Kitsch refers to that overly sentimental, tacky, populous and unoriginal “art” most aptly embodied in the garden gnome, inflatable furniture and Thomas Kincade paintings. Kitsch is everywhere nowadays. Fulford quotes art critic Harold Rosenberg in saying “Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations.”
People obviously don’t mind it, maybe even enjoy it, so is there a problem with kitsch? Beyond it’s tackiness that is? Following Scruton, Fulford argues that this isn’t just a matter of taste, it’s a moral issue.
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.
Kitsch therefore encourages narcissism and egoism; beauty, the opposite, it draws us out of ourselves. No wonder kitsch is so popular today, given the modern obsession with self-realization and self-gratification. Kitsch is the perfect art form for what Christopher Lasch has aptly called a “Culture of Narcissism”.
Kitsch ultimately gets in the way of truly human living. As Fulford argues:
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.
Scruton and Fulford call us to resist kitsch, and turn to beauty as an antidote to our self-obsession. It’s a controversial conclusion, but I think both Scruton and Fulford are getting at something.
Considering the ubiquity of Christian kitsch, (we’ve all recieved the Christmas cards!) we need to take their argument seriously.
Read Robert Fulford’s article here.
To read another review of Scruton’s book, one that disagrees with his argument, click here.
Some Christian kitsch