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Kitsch and the Modern Predicament
Roger Scruton
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In a celebrated 1939 article, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," published in Partisan Review, the New York art critic Clement Greenberg argued that figurative painting was dead. "The alternative to abstraction," he wrote, "is not Michelangelo but kitsch." Every attempt to make the painted image vie with the photograph, he believed, would lead to disaster, as clichés took charge of the canvas. Henceforth painting must provide its own subject matter: it must be self-sufficient, pure, uncontaminated by the figurative image. The future of painting lay with the "abstract expressionists," as Greenberg described them: the artists who treated painting like music, as a medium for expressing emotion through the use of abstract forms.

Greenberg was perhaps the most influential art critic of his day. His essay set the agenda for an emerging school of New York painters and also set the price tag on their works. Vast sums of public and private money have since changed hands to stock American houses and American museums with works that, to the ordinary eye, have nothing to recommend them apart from their attempt to be abreast of the times. The avant-garde ceased to be a realm of caution and experiment and became, under Greenberg's tutelage, a mass industry. So long as you avoided the literal image, so long as you defied all figurative conventions, you, too, could be a modern painter. You, too, could establish your credentials as a pathbreaking artistic genius, by doing something—no matter what, so long as it left a permanent mark on a purchasable object—that no one had done before. And if you got lucky, you could be rich and famous, like Cy Twombly, on account of images that look like accidents—and might even be accidents, like the numbers that win on the lottery.

Of course, some painters refused to take this path—painters like Edward Hopper, who worked to purify the figurative image and to see again with the innocent eye. But critics and curators remained skeptical; they had invested too heavily in the avant-garde to believe that it was, after all, only a fashion. Hopper's success was therefore viewed as a freakish thing—a last-ditch survival of an art that elsewhere had been killed off by the march of history. For all truly modern people, the critics went on saying, Greenberg's maxim still held good: don't touch the figurative image, or you'll land yourself in kitsch.

The problem is, however, that you land yourself in kitsch in any case. Take a stroll around MoMA, and you will encounter it in almost every room: avant-garde, certainly—novel in its presumption, if not in its effect—but also kitsch, abstract kitsch, of the kind that makes modernist wallpaper or is botched together for the tourist trade on the Boulevard Montparnasse. The effusions of Georgia O'Keeffe, with their gushing suggestions of feminine and floral things, are telling instances. Study them, if you can bear it, and you will see that the disease that rotted the heart of figurative painting has struck at its successor. What makes for kitsch is not the attempt to compete with the photograph but the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap—the attempt to appear sublime without the effort of being so. And this cut-price version of the sublime artistic gesture is there for all to see in Barnett Newman or Frank Stella. When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being avant-garde.

If we look back over European art before the mid-eighteenth century, we find occasional lapses into sentimentality—in Murillo, for example, or Guido Reni or Greuze. We also discover mechanical and cliché-ridden art, like the music of Vivaldi. But we find nothing that really could be described as kitsch—not even Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which has survived its demotion to Muzak without losing its unaffected simplicity. The artless art of primitive people, the art of the medieval stonemasons and stained-glass makers—all these are naive and devoid of high pretensions. Yet none is kitsch, nor could it be. This art never prompts that half-physical revulsion—the "yuk!" feeling—that is our spontaneous tribute to kitsch in all its forms. Of course, stained-glass kitsch exists, but it is the work of Pre-Raphaelites and their progeny—the work of sophisticated people, conscious of their loss of innocence. We all admire the craftmanship of Burne-Jones, but we are also conscious that his figures are not angels, but children dressing up.

Critics noticed and lamented the capture of the visual arts by fake emotion long before the word "kitsch" was invented. The art of Bouguereau was a triumphant version of what was soon to be a mass-marketed product—and a major import to America. L'art pompier, as it was later known—pumped-up art—prompted Baudelaire's famous essay in defense of Manet, "The Painter of Modern Life"; it led to the revolt of the Impressionists against the salons and to the first conscious split between highbrow and middlebrow taste. Modernism was in part a defense against the sentimentality of mass culture. And the first desire of the modernists was to re-connect themselves to the innocent, prelapsarian art of people uncorrupted by the modern media. Pound and Eliot in literature, Bartók, Copland, and Stravinsky in music, Picasso and Gauguin in painting—all were keen anthropologists, looking for those "genuine" and unforced expressions of sentiment against which to weigh the empty clichés of the post-romantic art industry.

