Markets Don’t Make Kitsch; Kitsch-Makers Do

I’m always interested in that old Weberian concern–how does the market affect our values, tastes, and aesthetic commitments? I’ve been noticing a trend in writing in this area, parallel to theodicy that was developed to account for the problem of evil. As the market becomes a new god, the question “how can an omnipotent and benevolent deity permit terrible suffering” has been supplanted by the query “how can the market generate grotesque outcomes?”.

Family Research Council staffer Michael Fragoso’s essay The Invisible Paintbrush provides one interesting response to the issue, borrowing some rhetoric from the NRA:

“Markets offer the signals that let a kitsch peddler find mass-commercial appeal and quick profit, but they are only a means to an end. The wrong is not in the market’s operation but rather in its use by the purveyor of kitsch to cater to the pedestrian sentiments of the viewer and thus stultify moral education.”

Tyler Cowen makes a similar point in Good and Plenty, but doesn’t portray the harm of kitsch as viscerally as Fragoso does here:

The problem with kitsch is deeper than its appeal to the mob. Kitsch is an insult to the purposes of art. As the English aesthetic philosopher Roger Scruton notes, “just as there is ‘knowing what to do’ so too is there ‘knowing what to feel.’ The feelings, like the will, are capable of education.” The education of feelings should be ordered towards universal emotional criteria, held throughout a culture and informed through tradition. Accordingly, our proper emotional reaction is merely an instantiation of a larger, ideal emotional law traversing generations of human experience, and so, “one might say…that the education of these universalized emotions is an essential part of moral development.” Art and aesthetics are an integral part of this emotional education—the word aesthetics itself derives from the Greek “to feel.” . . . Kitsch trades in shallow sentiment. The moral edification that can come from aesthetic perception lacks in kitsch, which is merely a commercialized appeal to basic individual emotions. Art teaches the viewer—kitsch panders to him.

I like this distinction, but I wonder if one can so easily blame kitsch on “bad people” as opposed to “bad institutions.” As Julian Stallabrass argues in Gargantua,

Given the prevalence of an aestheticized mass culture, high art finds itself in a precarious and unhappy situation. It is no longer given a semblance of coherence by the avant-garde rebellion, and it is largely isolated from political and social movements. High art may try constantly to work against the productions of mass culture, but it is prey to rapid assimilation as advertisers and designers plunder it for ideas and prestige. This assimilation is dangerous, for in it meaning and the particularity of a work or a style are generally lost, as they come to participate in the competition of equally empty ciphers arbitrarily matched to commodities.

In other words, kitsch-makers don’t just arise accidentally. The balance between public and private that Cowen celebrates is an uneasy one. The dealer/artist/critic triangle can’t be founded on the mutual enrichment of all three parties; it seems to me that one key to the vitality of an artistic community is their independence from one another.

Art Credit: Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light (TM).