viewer. The kitsch image “appeals by making reference to something not depicted,” specifically “a whole, complicated structure of beliefs about the way things are, and/or desires about the way things ought to be.”[3] She calls these beliefs “cultural archetypes” and argues that kitsch makes reference to them without any conspicuous awareness of what this gesture of reference implies. Higgins, rightly I think, makes the viewer’s response central to the definition of kitsch; it works as kitsch because we recognize and fill in the structure of beliefs in our own minds.

The benefits of Higgins’s approach are many. For one, it allows her to explain propaganda as kitsch that contextualizes these cultural archetypes. So, if kitsch says “How nice it is to be moved, with all mankind, by a child running on the grass!” propaganda says “How nice it is to be moved, with the entire nation, by one of our children running on the grass!” Indeed, the offense of much propaganda is in the way that it contextualizes more universal archetypes.

Higgins’s approach also allows for an explanation of why kitsch often makes the viewer uncomfortable. Because kitsch gestures towards an archetype without any statement about the particular structure of belief, or even any conspicuous concern as to the structure of belief, or to what the gesture implies, it can seem cold and thoughtless. It has no “intellectual purposiveness” as Higgins notes.[1] She compares this to someone who feigns politeness, and believes that this is why kitsch can seem to be artificial.

However, I’m also not convinced that Higgins isn’t describing sentimental art more generally, much of which is not experienced as kitsch. In certain cases, I could imagine blissful art in which the same naivety that Higgins describes would seem more instinctual or exuberant than artificial. In other cases, a whimsical or light-hearted mood might be dampened by the conspicuous awareness of the archetypes that are evoked. In painting, this theory does not fully explain to me why a painting like Monet’s Woman in the Garden Saint-Addresse evokes a certain cultural idea of the beauty of nature in a simple and direct way, and without any conspicuous indication that the artist is aware of the structure of beliefs to which the archetypes belong, does not read as kitsch. In this case, art that seeks to bring a certain emotional response in the viewer as un fin en soi might actually be diminished if we thought that Monet was painting with intellectual purposiveness instead of emotional purposiveness.

Nevertheless, the charms of Higgins’s theory are many and I would like to modify it a bit in forming my own definition of kitsch a bit later. For now, however, I would like to consider a final theory of art that seems to offer quite a bit of help in understanding kitsch. Jenefer Robinson’s argument in her book Deeper Than Reason offers a model for understanding how we experience art that I think can be applied to kitsch as well to explain why it is that we feel uncomfortable in the presence of kitsch. I believe that Robinson also serves to amplify certain aspects of Higgins’s argument.

Robinson begins by offering a definition of emotions as a process. The process begins when we make “affective appraisals” that “respond automatically to events in the environment…”[1] Even though the event that triggers the appraisal may be cognitively complex, such as suddenly understanding that a check we have written has bounced, the affective appraisal is automatic and non-cognitive. This appraisal triggers a variety of “physiological changes that register the event in a bodily way and get the agent ready to respond appropriately.”[2] The third step in the process is our “cognitive monitoring” of our physiological states and recognition that we are, in fact, experiencing the emotion.

In the case of an emotion like fear, the event triggers an automatic non-cognitive appraisal that starts our heart racing and our hair to stand on end. As we monitor these physiological changes, we recognize the emotion at play. This explains why emotions often seem to work at a level beyond cognitive control. In the case of artworks, Robinson’s model allows her to get beyond the so-called “paradox of fiction” to explain why certain literary works seem to effect us in an emotional way even though we may know, on the level of cognition, that they are fictional. In certain cases, such as sentimental novels, our emotional responses to the work give us important information that helps us to understand the work properly.[3] In certain ideal examples, the way that we respond emotionally to the work can instruct us about aspects of life itself.[4]

In the case of art, we can see how certain art uses specific motifs to promote an emotional response in the viewer. Certainly much art of the Romantic period works in this way. To give a real-life example, my wife was moved to tears when she saw the painting The Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre. The massive scale of the piece and her automatic recognition that these were figures in the last moments of life affected her directly, and she sat down sobbing on one of the benches. She did not know the story of the shipwreck, or the horrible fate of the survivors on that make-shift raft, and she certainly had no idea of the political context in which the painting was created. But, the signals that this was a painting of death intended to overwhelm the viewer triggered the appropriate automatic response in her.

