The dictatorship of the heart 1.0

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. – Milan Kundera

This is basically a post inspired by mister Kundera (whom I adore and will love eternally). Probably none of the ideas here are my own, so don’t credit me if anything sounds smart. Also, what I want to say is quite long and quite chaotic, so I apologize for the length and incoherence of this post.

I don’t even know where to start. What is kitsch? How subjective is it and why does Kundera associate it with the emotional, the irrational, as opposed to the more analytical decisions of the mind? Is it necessary for good art to involve rationality? If we allowed our emotions complete creative freedom (as the Romantics supposedly did), would kitsch be the only result? Is kitsch, in a very strange way, an aspiration to what some would consider perfection?

Kitsch, says dictionary.com, is a loanword from the German “kitschen”, meaning to throw together. Something that would suggest, perhaps, some sort of haste in the creative process, or perhaps the amount of useless ornaments that is tantamount to kitsch in the collective opinion. However, wikipedia suggests this painting below, “The Widow”, as a kitsch example of late 19th century popular lithograph of a humorous painting by Frederick Dielman.

thewidow

Does this look like a careless work? Fair enough, it’s no Dali in terms of pretty details, but it’s not something one paints in one hour. And where’s the excessive ornamentation? Shouldn’t we then also take into account the idea that kitsch is also dependable on the sheer artistic quality of the oeuvre we’re analysing?

Moving on. Dictionary.com says then that kitsch is
something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.

There we go. That’s a bit closer. This picture, for example, is the first result that comes up when you google ‘kitsch’ and is, indeed, something overly adorned, sort of tawdry and which probably appeals to undiscriminating taste:

vodkavodka

But then. Mozart apparently wrote a large percentage of his works for the clear and honest purpose to avoid death by starvation. They were written quickly and with money and commercial success in mind, rather than art. But who can say Mozart actually is kitsch? I doubt anyone can, unless completely unfamiliar with both the term and the man’s work and immense talent. What is it that sets him apart? The sheer quality – and where does that come from? From passion for music or from a very sharp intellect? Kundera would say it’s the second. But then again, Kundera would say there’s a bit of kitsch in Mozart as well.
I’d also venture to speak about ‘commercial music’ in general, but seeing how people now use ‘commercial’ to mean ‘made for money’, as well as ‘which sells well’, as well as ‘which everyone likes’, as well as ‘which sounds like music that sells well’, as well as ‘bad’. So let’s not go there.

Moving on, to slightly more intelligent approaches of the subject.
Kant was among the first philosophers to develop a proper aesthetic system (although still quite dependent on Aristotle’s, which seems to dictate the general direction of aesthetics until Schopenhauer and that other German dude.) and he opposed the terms of Art and Artistic Indifference (Kitsch). He affirmed that art is disinterested in a fundamental, unique way, and that it is necessarily moral. (whether this morality is relative to said disinterest, I don’t know.) We can agree on the ‘disinterested’ part (if we exclude examples such as Mozart, whose art was perhaps disinterested anyway, seeing as he could’ve as well washed floors and windows to earn the same money), but moral? Is kitsch immoral? Strangely enough, Kundera argues for the exact opposite and says kitsch is an everpresent lie, a sort of pathetic attempt at one’s moral and aesthetic salvation through a continuous denial of reality, the yearning of the heart for something that isn’t really there – sort of like religion, perhaps?
Here is the quote, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, just like the one at the beginning of this post, where he says it:
The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. … The aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch. … Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

I’m afraid I’ll have to continue this in another post (I added the ‘1.0’ to the title :D), as this is already long and probably extremely boring. But yeah, there’s more to tell.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The dictatorship of the heart 1.0

  1. Great post! I really like the ideas you raise, though I don’t feel like I can answer any of them. But my two cents:

    For me, kitsch was always associated with the ridicule, the tawdry, regardless of how excessive it was in content or ornamentation. But then, like you said, it all comes down to subjective opinions — what is ridicule, and is it necessarily linked to the tastes of the masses?
    I do agree that kitsch has this inherent character of “homeliness”, one I think is present in what we usually refer to as ‘guilty pleasures’. Songs, or films, or things we objectively know are weak, and feel “ashamed” of
    enjoying, but do. But what draws us to these things?

