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On Kitsch and Sentimentality
Author(s): Robert C. Solomon
Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1991), pp. 114
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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ROBERT C. SOLOMON
On Kitsch and Sentimentality
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children
running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the
grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. 1
As the notion of “truth” requires “falsity,” the
paintings of similarly wide-eyed children. Sac-
very notion of “taste” in art necessitates the
existence of “bad taste” and, consequently, bad
charine religious art (so long as it is serious and
not sarcastic) would be sweet kitsch, and so,
art. But bad art, like falsehood, comes in many
varieties and is subject to different kinds of
type poetry. Examples of sweet kitsch are often
objections. There is sheer technical incompetence, just to begin with (although artistic in-
the nature of its “badness” is just what makes
ability as such is much less fatal than it used to
kitsch philosophically interesting. The problem
too, perhaps, much of Muzak and Rod McLuen-
mentioned as paradigm instances of bad art, but
be); there is ignorance of the medium, the tradi-
is not that sweet kitsch is always badly done.
tion and its history, the current fashions and the
Indeed some kitsch may be highly professional
tastes of the times. For those outside the bustling
and keenly aware of the artistic and cultural
art centers, what seems to be bad art may be just
bad timing. There is unimaginative imitation
traditions in which it gains its appeal. Indeed,
and straightforward plagiarism. There is such a
thing as having “no eye,” the failure to understand color or composition. But there is also an
“ethical” dimension to bad art, as in the depiction of the forbidden, the blasphemous, the vulgar expression of the inexpressible, the provocation of the improper and cruelty. (For example, a
bar stool whose legs are actual, stuffed buffalo
legs.) Once upon a time, bad art was, above all,
perfection, its technical virtuosity and its precise execution, its explicit knowledge of the
some kitsch seems to be flawed by its very
tradition, its timeliness and the fact that it stimulates the very best emotions-the “soft” sentiments of kindness and sympathy and the calm
passions of delight. But the best emotions seem
to be the worst emotions where art is concerned,
and “better shocking or sour than sweet,” has
become something of a rule of thumb for artists
such use of unacceptable subject matter, evoking and a criterion of good taste for connoisseurs.
But why is this? What is wrong with sweet
the wrong emotions and provoking the wrong
reactions (e.g., visceral disgust and nausea)but this too seems to have recently dropped out
of the picture. These days, it is far wiser for an
aspiring young artist to offend or disgust the
viewer rather than evoke such gentle sentiments
as sympathy and delight.
So this is just what is particularly interesting,
from a philosophical point of view, about that pe-
culiar variety of “bad art” called “kitsch,” and,
in particular, that variety of kitsch sometimes
called “sweet kitsch. ” Sweet kitsch is art (or, to
hedge our bets, intended art) that appeals unsubtly and unapologetically to the softer, “sweeter”
sentiments. Familiar examples are the road side
ceramics of wide eyed puppies and Keen-type
kitsch? Its deficiencies appear to be just what we
would otherwise think of as virtues, technical
proficiency and a well-aimed appeal to the very
best of the viewer’s emotions.
What is wrong with sweet kitsch, first and
foremost, seems to be its sentimentality, its easy
evocation of certain “sweet” emotions. But what
is wrong with sentimentality, and sentimentality
in art in particular? I think that the heart of the
problem lies in our poor opinion of the emotions
in general and in particular the “softer” sentiments, and in this essay I would like to defend
(sweet) kitsch and sentimentality as well as the
softer sentiments in general against the more serious, non-aesthetic charges against them. (When
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49:1 Winter 1991
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The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
2
I speak simply of “kitsch,” it is to be understood
that it is this “sweet” variety alone that I have in
tions. Kitsch and sentimentality have been ac-
mind, though some of my arguments may well
cused not only on the grounds of “bad taste”
(which I will not dispute here) but also on ethical
also hold where “sour” and “bitter” kitsch is in
grounds, as betraying (or promoting) serious
question. [Is there a “salty” kitsch?])
flaws in character. What underlies these objections, I believe, is a deep but undeserved
suspicion of emotions, especially those tender
emotions that would seem to be most humane.
