Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kitsch Me If You Can

There are a lot of good ideas in this review of Roger Scruton's new book. Unfortunately because it's Scruton, those ideas can seem sort of musty and scolding. Moreover, the relationship between kitsch and beauty feels like a false dichotomy, and it's very easy to see how something that at face value seems kitschy can be transformed into something beautiful in the hands of right artist.

But I thought this was well expressed:

We miss the point if we think that beauty in art or literature or music has finished its job when it provides pleasure. Scruton argues, reasonably, that beauty also makes ethical demands on us. Its existence challenges us to "renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world."

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.

Beauty, on the other hand, demands we consider its meaning. It implies a larger world than the one we deal with every day. Even for those with no religious belief, it suggests the possibility of transcendence. Faith has declined in much of the West, but "art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species." As one reviewer has already pointed out, Scruton's "perspective is religious without belief."

At the other end of the scale, 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.

This all works well if you substitute kitsch with solipsism, beauty with imagination, and morality as an overcoming of the ego. Art, as this essay rightly recognizes, requires an imaginative leap of faith. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense that you open yourself up to the world without expecting any particular outcome or result. Art surprises and transforms.

What Scruton seems to miss is that it's always about context and the way that objects stand in relationship to one another and play on our imagination. In this way, an army of garden gnomes can be beautiful, while a magnetic reproduction of the Mona Lisa on your fridge can come off as the worst sort of bad taste.