In a sense, Higgins suggests that our affective response to kitsch is also central to our recognition of it. Kitsch evokes certain archetypes on a subconscious level, without directly addressing them. It offers us an image of a kitten in a tree, evoking our culture’s beliefs about wide-eyed furry creatures and their supposed innocence, but not conspicuously addressing those beliefs.

I would suggest that Higgins might be talking about a sort of art that is a subset of the art that Robinson discusses, that is art that evokes an automatic affective appraisal. For instance, Robinson discusses the brilliant Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich, whose paintings she says give us “a vision of the world from the point of view of one in awe before the spirituality of the universe.” She claims that the experience of the artwork “enables audiences to feel something of what it is like to be in the emotional state articulated in the work of art.” Our emotional understanding of the art is central here.

I do not want to suggest that Friedrich was a painter of “sweet kitsch”. His works do evoke direct and emotionally-charged associations with certain cultural archetypes of his era. The idea that “nature enlarges the soul and society shrinks it” is very much an archetype of the 19th century and of Romanticism. However, in works such as “Cloister Cemetery in the Snow”, Friedrich shows definite signs of intellectual purposiveness. The painting makes an argument about the frailty of human institutions that is intentional, and which we discover through the sort of intellectual reflection that is denied by “sweet kitsch”.

But I do not believe that “intellectual purposiveness” matters for Robinson’s argument. Art that affects us in the way that Higgins describes would be considered expressive art as well. Certainly what she calls “sweet kitsch” denies the sort of intellectual reflection that Friedrich’s work provokes. But, as the affective response is what is most central to Robinson’s argument, the distinction between these two sorts of art amounts to a difference between two types of expressive art. Robinson discusses Romanticism and Expressionism, but she might well have discussed “sweet kitsch”.

Next, I would like to suggest that Higgin’s argument is incomplete for explaining the experience of kitsch. In order to understand kitsch, it seems that we need to examine our encounters with it. At what point do we recognize that a particular work of art is in fact kitsch? Is it what Robinson calls an automatic affective appraisal? Is it a label that we perhaps misapply to artwork that affects our sentiments? Or is it an overall verdictive judgment that only comes later, after much reflection? Understanding how we experience kitsch would seem to help us understand just what kitsch is.

So, let us stand before kitsch and record our responses to it. Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s 1879 painting Naissance de Venus is often cited as a work of kitsch, particularly by critics who seek to connect kitsch and academic art. Nevertheless, prints of Naissance de Venus sell in great numbers at prices starting at $400, and the kitsch judgment is far from universal. What is important for my study is that this is a work of art that I personally experience as kitsch.
The first noticeable thing about the work is that it is technically flawless, suggesting again that kitsch is not a judgment that a work of art is flawed in its execution. In fact, Higgins has argued in her article “Beauty and its Kitsch Competitors” that the characteristic of flawlessness separates true beauty, which allows for flaws, from its kitsch imitations. Higgins suggests that flawless beauty in art can be artificial and alienating to the viewer.

Certainly, Bouguerau’s painting is idealized in a way as to suggest that flawlessness was his ideal. And indeed the painter strove for a sort of technical perfection in his artwork, arguing that “There's only one kind of painting. It is the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian.”[1] This description fits the painting in question; the ocean in this particular painting seems to be devoid of all foam and plant life, Venus’s skin is luminescent, and the cherubs are pink and healthy. The overall effect is, indeed, artificial and alienating.

Is all flawlessness problematic? I think Higgins is right that a flawless physical ideal can be kitsch, but I can think of examples of artworks that use this ideal, such as the bust of Nefertiti, that are not kitsch. Actually, Nefertiti would seem to go against the idea that this is a culturally-specific ideal.

But, Higgins is right that physical flawlessness can be off-putting, because this is a painting that is both immediately recognizable as aiming at an image of physical flawlessness and immediately off-putting. Bouguereau is not even remotely ambiguous. The painting gives us clear signals that its theme is beauty and that our proper response, in fact the only proper response, is admiration to the point of spiritual elevation. The work demands that we adore it. The painting knows that we find physical perfection and luminous health to be admirable traits, and assumes that we will respond in a compassionate way towards rolling fat infants. The cues are simple and straightforward and our awareness of them seems to be on the level of Robinson’s automatic affective appraisals.