Before I do that, however, I think it worthwhile
pointing out a historical parallel too infrequently
noted in these conversations and that is the general fate of the sentiments throughout exactly
that period of history during which kitsch and
sentimentality became such objects of loathing.
In middle and early eighteenth century, moral
philosophy was all but dominated by the “moral
sentiment” theorists-notably David Hume and
Adam Smith. In popular literature, the advent of
the “woman’s novel” inspired a literary flood
of widely-read pot-boilers and romances which
equated virtue and goodness with gushing sentiment,3 and in French art, the revolutionary
moral sentiments evoked by David and exotic
fantasies inspired by Delacroix were succeeded
by the sentimental mastery of such academic
artists as Greuze, Messonier and Bouguereau.4
But by the end of that century, moral sentiment
theory was all but dead: the “women’s novels”
were dismissed by the male literary establish-
The sentiments have had a bad time in philos-
ophy as well as in aesthetics, and “sentimentality” has become, in ethics as well as in art, a
term of harsh abuse. About the turn of the nine-
teenth century, Friedrich Schiller praised himself and his poetry as “sentimental” (as in con-
trast to Goethe’s “naive” style, which Schiller
much admired as the hallmark of true genius).
What he had in mind was cultivated fineness and
intelligence of feeling (preferably building on
“natural” and “naive” emotions), but the term
“sentimentalist” has gone a long way down since
then. Only a few years later Robert Southey dis-
missed Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a writer who
“addressed himself to the sentimental classes,
persons of ardent and morbid sensibility, who
believe themselves to be composed of finer elements than the gross multitude” but if Rousseau’s audience was objectionable because it believed itself to have ‘finer’ feelings, the object of
Oscar Wilde’s scorn (the young Lord Alfred
Douglas) was a “sentimentalist” because of his
fraudulent and contemptible passions.2 By the
end of the century, “sentimentalist” was clearly
a term of ridicule and abuse, connoting super-
ment as “sentimental trash,” the French aca-
ficiality, saccharine sweetness and the manip-
demics were dismissed as “kitsch” and the sta-
ulation of mawkish emotion. Kitsch was its ar-
tus of “sentimentality” went into a steep decline
tistic equivalent, and artists in Paris who had
been praised only a century before as the “ge-
as sentiment lost its status in moral philosophy.
The key figure in this philosophical transformation was Immanuel Kant, whose unprecedented attack on sentiment and sentimentalism
was a reaction not only against the philosophical
moral sentiment theorists (whom he at least admired) but against the flood of popular potboilers and romances. It has always seemed to
me to be ironic, at least, that Kant saw himself as
ethical heir to Rousseau, one of the most important moral sentiment theorists, for it was Kant
who did away with “melting compassion” as an
ingredient in ethics once and for all in a single
sarcastic comment in his Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals.5 It should not be surprising, therefore, that ever since then sentimentality has had an even worse time of it and is not
only excluded from most discussions of ethics
but, when discussed at all, it is condemned as an
ethical defect. To call someone a “sentimen-
niuses” of Official Art became figures of loathing and ridicule in retrospect, mere curators of
kitsch who produced paradigms of “bad art”
which we keep in our museums only for the sake
of the historians, and as contrasts to the great art
of the “Refused” in the room next door. Kitsch
thus serves us well in museums, where it is not
only part of the historical record but also fly
paper for the Philistines, who in their ignorance
flock to the sweet perfection of classical kitsch
and leave at least some space in front of the great
impressionists and their successors.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST KITSCH
In this essay, I want to present a qualified defense of both kitsch and sentimentality against a
number of familiar but unsubstantiated objec-
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3
Solomon On Kitsch and Sentimentality
talist” in ethics is to dismiss both the person and
SWEET KITSCH: SENTIMENTALITY
his or her views from serious consideration,
IN ART AND ETHICS
adding, perhaps a disdainful chortle and an im-
There is a range of quality to sweet kitsch.
