Roger Scruton on Two Kinds of Kitsch
Penetrating conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes,
Kitsch art … is designed to put emotion on sale: it works as advertisements work, creating a fantasy world in which everything, love included, can be purchased, and in which every emotion is simply one item in an infinite line of substitutes. The clichéd kiss, the doe-eyed smile, the Christmas-card sentiments: all advertise what cannot be advertised without ceasing to be. They commit the salesman to nothing. They can be bought and sold without emotional hardship, since the emotion, being a fantasy product, no longer exists in its committed form.
This is Thomas Kinkade, I gather. But the postmodern purveyors of ironic kitsch are not given a free pass. Scruton goes on to argue that postmodern art—he names Jeff Koons as an example—is sometimes a kind of pre-emptive kitsch. It’s kitsch we all wink at, kitsch we use ironically. (Of course, he points out, the money paid for such art is the one decidedly unironic part of the artist-through-critic-to-buyer transaction.) Scruton sees this complicity in fakery—kitsch treated as serious art—as culturally dangerous. And Scruton thinks that his meta-criticism of art is important because, he says, “culture is important.”
Without it we remain emotionally uneducated. There are consequences of fake culture that are comparable to the consequences of corruption in politics. In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown.
What truths these are he does not say (he need not in this essay). But he grasps deeply that artifacts of genuine, serious high culture “make something of the world” the way culture is supposed to. They provide, however subtle, a meaning-making function for mankind. They communicate truth.