And yet, the work fails to evoke this response. When I first see it, I feel in no way elevated spiritually or emotionally. I recognize the beauty and flawlessness of the figures even before I can tell what this is a picture of. But, the first thing I think of is a shrimp plate. Otherwise, I feel nothing but discomfort. It leaves me cold. The work clearly and insistently demands a specific response and the fact that I do not have that response is alienating.

This seems to support Robinson’s theory from an oblique angle. If she is right that certain art “works” by triggering an automatic affective response, then it might be the case that certain art fails by failing to evoke that response. In fact, when I say that the painting “leaves me cold” I suspect I am cognitively monitoring the fact that I am experiencing no physiological change, suggesting that one would be expected given the cues in the painting. The discomfort I feel when looking at Naissance de Venus seems similar to that of being the love interest of someone for whom I feel no attraction. The painting almost demands a response that it fails to evoke, and I suspect that the kitsch label points at this failure.

This would seem to suggest a reason that it is so hard to find compositional elements that serve as a barometer of kitsch. Physical perfection figures into many works of kitsch as well as great art. Puppies are in many works of kitsch as well as works by Rembrandt. Botticelli’s Venus does not strike me as kitsch. The composition is less crowded and more graceful than Bouguereau’s, the figures seem more harmonious and delicate than in Bouguereau. This might give some weight to Higgins’s ideas about imperfection and physical beauty because Botticelli’s Venus is physically imperfect with an oddly long neck and a left arm that hangs too low on her body. Bouguereau’s Venus might suffer for her perfection.

The difficulty arises when we come into contact with kitsch counterexamples. The next painting I would like to observe is Margaret Keane’s painting of a waif girl entitled “The Waif”. The painting seems to be the polar opposite of Bougeureau’s. Whereas the Naissance de Venus is technically perfect, Keane’s painting is technically crude. Whereas the first painting was luminescent and bathed in light, this one is dark and dingy. While that one traded in physical beauty, this one uses physical ugliness as a means of evoking our pity. Venus and the waif girl have literally nothing in common. The only possible commonality is that both paintings feature children; but the differences are too striking to make the claim that children are an indicator of kitsch. Also, we can think of many non-kitsch paintings of children. Henri Fantin-Latour’s portrait of the child Henri de Fritz-James is not remotely kitsch.

The two paintings only seem similar in how they make their appeals to the viewer. Both of them are unambiguous and require no reflection on our part. One painting says “Be awed at this beautiful woman and cherubs!” and the other says “Feel pity for this crying little poor girl!” Neither one is successful in my case. However, this points towards Higgins’s idea that certain art makes a “kitsch appeal” in employing certain emotionally-charged associations in a simple and direct way in order to direct the viewer towards a single emotional response. While I agree with her that we use the word “kitsch” to refer to certain works of art that do this, I disagree that we should, then, call this a “kitsch appeal”. I would call it more of a sentimental appeal in light of the fact that much sentimental art works in exactly the same way.

It would be a good idea to briefly consider what we should call sentimental art. In his essay The Test of Time, Antony Saville argues that sentimentality cannot be a quality of works of art that stand the test of time. Sentimentality, he says, is not a particular feeling or idea, but a mode of feeling or thought.[5] A sentimental mode of thought “idealizes its object under the guidance of a desire for gratification or assurance.” [6] For instance, my cat rubs against my legs and purrs at around six o’clock every night because she knows that this behavior will result in her receiving food. I would be sentimentalizing her if I were to convince myself that this behavior is evidence of the cat’s undying love for me. Saville recognizes this self-deluding quality as indicative of sentimentalizing. He says that sentimentality “fabricates the good where it is felt not to be, or felt to be in inadequate strength.”[7] Sentimentality easily gratifies certain emotional needs, but it is also based in unreal idealization.

Sentimental art, then, is art that gives easy gratification to the viewer’s emotional needs by corresponding to their idealized views about something in the world. It need not be overly pleasant. Saville realizes that political anger, for example, can be idealized and unrealistic. Also, he recognizes that much sentimentalizing is based in a desire to feel a certain way about ourselves. I want to feel loved by my cat, when her thoughts are more likely about survival, because I want to reinforce a certain flattering image of myself. This recalls Kundera’s second tear, which says, “How nice it is to be moved, along with all of humanity, by a child running in the grass!” Compare this to Saville’s description of sentimentality: “Take for instance those very common objects of sentimentalization, children and domestic pets.” Also common objects of kitsch, we might note. “Projecting onto them an exaggerated vulnerability and innocence, I encourage myself to feel a tender compassion for them, one I may make use of to support a view of myself as a man of gentleness and fine feeling.” (239)