On the one hand, there are those “cheap”
mass-produced K-Mart style artifacts, disdain
for which surely has much to do with economic
to say that it is very bad art-if, indeed, it declass distinctions and manufacturing values
serves recognition as art at all-and to cast susrather than aesthetic evaluation as such. Much of
picion on both its creator and its appreciative
the literature attacking kitsch is political rather
audience. (As an ad hominem aside, we might
than aesthetic, though ironically much of it
note that Kant’s own taste in art had a notoricomes from Marxists and their kin who despise
ously kitsch-like flavor.) There is good reason to
the mass-marketing origins of kitsch at the same
suppose, then, that the derogatory meanings of
time that they would defend the people who are
“sentimentality” and kitsch” have something to
do with the general degradation of the sentiments most likely to purchase such objects. But whether kitsch is attacked because it is cheap and
and their significance. It is the sentiments as
“low-class” or because it is the product of a
such-and in particular those sentiments that predebased economy, what is wrong with kitsch
tend to ethical significance-that are in ill-repute.
surely cannot be, philosophically speaking,
But the argument against sentimentality is not
either the rationalization of snobbery or conjust that it is in “bad taste,” and the argument
tempt for its manufacturing and marketing. (We
against kitsch is not just that it is bad art. In his
should be suspicious about the depth of class
essay entitled, “What is Wrong with Sentimenprejudices underlying even the most abstract
tality?” Mark Jefferson begins his discussion,
aesthetic argument and the extent to which the
“it is generally agreed that there is something
charge of “sentimentality” is in fact an attack on
unwholesome about sentimentality.”6 He conunsophisticated taste.) But though much of what
cludes that it is a moral defect, an emotional
is called “kitsch” is disdained because it is
malaise, a form of self-indulgence properly as”cheap” (a word that often performs multiple
sociated with brutality. Here he follows Mary
functions in discussions of kitsch), because it is
Midgley, who several years before suggested a
mass-produced and “plastic,” because it is the
similar association between sentimentality and
sort of item that would and should embarrass
brutality.7 Hermann Broch went so far as to call
someone with a proper aesthetic education,
kitsch (in general) the “incarnation of evil, “8
and Michael Tanner reiterated Oscar Wilde’s
there is, on the other hand, some quite expensive
oft-repeated link between sentimentality and cynand well-produced “high” kitsch, e.g., the acaicism: “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at
demic painting of the mid-nineteenth century
heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank
that I will shortly use as an example. It is this
kind of kitsch that focusses our attention on
holiday of cynicism.”9 The objection to sentisentimentality as such and which has attracted
mentality in both art and ethics, in other words,
is not just its lack of sophistication and bad taste.
such critical abuse and has been accused of
Kitsch is dangerous. Broch even writes, “The
moral as well as artistic degeneracy. Not all
producer of kitsch does not produce ‘bad’ art …
kitsch can be dismissed as merely “cheap,” in
it is quite impossible to assess him according to
any of these obvious senses.
High kitsch, whatever else may be said of it,
aesthetic criteria; rather he should be judged as
cannot be openly dismissed as “cheap.” It is
an ethically base being, a malefactor who profoundly desires evil.” 10 Now this might seem a
typically very professional, well-made and exbit odd to anyone who has spent an hour in an
pensive. Of course, this opens up a new arInterstate Stuckeys contemplating the figurines
gument along class lines, as an attack on the
plicit accusation of terminal silliness. Sentimen-
tality is roundly condemned in the arts as well,
and to call a piece “sentimental” or “kitsch” is
and “No Place Like Home” placards, but this
“nouveau riche” who have money but not taste.
indeed is the charge. Kitsch and sentimentality
lead to brutality. Sentimentality and kitsch re-
Being moved by one’s emotions, in contrast to
paying attention to the more formal and refined
aspects of a work of art, is at best a distraction, if
not a “dead give-away” that one is having a
veal not only woefully inadequate aesthetic sense
but a deep moral flaw of character.
