In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:
Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.
Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.
Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:
This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.
Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …
Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.
Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:
Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”
He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.
This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here: