Kitsch remains to me something of a mystery; I have the sense that it increasingly permeates reality and, the oddest thing of all is that I even begin to ‘see’ that the art that is supposed to be serious overlaps with or looks like Kitsch.
By chance I came across a short note on Kitsch that helped me grasp more clearly its identity: written by the conservative and traditionalist philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, it neatly summarised the reaction against all-things kitsch that was part of the modernist agenda. The modernists of the early 20th century devalued any art that beautified or prettified the world; Instead, art was to eschew sentimentalism (and all those big dewy eyes) and show ‘things as they are’; in the course of this a new sensibility emerged, a sensibility that expressed derangement, horror, disfigurement, angst and cruelty. (In other words, lots of artists made things that looked horrible.) And this modernist agenda was shared across the arts: So, as the high-priests of culture such as T.S. Eliot insisted, ‘The task of the poet was not to provide nostalgic dreams but to wake us up to reality.’
Scruton finds that in their quest to reject the old ways of doing things the artist had, at all costs, to avoid kitsch and this ‘became the first precept of the modernist artist in every medium’; Kitsch was reviled, tabooed and made abject. It follows that the fear of kitsch is one reason why so much contemporary art is deliberately offensive or disturbing. In doing this it satisfies the requirement not to be kitsch. Scruton goes on to claim that despite the fact we cannot easily define kitsch we recognise it when we come face-to-face with its manifestations. He provides the following examples:
The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. And, unsurprisingly, he mentions that at Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch. And we are! (I will underline this shortly.)
What, though is going on as ‘we’ engage with the kitsch-ridden things, objects, places and kitch-laden moments of this world. In a key passage in the text Scruton writes:
‘Kitsch … 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.’
His analysis continues with his observation that this transfer of emotion from object to subject – of the loss of precise and real emotion and its replacement by a ‘vague and self-satisfied substitute’ is why modernist artists had such a horror of kitsch. (The real had given way to a curious hybrid.) And Scruton drives a stake further into the heart of kitsch-dom by declaring that:
‘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.’
Nonetheless it turns out that it is difficult to avoid kitsch because the very business of trying to avoid it – by being ‘truthful’ (perhaps in the style of Nietzsche) or subversive (in the mood of Warhol) – can, itself, easily lead to another version of fakery: fake significance, fake originality, fake sincerity and a kind of loud ‘look at me’ advertising. None of this, as Scruton observes ‘touches the deepest regions of the human heart.’
Another strategy adopted by contemporary artists is the genre of ‘pre-emptive kitsch’ – a kitsch that is so obvious that it isn’t real kitsch but a meta-kitsch – kitsch commenting on kitsch. This can earn you a lot of money and cultural cachet – and that’s where it’s all gone pear or gnome-shaped. On this I agree with Scruton.
So, what are we to do? I really don’t know. I find myself watching TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and marvelling at the sheer spectacle, the over-the-top-ness of it all. Is it real kitsch, or is it just pure aesthetic spectacle? And are all those Father Christmases and gnomes on sale for Christmas a way of poking fun at ourselves. After all they are, as objects, rather fetching – faintly ludicrous and relatively harmless. I wonder: is it the case that if we simply get so used to a phenomenon over time it becomes part of the reassuring furniture of our lives. And perhaps that is a good thing.