July 17, 2003
Scruton on kitsch

I use google as a spellchecker, and all I did, while doing the posting below, was type in "Kitsch" to see if I'd spelt it write.

But what I found was this, an essay about kitsch by Roger Scruton from 1999. I'm a third of the way into it, and finding it most helpful and illuminating.

The guts of it (so far) is that avant-guarde art critic Clement Greenberg decreed that you had to be abstract, because representational meant you'd descend into kitsch. He had a point, but made rather too much of it. Not all recent representational art is kitsch, but a lot of the abstract avant-guarde stuff has been:

The problem is, however, that you land yourself in kitsch in any case. Take a stroll around MoMA, and you will encounter it in almost every room: avant-garde, certainly—novel in its presumption, if not in its effect—but also kitsch, abstract kitsch, of the kind that makes modernist wallpaper or is botched together for the tourist trade on the Boulevard Montparnasse. The effusions of Georgia O'Keeffe, with their gushing suggestions of feminine and floral things, are telling instances. Study them, if you can bear it, and you will see that the disease that rotted the heart of figurative painting has struck at its successor. What makes for kitsch is not the attempt to compete with the photograph but the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap—the attempt to appear sublime without the effort of being so. And this cut-price version of the sublime artistic gesture is there for all to see in Barnett Newman or Frank Stella. When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being avant-garde.

One of the many things I also like about this piece of Scruton's is that it explains something of what was so wrong with pre-modern representational art, and what was so right about, say, the Impressionists. By stripping out the obvious classical allusions, the Impressionists at least ensured that the feelings they did capture were genuine, rather than just, so to speak, linked to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:53 PM
Category: Modern artPainting