    I’d say kitsch is immoral in an artistic sense, because it seems to rely on a conscious and deliberate compromise of (artistic) quality to achieve a product that is known to be liked. It’s “safe”. And isn’t that the exact opposite of what the more objective theories say Art is, at least in an historical perception? — the “addition” of something new to the definition of Art, the breaking of pre-established boundaries?

    • ladyruna

      “Great post!” – YAY! *bounces around* Thanks for the long comment.

      I agree with the point you raised on ‘homeliness’, but why do we feel ashamed of liking ‘weaker’ films or songs? I understand why we would feel attracted… imagine you’re in a post-break-up moment and you’re a rather girly girl. (LOL) You’re not going to want to see a Fellini film, you’re going to crave a cheap love story with some drama that you can identify with. It’s a cheap, cheap version of catharsis I guess. Why be ashamed though? Why are we supposed to have these impeccable taste when it comes to art (and who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad)?

      This is where theories seem to clash; “it seems to rely on a conscious and deliberate compromise of (artistic) quality to achieve a product that is known to be liked”. What if I’m a guy and write this letter to an imaginary girlfriend, not intending to show it to anyone, ever, and I go all “oh my little angel, your eyes blue like the skies, your hair of gold, I love you more than anything” etc. Is that kitsch? I’d say it is. Is it made so that a large audience would enjoy it? No. Then what?

      My main issue is not really having an answer to these questions (or to the ones I’ve asked in the post). I’d really want to know your opinions though.

  2. “It’s a cheap, cheap version of catharsis” is a good way of putting it; in the end, I guess it’s because of that very same reason. Catharsis is a personal, sometimes embarassing process. But when we’re watching/listening to something kitsch, we’re not thinking “wow, this is really kitsch”, we just enjoy it (albeit we do so because we’re probably in an emotionally frail moment, but that’s beside the point). The ‘shame’ is only present when it’s put out in the open, before the eyes of others. And I think that’s because people prefer to keep that process of catharsis to themselves, and feel uncomfortable with opening up about things that reflect something private. That, or it just makes them feel inferior to admit that they like a certain song/film. If that’s the case, I have no idea why it happens.

    In my opinion, it would still be considered kitsch. Not because of the destination target, but because of the sentiment that inspired the guy to write the letter in that way, which was one of two things: either an idea that this is what a love letter should sound like, based on what the general consensus of Love is (the romantic, subjective view of :flowers: and hearts and blue skies and angels) and what makes it sound “””good””” (i.e., acceptable as a love letter); or an inability to express himself more originally, thus relying on the trivial words/expressions associated with most people’s view of Love. Because if he wrote something like
    “Dear crush,
    Canned tuna fish.
    Me.”
    it would hardly feel like a love letter (which isn’t to say he couldn’t do it, but y’know).

    In the end, we’re left with more questions: why are there mainstream (kitsch) feelings, and where do they come from? Why should Love be associated with :flowers: and hearts and blue skies and angels? Do these come from human nature, or are they influenced by Art and culture? And if the latter is true, when does one culturally and artistically defining work become kitsch? When it’s repeated ad nauseam? When it stops reflecting the current trends in society?

    And to that last question I think it’s important to consider the time variable. Isn’t it often for “old” things to become kitsch moreso than current ones? For example, why are disco music or 80s power ballads nowadays considered kitsch, when an artist like Lady GaGa is considered iconic? Can’t it be said that these three music styles share many predominant features? Is it safe to say she too will be kitsch twenty years from now?

