Here’s another interesting review of Robert Scruton’s book Beauty. This time the subject is high art’s trashy cousin, kitsch. Robert Fulford, of the National Post, doesn’t really let on whether he agrees with Scruton’s didsdain of kitsch or not, be he does a nice job of summarizing the issue. On the essence of kitsch: “an imitation of human feeling wrapped in a thick layer of cuteness.” On the problem of kitsch: “Kitsch encourages us to dwell on our own satisfactions and anxieties; it tells us to be pleased with what we have always felt and known. It reaches us at the level where we are easiest to please, a level requiring a minimum of mental effort.” And in contrast with beauty:
At the other end of the scale (from art and beauty), kitsch (“that peculiar disease that we can instantly recognise but never precisely define, and whose Austro-German name links it to the mass movements and crowd sentiments of the 20th century”) degrades beauty through the Disneyfication of art. Kitsch trivializes human conflict and demotes feeling into bathos. It’s a mould that forms, as Scruton says, over a living culture.
What’s behind this sort of thinking is the notion that in an encounter with art, the more work required of the viewer or audience, the better. And in it’s essence, I agree. A work of art, be it painting or music or theatre, can be judged to some degree by the richness of the conversation it elicits inside. Years ago, I was given a print of cartoons characters saying goodbye to their long time voice-over master, Mel Blanc. When I first saw it, I was struck pretty deeply. It was a simple and profound tribute to a pop culture icon. With no disrespect intended, that sensation lasted a very, very short time. The print now is buried somewhere in a back room in my house gathering dust. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment of the piece, and Mel Blanc’s contribution and his work continues to demand the respect the print suggests, but the print itself cannot continue to deliver the initial punch. It is an ah-ha moment when you see it, but it is a small ah-ha that is then over. This is the essence of kitsch, the delivery of a single shot of feeling that has no resonance for the long haul. Once the feeling fades, it’s time for another shot, another print, another cute coffee mug or bathroom shelf statue. And so on, and so on.
The problem, of course, is that Christians love kitsch. We love to be reminded on superficial levels of the basic things we believe. In the same that Post-it note reminders can help us remember we need to pick up the milk and eggs and the store, wall plaques and cheap crosses and scripture magnets can help remind us of where our minds need to be directed, but they’re not much help in reflecting on the deeper matters, the long-haul matters, the profound matters that the gospel call us to. But then, again (he argues with himself), Christianity has always been populist to a huge degree, and maybe God doesn’t need the great art of the masters to communicate and move his love into hearts.
In the plaque above, no argument about God answering prayer. But the process of praying and living through the receiving of those answers is pretty different that what is suggested by the forms and materials. It’s just not that simple.
However, I’m ambivalent about kitsch to some degree, because I look at art as conversation, and it takes many kinds of conversations to make relationship. The problem is getting confused as to what is intimacy, and what isn’t. Kitsch is fine, as long as we don’t go to it to get fed. Twinkies won’t build muscle or aerobic capacity.
Kitsch won’t build soul…