Sacred Trash

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kitsch is an unavoidable topic in literature on the arts. Presented as the enemy of aesthetics, it typically receives the most derogatory terms an author can muster. Theodor Adorno, for instance, called it “sugary trash.” In contrast to the truly artistic, which possesses a sacred and transformative otherness, kitsch is dismissed as mechanical, superficial, and false. It sacrifices subtleties for watered-down textures, and avoids complex expression for one-dimensional emotionality. Its propagators are scorned as insincere profiteers, and its lack of nuance is condemned as borderline unethical.

Like most things in the experiential world of art, kitsch is more readily recognized than explained. What seems to define it is a combination of simplistic sentimentality and a concomitant reliance on clichés. These, the critics charge, are the ingredients of “poor taste.” However, in practice, candidates for the ignoble label are not cut and dried. The clearest examples are those that embrace their own kitschiness, like garden gnomes and the untold assortment of Hello Kitty products. There are also playful debasements of high culture, like the cottage industry of Shakespeare kitsch, and excessively agreeable religious art, like Precious Moments illustrations.

Things get hazier when artistic displays straddle the invisible line between authenticity and mass appeal. Classical music critics habitually look down on composers with populist tendencies, sometimes resorting to the “k” word. Their targets include such luminaries as Puccini, Meyerbeer, Telemann, Vivaldi, and even Tchaikovsky. In each case, the supposed kitsch quality stems from a perceived lack of depth: the music is passively received, easily digested, and built upon stereotyped emotions. In other words, it is penalized for its popularity. The extreme of this view is found in Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” which declared that figurative painting had outgrown its expressive potential, and was doomed to repeat phony sentiments and hackneyed messages.

Whatever merit there is to Greenberg’s assessment, one thing is clear: a wide chasm exists between the cultural critic and the average person. In the decades since his essay, not only has figurative art retained its attraction, but there is also a movement to synthesize highbrow and lowbrow art. Museums have exhibits of comic book drawings, world-class orchestras play concerts of movie scores, “artsy” directors make blockbuster films, and easy listening records from the 1950s and 60s have found new audiences.

These increasingly common occurrences are eroding the very concept of kitsch. The acceptance of “lesser” art into “legitimate” spheres signals a reevaluation not only of the works themselves, but also of the sentiments they evoke. An intense response to a saccharine love song or a generic landscape painting need not be trivialized or bemoaned. From a functionalist standpoint, where the value of an artwork belongs to the beholder, the evaluations of cultural critics rarely matter. Instead, the fact that their opinions often contradict general feelings is, in a practical sense, evidence that they are wrong. What they call “sugary trash” can be someone else’s sacred treasure.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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