    • ladyruna

      Then perhaps it’s this vulnerability that’s embarrassing? Reaching a cathartic state through whatever form of art (or pseudo art) – maybe that’s so personal that one feels bad about sharing it. But then are all ‘personal’ works of art kitsch? I, for one, really like Ever Dream, and I feel like it was written as a personal song, and for me it’s a personal song as well… does that mean it’s kitsch? I’d say no, and maybe because, indeed, there needs to be made a distinction between different types of catharsis. Maybe one could call them superior and inferior and judge art (and kitsch) in relation to this. Good art leads to a superior cathartic experience and, if I can be a bit Nitzschean, ‘superior people’ are those who will seek refuge in this art. And then we could define kitsch as the art that brings a cheaper catharsis, one for people who can’t find consolation in Beethoven but will find it in a Britney Spears song.
      (Wow, we should ttly write an aesthetics book.)
      However, the above may sound good and maybe it’s nothing else but a periphrasis of what everyone intuitively perceives as ‘kitsch’. But then comes Kundera’s argument, that kitsch is the denial of shit. Not that it contradicts what I said above, but they feel a bit… incompatible? Ah, I’ll need to think it over. (and develop the idea in post 2.0)
      So then the destination target is not important. Just the content. Fair enough, this I agree with. “because of the sentiment that inspired the guy to write the letter in that way…” – what is about the actual feeling that this is the way a love letter should sound like? Maybe he hasn’t read anything else in his life. He can’t know there’s something better out there, so he will replicate what he believes is the best manner in which to write a love letter. I don’t see why this makes his work kitsch. It simply reminds me of that theory according to which people shouldn’t write unless they know what it’s all about, but that’s a whole different story. (I think…?) Why does your ‘good’ have three types of inverted commas? 😛 I think this may be it – adopting the general consensus of Love. Giving in to this collective type of feeling (which is also a denial of shit, with all its flowers and unicorns), as if one’s heart needs to resonate with that of thousands of others before in order for it to be genuine and accepted, sort of. Would it have been better if he had written ‘Dear crush, I love you very very much. Me.’? Wouldn’t it have been less kitsch and more honest?
      LOL at ‘canned tuna fish’. That’s a beautiful love letter, that is.
      I don’t know if there are kitsch feelings. Do you have an example of that? As for Love, that’s for another post. xD I don’t have a very clear view on it, but ever since my philosophy teacher told us that love, as we know it, was born in Shakespeare’s times and definitely not (much!) earlier as anyone would think, I’m a bit confused. I’ll mull over it. What do you mean by ‘influenced by art and culture’? Aren’t art and culture related to human nature or at least to human craft by excellence? I think the repetition ad nauseam is much more important in kitsch-ifying than something not reflecting the values of its time. And this repetition is objectified in the tawdry reproductions that are considered to be kitsch (see the black cat picture). I don’t think anachronisms damage the value of a good piece of art, at least not entirely. We definitely don’t live in a Romantic society, but I personally still enjoy reading Keats and Shelley and Byron and I can’t see anyone calling them kitsch. Writing Romantic poetry now, though… I think that would be seen as bad, but simply because it’s been done before, up to the point of saturation.
      I think Lady Gaga is kitsch. Not bad, but kitsch.

      (this is a bit long. Sorry. :P)

  3. I can’t say for sure, but I do feel like in order for something to be recognised as good [art], there’s this need of a distancing, an objectivising of what it stands for, that isn’t so prone to an immediate emotional personal response. Subjectivity leads to self-indulgence — does self-indulgence ever lead to good art?

    And how would you quantify a superior cathartic experience? Based on people’s emotional response to a certain piece of music? Who’s to say someone can’t have a religious experience to the sound of Britney Spears? Which isn’t to say that’s normal, but hey — there’s people who find Jesus on their toast.

    If we’re to understand kitsch as a superfluous replication of what already exists, and has been done several times to the point that it’s collectively recognised as excessive (i.e., lack of originality), and the guy would use those ideals or words perceived as kitsch, then yes, his letter would still be kitsch. The fact that he doesn’t know it’s kitsch, or that what he is doing is not being done deliberately, doesn’t mean it can’t be kitsch. The same way renaissence men didn’t know they were ‘renaissance men’ at the time — they simply did what they felt like. The concept that defines them as such is historical, and only appears later.

    “Dear crush, I love you very very much. Me.” would be kitsch, and in tune with all the results you get if you google “love”.
    As for “””good”””, I meant a widely accepted idea of good, which isn’t to say it IS good in terms of artistic quality. For example, take Rilke, Bergman, or Beethoven. Though regarded as artistically good, aren’t their works enjoyed by only a minority of the population?
    By “influenced by art and culture” I mean culturally specific art. “Art and culture are related to human nature or at least to human craft by excellence”, yes, but what is perceived as Art in Nordic folklore will not be the same as what is regarded as Art by the bushmen in Africa. Thus, their ideas of kitsch will be different.

    Taking the (lack of) originality notion, can we say kitsch comes from a lack of critical thinking? In other words, that kitsch is formed by the acceptance of what is perceived as collectively “safe”?

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