Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Community of Kitsch

There's an interesting review of Brithish philosopher Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty, that looks at the value (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of kitsch. In "Finding Kitsch's Inner Beauty," Robert Fulford praises Scruton's text for holding the "now marginalized view" that philosophers should help the rest of us "think about issues that really matter." (Marginalized? Really?) The "issue that really matters" here is the issue of beauty, and the question that concerns both Scruton and Fulford is why the hoi polloi can't seem to direct their/our aethestic and moral sensibilities towards the beautiful. Instead, we love kitsch, which is at best a degraded, narcissistic and utterly mundane imitation of (real) beauty. Scruton argues, following Kant, that this is not simply a matter of "bad taste," but a moral failure on our parts. As summarized by Fulford, Scruton's argument is as follows:

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...

Kitsch trivializes human conflict and demotes feeling into bathos. It's a mould that forms, as Scruton says, over a living culture... The moral effect of kitsch may be obscured by sentiment but it's there. Kitsch, Scruton correctly points out, is a heartless world. It directs emotion away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without truly feeling them.

Reading this reminded me of a discussion about Kant's notion of the sublime that we had on this blog sometime last year, which was itself a reminder of how difficult and brilliant the Critique of Judgment really is. Anyway, here's my question: I wonder whether or not all forms of kitsch have this "narcissistic" effect that Scruton describes? I'm not talking about the ceramic duck pictured above or those obnoxious garden gnomes, but maybe something more like Velvet Elvis renderings or pop music. Isn't part of the pleasurable feeling that we experience with these examples of kitsch attributable to some sense of a community connection that they inspire? That sense is not the same as Kant's sensus communis, of course, because it at best only connects us to a part of the human community (e.g., the part that loves Elvis)-- but isn't it a moral feeling nonetheless? Doesn't it signal some sense of the transcendent, in a way that Scruton denies to kitsch?

8 comments:

steventhomas said...

It seems to me that Scruton and Fuller (like Kant) have no sense of humor... and a sense of humor is essential for the sensus communis, as Shaftesbury pointed out almost a century before Kant in his essay "Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour." (Seriously, who needs Kant if we already have Shaftesbury, who is actually fun to read?)

As that pertains to kitsch... isn't part of the pleasure of it the laughter it provokes? (Come on, a velvet portrait of Elvis? That's hilarious.) And is there any room for irony and laughter in Kant's sense of the beautiful? And isn't a sense of irony necessary for any truly ethical sensibility? And isn't kitsch partly a way for the working class to say "fuck you and your sense of the beautiful" to the bourgeois, ruling class? And isn't saying "fuck you" to the bourgeoisie the most ethical act one can imagine?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I guess it depends on how we define kitsch, but I tend to agree with Kundera and think (in contradistinction to Steven) that one of the main distinguishers of kitsch is that it even if it has some kind of humor, it lacks any real sense of irony or absurdity (hipster enjoyment of kitsch might not be the same thing as kitsch --- a point that was driven home to me many years ago when my brother and I were "marvelling" at a natural cave in Mexico turned into a little cathedral, and the folks behind us began crossing themselves and praying).

So rather than defend kitsch against Scruton, I might pull out the ole' tu quoque fallacy and reply that much of what Scruton calls beauty is traditionalist kitsch...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Oh and I forgot the point of this: again, following Kundera, this might mean that kitsch can enable communities, just not any communities we'd necessarily want to be members of....

steventhomas said...

Hmmm.... Ideas Man has got a point there, and it's hard to argue with a writer as *beautiful* as Kundera.

And admitedly, even when I wrote what I wrote before, I was half-aware that I was supplementing the kitsch with my own sense of irony.

e. said...

my blog isn't as clever as yours.

emma b. said...

First thing: Scruton is an unremitting conservative snob.

Second thing: I wouldn't be so quick to separate kitsch and irony about kitsch. Even in a sacred setting, kitsch may be always already ironic. (I do not think the over-the-top aesthetic of Mexican shrines escapes the Mexican Catholic sensibility). I do not think the ridiculousness of the gnomes escapes the gnome collector. Hence my fight with Eric about that Indian pop video with subtitled English nonsense words that mimic the Hindi of the singing. I think the performers are already perfectly aware of the high camp/kitsch value of their performance. Irony: It's not just for White Western middle-class Hipsters...

DOCTOR J said...

I think I am inclined to agree with emma (and not Ideas Man) that kitsch almost always involves some sort of irony. I think maybe that's how we distinguish it from your garden-variety "bad taste." People who love kitsch love it because it's *not* beautiful (in the way that steven suggests, I think), but because it's trying to *be* beautiful in a way that it isn't because it can't be. Or something like that.

What I mean to say, I think, is that the pleasure we experience with kitsch is like the pleasure we experience with saccharine. It's too sweet, trying too hard to produce pleasure... which allows us to appreciate the irony of (manufactured) aesthetic experience along with the in-the-ballpark-of an aesthetic experience itself.

Good God, this was some mangled prose. I know what I meant, though. Or, at least, I think I do... (Talk about trying too hard!)

DOCTOR J said...

But to return to the initial post... if it IS the case that kitsch always already involves irony, wouldn't that suggest that kitsch DOES in fact connect us to some sort of community (at the very least, a community of meaning from which irony can be constituted as meaningful)?

And if that's the case, is that what you (Ideas Man) mean by "a community we wouldn't necessarily want to be members of"?