They were surely right that kitsch is a modern invention. But pre-modern people are not proof against it. On the contrary, their immune systems seem helpless in the face of this new contagion; today the mere contact of a traditional culture with Western civilization is sufficient to transmit the disease, rather as tribes were once rescued from their darkness by colonial adventurers and missionaries, only to die at once from smallpox or TB. A century ago, no African art was kitsch. Now kitsch is on sale in every African airport—antelopes, elephants, witch doctors, and hobgoblin deities, skillfully carved in ivory or tropical hardwood, imitating the enchanted figures that inspired Picasso but, in this or that barely perceptible detail, betraying their nature as fakes.

Much of our present cultural situation can be seen as a response to this remarkable phenomenon—not, I think, encountered before the Enlightenment but now ubiquitous and inescapable. In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it. "Kitsch," wrote Greenberg, "is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times." And he had in mind not figurative painting only, but Hollywood, popular music, the picture postcard, and indeed, all the flotsam of mass culture. One's main thought, nevertheless, on reading Greenberg's essay is: "How lucky he was to live then and not now."

The word "kitsch" comes to us from German, though its origins are obscure: many suspect a Yiddish input, a knowing wink from the shtetl. German art and literature of the last century certainly provide some of the choicest instances—many of them gathered together by Gert Richter in his invaluable Kitsch-Lexikon von A bis Z. Nevertheless, the Germans should not take all the blame. It is in America that kitsch reached its apogee, not as a form of life but as a way of death. In Forest Lawn Memorial Park, death becomes a rite of passage into Disneyland. The American funerary culture, so cruelly satirized by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One, attempts to prove that this event, too—the end of man's life and his entry into judgment—is in the last analysis unreal. This thing that cannot be faked becomes a fake. The world of kitsch is a world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. In such a world, death does not really happen. The "loved one" is therefore reprocessed, endowed with a sham immortality; he only pretends to die, and we only pretend to mourn him.

Those things that challenge us to transcend ourselves, to be something more than dependent children, are the places where the kitsch-fly lays its eggs. Death demands grief and dignity and suffering. It is therefore kitsched into a sweeter and slushier condition, a childlike slumber that brings sentimental tears, like the death of Little Nell at the end of Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop (proof, if proof were needed, that great artists are not all immune from kitsch). And such tears are easily wiped away. ("A man needs a heart of stone," as Oscar Wilde famously said, "not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.") When tragedy enters the world of kitsch, it is denatured, purged of that absolute sense of loss that is the proper response to the death of a moral being. That's why kitsch tragedy tends so often to be played out with animals—like the mother deer's death in Walt Disney's Bambi, which elicits grief harmlessly because the character is—literally—a cartoon.

In my grandmother's piano stool was a stack of sheet music from the twenties and thirties—Billy Mayerl, Horatio Nicholls, Albert Ketelbey—and this was my apprenticeship in popular culture. Such music was part of the family, played and sung with intense nostalgia on wedding anniversaries, birthdays, Christmases, and family visits. Every piece had an extra-musical meaning, a nimbus of memory and idle tears.

I got to know the once famous, now notorious, piece of light music by Ketelbey called "In a Monastery Garden" in a piano reduction. Recently, I listened to the full orchestral version, in which birds tweet above the corny melody, while a choir of monks sings "Kyrie Eleison" from afar. This experience provided another kind of insight into kitsch. Ketelbey's music is trying to do what music cannot do and should not attempt to do—it is telling me what it means, while meaning nothing. Here is heavenly peace, it says; just fit your mood to these easy contours, and peace will be yours. But the disparity between the emotion claimed by the music and the technique used to suggest it shows the self-advertisement to be a lie. Religious peace is a rare gift, which comes about only through spiritual discipline. The easy harmonic progressions and platitudinous tune take us there too easily, so that we know we have not arrived. The music is faking an emotion, by means that could never express it.

Kitsch is pretense. But not all pretense is kitsch. Something else is needed to create the sense of intrusion—the un-wanted hand on the knee. Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.

Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

What brought this peculiar form of pretense into being? Here is a suggestion. We are moral beings, who judge one another and ourselves. We live under the burden of reproach and the hope of praise. All our higher feelings are informed by this—and especially by the desire to win favorable regard from those we admire. This ethical vision of human life is a work of criticism and emulation. It is a vision that all religions deliver and all societies need. Unless we judge and are judged, the higher emotions are impossible: pride, loyalty, self-sacrifice, tragic grief, and joyful surrender—all these are artificial things, which exist only so long as, and to the extent that, we fix one another with the eye of judgment. As soon as we let go, as soon as we see one another as animals, parts of the machinery of nature, released from moral imperatives and bound only by natural laws, then the higher emotions desert us. At the same time, these emotions are necessary: they endow life with meaning and form the bond of society.

