Pictorial propaganda: Part III--Kitsch and politics
The last post of mine (number two in this series) generated so many exceptional comments that I was thinking of just reproducing a few of them and calling it a day.
Here's one by grackle:
One problem with Rockwell for the critics is that Rockwell’s works are obviously good, so obvious that the average viewer can see it. This detracts from the modern art critic’s jealously guarded power to arbitrate between artist & public. And in modern criticism popularity is despised. Thus the critics like Saltz vigilantly & vehemently defend the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.
Despite Saltz’s condescension it is evident to even the casual & unschooled observer that Rockwell’s work has nuance & layers of meaning. One of the particulars of Rockwell’s genius is that his art, although accessible, is also subtle. He’s like Mark Twain in that his art can be approached in a variety of ways.
Like they did with Twain, with Rockwell the critics confuse sentiment with sentimentality, sentiment being the honest presentation of emotion based in reality & sentimentality being that which cloys under thoughtful examination & imbues the viewer with a feeling of being cynically manipulated.
And commenter SB poses the following question:
I must ask (for the hundredth time) when and how art's highest purpose became to "challenge us and question things?"
That segues into the topic for today's post: kitsch. Kitsch is a term referring to aesthetics, but--as we shall see--it also has class and political overtones.
The definition of kitsch:
Kitsch is a German term meaning "trash" that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious or in bad taste, and also commercially produced items that are considered trite or crass.
Because the word was brought into use as a response to a large amount of art in the 19th century where the aesthetic of art work was confused with a sense of exaggerated sentimentality or melodrama, kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental, mawkish, or maudlin; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art which is deficient for similar reasons — whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.
That's the esthetic criticism of kitsch. The class and political elements of the objection to kitsch are apparent in this seminal article on the subject, written in 1939 by Clement Greenberg and published in the Partisan Review. I tried to wade through it just now, and I have to confess I didn't have the patience to read it in its entirety. But the gist of the message seems to be "the masses ain't got no taste, and those in power use kitsch to keep them dumb and happy."
Kitsch is detested for its simplicity and its easy appeal to sentimentality, as well as its formulaic qualities. I personally don't think Rockwell falls squarely into the category of kitsch--I'm with commenter grackle on that score--but many would disagree, and that's part of their objection to his work.
The attitude bears some resemblance to the way a gourmet might regard a Big Mac--or a cultural elitist a Walmart (an attitude that was amply demonstrated in the comments section as well, here).
Greenberg's analysis of kitsch positively oozes with socialist condescension and class consciousness:
The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.
Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas...Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times....
Sound familiar? Certain recent criticisms of Rockwell such as Saltz's, discussed at some length here, partake of a similar quality of sneering condescension, although Saltz skips the socialism and the overt class consciousness. But there's a common theme, and it is this: "we elites know better than to be suckered in by this stuff, like you common folk. Not for us your simple pleasures; we are far more complex and nuanced."
Author Milan Kundera has expounded at some length on kitsch and its relation to politics, and why its simplicity is to be abhorred. Growing up in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, my guess is that his exposure to the genre would have been mainly through the soulessness of Soviet art, and the inherent lie within it (what commenter grackle refers to as cynical manipulation).
Kundera states that kitsch is:
defined it as “the absolute denial of shit.” [Kundera's] argument was that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.”
In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, “everything that infringes on kitsch,” including individualism, doubt, and irony, “must be banished for life” in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, “Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.”
So here we have the germ of an answer to commenter SB's question above: kitschy simplicity in art is often used in the service of a totalitarian society in which doubt and questions are not allowed. In response to that, art and artists feel a need to "challenge and question"--or at least, to be part of a society that allows challenge and questions. Kundera objects to kitsch for this reason: he feels that its lack of complexity and denial of darkness is somehow allowed with the totalitarian impulse, which he rejects utterly.
A similar sort of thinking may underlie some of the objections of those such as Saltz to the paintings of Rockwell. It's not just elitism, although that is most definitely part of it. They reject the paintings on esthetic grounds, defining them as inferior art designed to appeal to the masses (kitsch). But many also see them as insidious and seductive propaganda in the cause of a jingoistic, nationalistic, power-mad America.
We have become so sophisticated as a society that it is very difficult to use art as a rallying cry for a cause, as was done so effectively during World War II. Whether it be posters such as Rockwell's, or movies and songs (see Armed Liberal's recent discussion of the film "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), even our popular culture has become imbued with a darker and more critical tone. I don't think Kundera need be concerned about any "absolute denial of shit" in today's America.
The impulse to reject facile and simplistic propaganda is not necessarily a bad one. It's a good thing to be aware of how easily opinion can be influenced, and to guard against skillful manipulation in an unjust cause, especially when the medium of that manipulation is the stirring up of hatred (which is never the function of kitsch anyway). But when all propaganda--including everything simplistic, sentimental, or feel-good--is rejected, then one of the most effective tools in rallying the public to that cause is eliminated. This can be especially hazardous when the enemy is not the least bit reluctant to use every propaganda tool that the modern world can offer, and to use them skillfully and well.