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The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
4
“cheap” emotional experience instead of a culti-
a bad name. At the same time, it is an almost
vated aesthetic response. High-class kitsch may
“perfect” painting. John Canaday writes, in his
well be “perfect” in its form and composition:
classic textbook on modern art, “The wonder of
the academic painters were often masters of
a painting by Bouguereau is that it is so com-
their craft. Thus the accusation that a work
is kitsch is based not on lack of form or aes-
pletely, so absolutely, all of a piece. Not a single
element is out of harmony with the whole; there is
thetic merit but on the presence of a particularly
not a flaw in the totality of the union between con-
provocative emotional content. (The best art,
ception and execution. The trouble with Bou-
by contrast, eschews emotional content altogether.)
guereau’s perfection is that the conception and
the execution are perfectly false. Yet this is per-
The term “kitsch” comes from the nineteenth
century. One of several suggested etymologies is
that the word is German for “smear” or “playing
with mud,” and, toying with this, we might
fection of a kind, even if it is a perverse kind.” 14
The Degas, on the other hand, is anything but
“perfect” in this sense. It is one of those tiny
discomforting treasures that haunts the viewer
for hours afterward. But it is the Bouguereau
speculate that the “mud” in question is emotion
that turns out to be one of the most popular
and mucking around with emotions inevitably
pieces in the museum. The curators of the exmakes a person “dirty.” 1I The standard opinion
seems to be that kitsch and immorality go togeth- hibit comment, “Most of our visitors readily
er and that sentimentality is what is wrong with
admit they don’t know a whole lot about art. So
both of them. For example, Harries: “Kitsch has
it’s only natural for them to look for works that
always been considered immoral.” 12 of course,
one culture’s or one generation’s kitsch may be
are pretty and easy to understand.” And then
they add, “novice viewers rarely speak of the
another’s avant garde, and what is obligatory as
Bouguereau’s features and aesthetic qualities.
‘compassion” or “sympathy” in one age may be
Instead, they use it as a springboard to dreams of
dismissed as mere sentimentality in another. Accordingly, the sentiments that are provoked by
the future or nostalgic memories of the past.
More advanced viewers are soon bored” (from
and disdained in “sweet” kitsch may vary as
well. 13 But whatever the cause or the context,
it is sentimentality of kitsch that makes kitsch
the catalog of the exhibit).
What makes Bouguereau kitsch? What makes
kitsch and sentimentality that makes kitsch mor-
it bad art? From an aesthetic point of view it is
the “perverse perfection” that is so offensive and
ally suspect if not immoral. Granted, kitsch may
cloying, the absence of any interpretive ambigu-
be bad art. Granted, it may show poor taste. But
ity or dissonance on the part of the viewer, but
my question here is why it is the sentimentality
of kitsch that should be condemned, why it is
thought to be an ethical defect and a danger to
most important (for our purposes) it is the manip-
society.
fect” painting perverse. Clement Greenberg, for
Let’s look at the sentimentality of “sweet
kitsch.” I recently attended an exhibit at the
instance, complained (in 1939) that kitsch “is
Denver Art Museum which featured, among
vicarious experience and faked sensations. … It
other nineteenth century French works, a painting by Adolph Bouguereau (1825-1905) and
one by Degas, more or less across from one
our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of
ulation of emotion, the evocation of “cheap,”
“false” emotions that makes this otherwise “per-
mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is
is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of
its customers except their money-not even their
another in the gallery. The Bouguereau is a classically arranged portrait of two very pretty little
girls, in rosy pink and soft pastels, set against an
expansive sky. The Degas, by contrast, catches
one of his dancers in an awkward back-scratching
cases, sentimentality is the culprit, manipulated
gesture, her body turned away from us, her face
by the artist, indulged in by the viewer. It is, we
unseen. She is framed in a cramped canvas in
pale green, ocher and burnt orange. The Bouguereau is one of those well-painted pieces of
sweet kitsch that gives French academic painting
time.” 15 Calling a work of (bad) art “kitsch” is
not just to condemn the glibness of its technique;
it is also to question the motives of the artist and
the emotional maturity of …
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