There are obvious connections with most of the accounts of kitsch that we have discussed. For one thing, sentimental art also aims at provoking cheap and easy emotional responses. Like kitsch, sentimentality also corresponds to a certain idealized ideas about the world. And as with Higgins’s model of kitsch, sentimental art also cannot make overt references to the system of beliefs that it evokes without undermining itself. Art that tells us that our pet cats love us dearly cannot maintain a sentimental mood if it then says, “Or, at least that’s what we would like to believe.” Saville writes that this “is something the sentimentalist can scarcely do, for to admit that his feeling is baseless will come uncomfortably close to abandoning it.” (244) For this reason, sentimentality involves self-deception as well as a denial that sentimental art really is unrealistic or idealized. Also, this is why Higgins’s art makes a sentimental appeal by evoking certain cultural archetypes but cannot make any conspicuous comments on those archetypes themselves. Most interestingly, Saville recognizes this culturally specific aspect of sentimentalizing and, like Higgins, sees it as a reason that the art in question cannot stand the test of time. As reality intrudes, sentimental art requires increasing amounts of self-deception.

In the case of Keane, she is clearly evoking our automatic feelings about innocence and frailty. These would seem to be advantageous feelings in the real world; I imagine that I would respond differently to a crying waif in my daily life than I do here, although if the child had such huge praying mantis eyes, I might understandably run screaming. So, then, let’s get to the eyes. Are the huge eyes that Keane has given the child another example of too-muchness? While they are Keane’s trademark, they are also an obvious aesthetic mistake. The painting wants to evoke our sympathy, and Keane knows that large eyes are usually seen as cute. However, the hugeness of these eyes goes against her intentions by bordering on the grotesque. Before we realize what Keane is doing, we wonder to ourselves, “What is wrong with this child?”

I would like to trouble our search for a common element of kitsch with a third example. The advertisement from Haussner Family Limited features a little girl in a white dress standing on a book next to a Saint Bernard who is taller than she is. The effect is, once again, alienating and off-putting. I recognize immediately that I am supposed to be charmed by this little girl and perhaps chuckle at the fact that she is still shorter than the dog while standing on the book, bless her heart. The white dress and blonde hair are supposed to evoke purity and innocence and comfort the viewer. Thankfully, her eyes are the correct size, and there is no element of the picture that we could ascribe the characteristic of “too-muchness” to. And yet, I don’t find myself charmed by the child’s precociousness or endeared to the loyal dog. I actually feel like I might be missing something. This is clearly a piece of art that is intended to move me emotionally, and yet it absolutely does not for reasons that I cannot even place.

But, again, what if children are an element of kitsch? I would like to give a last example of kitsch which features no children, or even people. Thomas Kinkade’s portrait of a snow-covered cabin has some of the elements that we have noted before; luminescence and flawlessness; yet it does not have any figures at all. I can recognize immediately that I am supposed to be comforted by the sense of peace that the picture evokes. I see the warm smoke and soft glow around the house and know that these are supposed to evoke security and calm. And yet, the painting leaves me with the same coldness as the others. In real life, I might keep walking past this cabin.
Yet, once again, I can think of landscapes by Matisse that aim at the same responses and achieve them. As much as I would like to, I cannot say that the Matisse landscapes evince any greater awareness of the cultural archetypes that they evoke than do the Kinkade landscapes. And yet, for me, the Matisse may be sentimental, but it is not kitsch, while the Kinkade is pure kitsch.

Nevertheless, I think we are approaching general characteristics of kitsch. Higgins is right that kitsch makes reference to larger cultural ideas about what is desirable or good. Flawless beauty, luminescent health, a cozy home, and a waifish child all relate in some way to larger unconscious ideas about the world. To use Robinson’s terminology, they send signals to the viewer intending to easily evoke a certain affective appraisal. Our immediate appraisal should be “that beauty is awe-inspiring!”, or “that house makes me feel safe!” or “oh, that poor little waif!” or “isn’t that little girl and her dog charming!” These are art works that offer simple and insistent cues directing us towards a basic emotional response.

