Finding kitsch's inner beauty; Garden gnomes and Elvis busts be damned!
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 April 2009)

So what's wrong with kitsch, exactly? It's garish, tasteless and sentimental, of course. Garden gnomes and conventions of Elvis impersonators may be its most outlandish examples, but you can find kitsch every day in every corner of the mass media. Manufacturers of movies, TV shows and best-selling novels build empires on the essence of kitsch -- an imitation of human feeling wrapped in a thick layer of cuteness.

Still, if nearly everyone likes it, how bad can it be? "Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations," said Harold Rosenberg, the great art critic. Milan Kundera argued, "No matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition." And they were writing before the appearance of "reality" television, which repackages kitschy old conventions of popular drama as public competition, bringing to "real" people the humiliation and cruelty traditionally endured by imaginary losers in mass-culture fiction.

Kitsch has its defenders, often articulate ones. Typically, they find it endearing because full-bore kitsch can be enjoyed in two ways at the same moment, for itself and as a parody of itself. A one-size-fits-all style, it's designed to satisfy audiences at any level of sophistication.

On the back jacket of Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty (Oxford), you can find a tiny drawing of a garden gnome. On the front there's a woman's face by Sandro Botticelli. The two illustrations point us toward the sharp line that runs through the book: Thoughtful Renaissance beauty is good, brainless gnomes with pointed hats bad.

A book about beauty naturally must deal with its opposite, kitsch. This is not "just a matter of taste," which much of the world dismisses as ethically neutral. It's a moral issue, as Scruton goes some distance toward proving.

A British philosopher and an outspoken conservative, he holds the now marginalized view that philosophers should do what most of them long ago stopped even considering: They should try to help the rest of us think about issues that matter.

Aside from his work on philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza, he's written two books on the aesthetics of architecture, one on the aesthetics of music, an analysis of sexual desire, a study of animal rights and now a vigorous, combative account of beauty's meaning.

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.

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. "It is no accident that the arrival of kitsch on the stage of history coincided with the hitherto unimaginable horrors of trench warfare, of the Holocaust and the Gulag -- all of them fulfilling the prophecy that kitsch proclaims, which is the transformation of the human being into a doll, which in one moment we cover with kisses, and in the next tear to shreds." Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is kitsch's most exultant moment, its massed Nazis both adored and turned into statues.

As for beauty, the opposite of kitsch, recent decades have not treated it kindly. That's particularly true in the visual arts. Perhaps a large public still believes in the idea of beauty, but that same public mostly ignores (and is ignored by) the highly professionalized world of art critics, professors, curators -- and selfconsciously serious artists. "Beautiful" ceased to be an adjective of praise in the art world decades ago. It's become the virtue that dares not speak its name. There are now more people writing about art than ever before; what they are not writing about is beauty.

Daily life, in Scruton's view, has dignity and worth only if embedded in something grand and beautiful. He's particularly good on homey details, from the design of a door to laying a table. Scruton can acknowledge the beauty of wilderness, but seems more enthusiastic about a garden, wilderness disciplined by human hands, "an extension of the human world, mediating between the built environment and the world of nature."

Sometimes Scruton tries too hard to reassure us. "Beauty demands to be noticed," he says. "It speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend." (If we are listening, he forgets to add.) In any case, he grows optimistic when writing of the possibility of a "community of taste," which he's trying to revive. Following Kant, his master in this sphere, he sees beauty as something communally valued. In an ideal world, no one would need to argue for beauty. A consensus would support it.

Scruton takes pleasure in his status as an outsider among philosophers. He's a conservative populist, always eager to write coherently for a large public, always hopeful that he can bring the people to his side, even when he makes what many will consider outrageously stern demands on them.

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