The fear of kitsch

Roger Scruton has an article on the relationship between modernism and kitsch. The argument is something like this: modernism in art arose as a reaction against what was seen to be a growing insincerity in the use of traditional forms. The experimental forms of modernism would cut through cliche and express reality more authentically.

But while a lot of the original people involved in this were talented and actually had a good grasp of the forms they wanted to subvert, their successors are less so:

This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise, which I call “pre-emptive kitsch”. Modernist severity is both difficult and unpopular, so artists began not to shun kitsch but to embrace it, in the manner of Andy Warhol, Allen Jones and Jeff Koons. The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch. Far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. Pre-emptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch, and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials. Take a porcelain statue of Michael Jackson cuddling his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, add cheesy colours and a layer of varnish. Set the figures up in the posture of a Madonna and child, endow them with soppy expressions as though challenging the spectator to vomit, and the result is such kitsch that it cannot possibly be kitsch. Jeff Koons must mean something else, we think, something deep and serious that we have missed. Perhaps this work of art is really a comment on kitsch, so that by being explicitly kitsch it becomes meta-kitsch, so to speak.


Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself – namely its money value. Even at this point, however, the pretence is important. The purchaser must still believe that what they buy is real art, and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody – even the purchaser – could have faked such a product. The essence of fakes is that they are not really themselves, but substitutes for themselves. Like objects seen in parallel mirrors they repeat themselves ad infinitum, and at each repetition the price goes up a notch, to the point where a balloon dog by Jeff Koons, which every child could conceive and some could even manufacture, fetches the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist – except, of course, that he isn’t one.

I wonder, with this emphasis on the ironic intentions of the artist, whether there is a deeper failure to properly understand the use of imagery. To quote Luis Alonso Schokel’s A Manual of Hebrew Poetics:

The second danger is more insidious, because it comes from a mentality which is firmly rooted and little criticised. It is found in the expression: images serve to dress up ideas. The hackneyed image of “dressing up” will help us to analyse this mentality.

The supposition is that first of all comes the idea or concept, which the normal person will enunciate with its corresponding vocabulary. The poet on the other hand, in the interests of decency or fashion, searches around in his imaginative wardrobe, gets out a set of clothes and dresses up his concept or idea. It is the task of the intelligent reader to remove the clothes and understand the idea. If the reader cannot do this alone, the exegete will help him. The biblical text says “the hand, the arm of God”; but it means “the power”. The text says “I take refuge in the shadow of your wings”; but it means “I seek the protection of God”.

Following this path we can translate the Bible into a language which is more abstract and less expressive, but we will not reach the original meaning. We are dealing with poets, and what comes before the image is not the concept, but the formless experience. The image gave a certain form to the experience; it was the first vision or spiritual reflection, the first formulation which could be communicated. By means of the image the author understood what he has experienced and expressed it and it is the image which he intends to put across.

To bring this back to the notion of pre-emptive kitsch, what strikes me is less the ironic use of banality (Gustav Mahler, a top-notch composer, frequently did the same), but rather how it short-circuits the need for experience and vision. What is being communicated is a concept. You are asked not to see the image, but to see through it, and to congratulate yourself for being clever enough to do so. It’s the cynical cousin of allegory.


About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
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2 Responses to The fear of kitsch

  1. jubilare says:

    “What is being communicated is a concept. You are asked not to see the image, but to see through it, and to congratulate yourself for being clever enough to do so. It’s the cynical cousin of allegory.” Kapow. I think you are right on target, here.
    Art that communicates only on an intellectual level is rather like journalism. It may serve a purpose, but a very different one from a poem or, as you say, an allegory. Some things defy “straight forward” communication… I think that’s why we have allegory, and music, and art in the first place.

  2. wgosline says:

    This is a very thought-provoking, dense article. I’m sure I should probably read it again before commenting, but I can say with conviction that Jeff Koons is a piece of sh*t: a charlatan and a mountebank to takes advantage of his connections in the equally unprincipled world of Manhattan high finance to propagate his bankrupt preemptive kitsch. I read an article about him: he purports to have no agenda, no message behind his art, but what is art if not a vehicle for expression? Thank you for reminding me of this dark trend in the art world.

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