Serious artists are inevitably aware of kitsch: they fear it, are
constantly on guard against it, and if they flirt with kitsch it is with a sense of risk, knowing that all artistic effort is wasted should you ever cross the line. No artist better illustrates this than Mahler. Time and again in his great symphonies he finds himself tempted: he himself admitted it, though in other words, to Freud. The mass-produced nostalgia of the Hapsburg empire is waiting at the door of consciousness and could burst in at any time. Waiting, too, is that winsome, folk-inspired evocation of adolescent love, with its horn chords and lingering upbeats, its lilting rhythm and familiar tonal phrases. Listen to the slow movement of the Sixth Symphony, and you will sense it hovering out of earshot, held back by phrases just that bit more angular than the cliché requires, by Wagnerized harmonies, and by an instrumentation that lets in a breeze of saving irony. In the adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, by contrast,
kitsch is triumphant. The result is film music par excellence—and used as such by Visconti, in his kitsched-up version of Mann's Death in Venice.
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.
Art resists the disease; if it ceases to resist, it is no longer art.
The writers, composers, and painters whom we admire are those who portray the uncorrupted soul, who show us how we might feel sincerely, even in an age when fake emotion is the currency of daily life. The task of criticism is surely to guide us to these artists and to teach us to measure our lives by their standard. It should dwell on the art of the past, which offers such moving instances of humanity in its exalted and self-redemptive state. And it should select from our contemporaries poets like Rosanna Warren and Geoffrey Hill, composers like Arvo Pärt, and novelists like Ian McEwan: not that they are without faults, but they have retained the ability to distinguish the true from the false emotion and so offer comfort to the contrite heart.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
The Disease and the Cure
Roger Scruton, Kitsch and the Modern Predicament