Hence we find ourselves in a dangerous predicament. The emotions that we need cannot be faked; but the vision on which they depend—the vision of human freedom and of mankind as the subject and object of judgment—is constantly fading. And in these circumstances, there arises the temptation to replace the higher life with a charade, a moral conspiracy that obscures the higher life with the steam of the herd.

This explains why the Enlightenment is so important. For it changed our vision of the moral life. Previously, the judgment that was in-voked in our higher feelings was experienced as the judgment of God. After the Enlightenment, it was experienced as the judgment of men and women. The greatest art of the Enlight-enment is devoted to rescuing mankind from this predicament by showing that human judgment is sufficient to raise us above the beasts and to endow our works with the dignity that may come from human freedom. Such is the message of The Magic Flute and of Faust.

Unsupported by faith, however, the ethical vision falters. Whether it ought to falter may be doubted; but it does so, and the proof of this is romanticism. The romantic artist is attempting to invest human life with a religious aura—to rewrite those purely human experiences of conflict and passion as though they originated in the divine. In this way, nineteenth-century art served to sustain the vision of a higher life in the midst of bourgeois mediocrity. But behind the efforts of the romantic avant-garde, another force was gathering momentum, and this force was kitsch. Romantic art involves a heroic attempt to re-enchant the world: to look on human beings as though they had the significance and the dignity of angels. To sustain this attempt requires moral and aesthetic discipline, of the kind we witness in Brahms or Keats or Wagner. It also requires a work of the imagination, a searching of ordinary human life for those sacramental moments when the light of freedom shines through.

This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.

Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana.

The First World War saw the rapid rise of patriotic kitsch, and the great crimes and revolutions of our century have taken place behind a veil of kitsch: look at the art and propaganda of Nazi Germany and revolutionary Russia, and you will see the unmistakable sign of it—the gross sentimentality, the mechanical clichés, and the constant pretense at a higher life and a noble vision that can be obtained just like that, merely by putting on a uniform. Socialist realism, Nazi nationalism, the Nuremberg rallies and May Day parades—the best description of such things was once given to me by a Czech writer, at the time working underground: "kitsch with teeth."

Serious artists are inevitably aware of kitsch: they fear it, are constantly on guard against it, and if they flirt with kitsch it is with a sense of risk, knowing that all artistic effort is wasted should you ever cross the line. No artist better illustrates this than Mahler. Time and again in his great symphonies he finds himself tempted: he himself admitted it, though in other words, to Freud. The mass-produced nostalgia of the Hapsburg empire is waiting at the door of consciousness and could burst in at any time. Waiting, too, is that winsome, folk-inspired evocation of adolescent love, with its horn chords and lingering upbeats, its lilting rhythm and familiar tonal phrases. Listen to the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony, and you will sense it hovering out of earshot, held back by phrases just that bit more angular than the cliché requires, by Wagnerized harmonies, and by an instrumentation that lets in a breeze of saving irony. In the adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, by contrast, kitsch is triumphant. The result is film music par excellence—and used as such by Visconti, in his kitsched-up version of Mann's Death in Venice.

This fear of kitsch was one of the motives behind modernism in the arts. Tonal music, figurative painting, rhyming and regular verse—all seemed, at the time of the modernist experiments, to have exhausted their capacity for sincere emotional expression. To use the traditional idioms was to betray the higher life—which is why Clement Greenberg told his readers that there was, be-tween abstract art and kitsch, no third way.

At the same time, there is something utopian in Greenberg's condemnation. Kitsch is omnipresent, part of the language, and a seemingly inevitable aspect of cultural democracy. It is the debased coinage of the emotions. Kitsch is advertising, just as most advertising is kitsch. It is an attempt to turn value into price, the problem being that its subject matter has a value only when it is not pretended and a price only when it is. Hence the market in emotion must deal in simulated goods.

