Monday, September 30, 2013

Does Kitsch Evoke Cheap and Easy Emotions?

Kitsch has been defended by Robert Solomon in his famous article "Kitsch" (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Winter 1991) but Solomon's defense is not whole-hearted.  He says that kitsch may be bad art but is not necessarily immoral.  In talking with my students I have never been able to make a convincing case that kitsch is immoral.  The more interesting question is whether it is bad art.  Solomon's definition of kitsch as art "that is deliberately designed to... move us by presenting a well-selected and perhaps much-edited version of some particularly and predictably moving aspect of our shared experience, including...innocent scenes of small children and our favorite pets playing and religious and other sacred icons" is not terribly helpful since there can be works of art on these topics that are not kitsch (Mary Cassatt painting pictures of mothers and children, for example. and no one considers her work to be kitsch), and Greek tragedy presents a well-selected version of experience in such a way as to move us, but it is not kitsch.  I am not going to try to provide a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but a cleaner definition could be provided.  It might just focus on sweet kitsch.  Sweet kitsch is art designed to give us sentimental feelings characterized by exclamations that the subject is pretty or cute.  Many scenes of small children and pets do fall into the category.  Other categories of kitsch include religious and patriotic kitsch.  These forms of art also appeal to our emotions in a way that is intended to evoke quick approval without any attendant reflection.  Another kind of kitsch is kitsch artifacts:  these are not works of art, although they may contain representations.  They include garden gnomes and pink flamingos and also evoke the "how cute or pretty" response. 

Thomas Kinkaid's paintings are generally considered paradigmatic of kitsch art objects in our era.  In many respects Kinkaid was quite talented, and his paintings often were the result of both reflection and skill.  So it cannot be because of lack of thee qualities that his paintings are kitsch. Although his paintings required some skill they were always intended to evoke quick sentimental responses without reflection.  Most of my students agree that kitsch does evoke cheap, easy and superficial emotions, and would agree that Kinkaid's paintings do this.  But many think that this is not a problem.   I feel that it is a problem, but where exactly does the problem lie?  It is certainly not the case that fine art is the only kind of art.  There are decorative arts and popular arts, for example.  Also the question of what sorts of emotions art should evoke goes back to the debate between Aristotle and Plato over the value of Greek tragedies, Plato holding that the evocation of pity and fear gives the emotions rule over the rational part of the soul, whereas Aristotle sees the catharsis of these emotions to be valuable.  Solomon in his defense of kitsch saw it as evoking emotions of sentimentality and other child-like emotions that might be beneficial even in adults.  Superficial sweet emotions are certainly natural and common, so why would art that evokes them be considered bad art or bad for us?  The simplicity of kitsch may be a problem, and yet many good works of art are simple in appearance, and some things called kitsch seem fairly complex.

I have often suspected that kitsch is a problem because it is unrealistic about life:  it presents us what appears to be a perfect world, but this is an illusion...perhaps a comforting one, but certainly not what we would expect from good art.  Kinkaid's paintings present us with a world in which nothing bad can happen.  However, Walter Keane's early paintings of girls with big eyes are clearly kitsch even though the girls exist in the bombed-out world of post-war Europe.  This takes us back to the notion that kitsch is shallow, sentimental and unreflective art.  I personally do not enjoy kitsch and would prefer that my students spend more time on more serious art.  Well, to be honest, I'd prefer that they find kitsch disgusting, as I do.  But they hardly ever do!  They are not going to be challenged by kitsch.

Interestingly, although a painting of a cute puppy would generally be kitsch, an actual cute puppy is not.  Nor would we consider our response of "oh, how cute!" when seeing such a puppy to be kitsch.  Can there be kitsch appreciation of nature?  Allen Carlson attacks appreciation of nature that focuses on landscapes that are scenic or picture-like.  One could say that when the appreciation of nature evokes a shallow sentimental response such as "oh, how pretty" then the response is treating nature as if it were a kitsch picture....and this would be a kitschy appreciation of nature.  Although most people find that kitsch allows them to escape their troubles, most people with some training in the history of art will not find that kitsch does this for them.  Is there something sad or too bad about this?  Is it sad when sophistication makes it impossible to appreciate certain things?  It might be argued that the main problem with kitsch is that it takes time that could better be spent on serious or fine art.  The problem with this is that we do not feel quite the same about genre fiction.  We do not generally feel that reading a mystery novel is bad because it takes away time one could better spend reading Shakespeare or Joyce. 

Although David Hume attacked the equivalent of kitsch in his own time when he criticized a certain species of beauty including coarse paintings and vulgar ballads (the sorts of the things that peasants or American Indians would prefer, on his view) he doesn't really provide a reason for holding that the good judge (which is his standard of good taste) would reject kitsch.  Perhaps the good judge would not like kitsch because such a judge has "good sense" which simply means the capacity to reason about works of art, and that there is little to exercise reason on when it comes to kitsch.

One student said the following (edited a bit for clarity):  "I think it is true that kitsch evokes 'cheap' or 'easy' emotions, but I do not think that this is something that should be considered a problem.  Our reactions and emotions with response to art or situations in life do not always have to be refined, educated or profound.  The sort of relaxed and casual release that kitsch gives can be beneficial as it allows us to be more true to ourselves (for example in highlighting our sentimental side).  Attempting to make everything serious or critical isn't necessary, and allowing ourselves to be more casual when examining some pieces of art is better for us in the long run."  This sums up nicely the pro-kitsch approach in my classes. 

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