Finally, I would like to look at a painting that should, by all accounts, be considered kitsch, but which does not strike me as such. Almost everything Norman Rockwell painted could be considered sentimental art, and I consider most of it to be kitsch. However, his 1957 painting “Girl at the Mirror” does not leave me cold. The painting certainly has all of the common elements of kitsch: a little girl, excessive innocence, cues that direct the viewer to a simple emotional response- here a sympathetic response. It is clear how Rockwell intends the image to affect us. He presents us with an image of an awkward adolescent girl sitting before a mirror and observing herself uncomfortably. Her body language is unpretentious, and in fact, could be considered unguarded. In common body lingo, she is unprotected and this signals to the viewer to let our guard down as well. Add to this the fact that we are literally looking over her shoulder and the effect is, intentionally, disarming.

I want to avoid assuming that the painting offers wry commentary on standards of beauty. The era and the artist lead me to believe otherwise. I believe that the painting attempts to directly affect the viewer in an emotional way. I think we are supposed to be charmed by this girl, to find her adorable in the same way we were expected to find the other little girls in the previous paintings adorable. The white dress is a rather obvious indicator of innocence and the painting clearly plays on cultural associations of little girls and games of dress up.

And yet, I do not experience it as kitsch. Perhaps because Rockwell does not push his sentimental cues to quite the same point that the other painters do, the painting still works. It remains sentimental art and not kitsch. Clearly sentimental art and kitsch are very similar. In fact, it seems very difficult to find elements that separate sentimental art from kitsch, unless we appeal to the viewer’s response to make that distinction. In every example, kitsch fails to evoke the response it aims at; it seems to be defective sentimental art.

So, I conclude that we can search forever to find common elements of kitsch and still come up empty-handed. I do agree with Higgins that kitsch uses certain emotionally-charged associations in a simple and direct way in order to direct the viewer towards a single emotional response. However, I also believe that sentimental art, such as the Noman Rockwell painting, does the same thing. And I agree with Robert Soloman that labeling all sentimental art “kitsch” runs the risk of condemning sentimental art more generally, and even possibly casting aspersions on certain useful emotions.

Therefore, I would like to modify Higgins by adding another condition for kitsch which I derive from Robinson. That is, kitsch is art that makes a sentimental appeal by evoking certain emotionally-charged archetypes in a very direct and insistent way in order to direct the viewer towards a simple emotional response. We recognize it as kitsch and not mere sentimental art, however, because it fails to evoke that response, which we recognize through cognitive monitoring. In much simpler terms, this is sentimental art that leaves the viewer cold.

[1] Robinson, 89.
[2] 89
[3] 133,
[4] 193
[5] Saville, 237.
[6] Saville, 241.
[7] Saville, 243.
[1] Higgins, 578

[1] Kathleen M. Higgins, “Beauty and its Kitsch Competitors” in Beauty Matters, 90
[2] Thomas Y. Levin; Michael von der Linn Elements of a Radio Theory: Adorno and the Princeton Radio Research Project, The Musical Quarterly Oxford University Press, 1994, 316.
[3] Kathleen Higgins, “Sweet Kitsch” in The Philosophy of the Visual Arts, ed. Philip Alperson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 572.

8 comments:

Brian said...

I stumbled on this page while looking for something else, and it is perhaps a bit late to comment on it now. I like your last sentence; it fits in with a somewhat whimsical definition of kitsch that I once thought of, namely "Skillfully executed art that I somehow still don't like."

But I see one problem here, and that is dependence on "the viewer." Sentimental art that leaves one viewer cold might deeply affect another. Hence whether something is or isn't kitsch remains pretty much a subjective judgment.

If I say "Bouguereau is kitsch," what I am really saying then is "I can see the work is highly skillfully painted and I can see what emotion I am supposed to feel here, but somehow I don't." Thus instead of being an effective insult, in the minds of people who do like the work in question, such a statement simply points to my own emotional or aesthetic deficiency rather than to any weakness in the painting. I think they are being overly sentimental; they think I'm being cold-hearted. But there is no objective way to settle the dispute.

Interestingly enough, when we think of kitsch we think mostly of work that is ineffective at expressing positive or supposedly positive human emotions like love or patriotism; a painting that is intended to horrify us but doesn't, perhaps has less chance of being called kitsch? If I find a Raphael Madonna and child overly sentimental and funny rather than moving, I might be tempted to call it kitsch. But if I find Goya's 'Saturn devouring his children' funny instead of horrifying, would I call it kitsch?

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