This is why the loss of religious certainty facilitated the birth of kitsch. Faith exalts the human heart, removing it from the marketplace, making it sacred and unexchangeable. Under the jurisdiction of religion, our deeper feelings are sacralized, so as to become raw material for the ethical life, the life lived in judgment. When faith declines, however, the sacred loses one of its most important forms of protection from marauders; the heart can now more easily be captured and put on sale. Some things—the human heart is one of them—can be bought and sold only if they are first denatured. The Christmas-card sentiments advertise what cannot be advertised without ceasing to be: hence the emotion that they offer is fake.

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The "modernization" of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a "kitschification": and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.

In art, there comes a point where a style, a form, an idiom, or a vocabulary can no longer be used without producing cliché. Fear of this debasement led to the routinization of the avant-garde. By posing as avant-garde, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result, I have suggested, is kitsch of another kind and a loss of genuine public interest. Patronage keeps the avant-garde in business; but patronage lacks the power to sustain the avant-garde's position as the censor of modern culture.

This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise, which some call "postmodernism" but which might better be described as "preemptive kitsch." Having recognized that modernist severity is no longer acceptable—for modernism begins to seem like the same old thing and therefore not modern at all—artists began not to shun kitsch but to embrace it, in the manner of Andy Warhol, Alan Jones, and Jeff Koons. The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch; far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. (The intention to produce real kitsch is an impossible intention, like the intention to act unintentionally.) Preemptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials. The dilemma is not: kitsch or avant-garde, but: kitsch or "kitsch." The quotation marks function like the forceps with which a pathologist lifts some odoriferous specimen from its jar.

And so modernist severity has given way to a kind of institutionalized flippancy. Public galleries and big collections fill up with the predigested clutter of modern life, obsolete the moment it goes on permanent display. Such is the "art" of Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili (winner of this year's Turner Prize), Gilbert and George, and all the other poseurs who dominate the British art scene. Art as we knew it required knowledge, competence, discipline, and study. Preemptive kitsch, by contrast, delights in the tacky, the ready-made, and the cut-out, using forms, colors, and images that both legitimize ignorance and also laugh at it, effectively silencing the adult voice—as in Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons. Such art eschews subtlety, allusion, and implication, and in place of imagined ideals in gilded frames it offers real junk in quotation marks. It is indistinguishable in the end from advertising—with the sole qualification that it has no product to sell except itself.

But here we should look again at those postmodernist quotation marks. Maybe, after all, they are what they seem: not a sign of sophistication but a sign of pretense. Quotation marks are one thing when localized and confined, but they are another thing when generalized, so as to imprison everything we say. For then they make no contrast and lose their ironical force. Generalized quotation marks neither assert nor deny what they contain but merely present it. The result is not art but "art"—pretend art, which bears the same relation to the artistic tradition as a doll bears to human beings.

And the sentiments conveyed by this "art" similarly are elaborate fakes, as remote from real emotion as the kitsch that the "art" pretends to satirize. The advertising techniques this "art" employs automatically turn emotional expression into kitsch. Hence the quotation marks neutralize and discard the only effect that postmodernist "art" could ever accomplish. Preemptive kitsch offers fake emotion and at the same time a fake satire of the thing it offers. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product, and the avant-garde establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretense, someone who cannot perceive the difference between advertisement and art decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretense come to an end and the real value of postmodernist art reveal itself—namely, its value in exchange. Even at this point, however, the pretense is important. For the purchaser must believe that what he buys is real art and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise, the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody—even the purchaser—could have faked such a product.

Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini's stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a "president."

Art resists the disease; if it ceases to resist, it is no longer art. The writers, composers, and painters whom we admire are those who portray the uncorrupted soul, who show us how we might feel sincerely, even in an age when fake emotion is the currency of daily life. The task of criticism is surely to guide us to these artists and to teach us to measure our lives by their standard. It should dwell on the art of the past, which offers such moving instances of humanity in its exalted and self-redemptive state. And it should select from our contemporaries poets like Rosanna Warren and Geoffrey Hill, composers like Arvo Pärt, and novelists like Ian McEwan: not that they are without faults, but they have retained the ability to distinguish the true from the false emotion and so offer comfort to the contrite heart.

But each of us, in his own way, conducts his solitary fight against the loss of dignity. Through family, religion, and the forms of public life, we shield ourselves from the horrific vision that surrounds us—the vision of ourselves as fakes. That is perhaps why we should value kitsch. It flows all about us and warns us that we must tread carefully and be guided by those who know. Never before in the history of civilization has art—true art—been so morally useful.

 

 


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