Given the imperative necessity to please and thereby to gain the attention of the greatest number, the aesthetic of the mass media is inevitably that of kitsch; and as mass media comes to embrace and to infiltrate more and more of our life, kitsch becomes our everyday aesthetic and moral code.
—Milan Kundera, “The Novel and Europe”
In his plotless masterpiece The Strudlhof Steps, Austrian novelist and Catholic convert Heimito von Doderer pauses at the edge of a forest to deliver an extended and elegiac encomium of nature’s beauties (“the wounds of the woods, torn open anew each spring by masses of water with their dull grinding”), only to end with an about face: if anyone “ever said outright that this spinach-green sublimity . . . was enough to turn his stomach, he would be considered an evil person.” Doderer’s playful portrayal of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics raises a real question: can our artistic tastes be (if maybe only in a venial sense) immoral?
Hermann Broch, another Austrian novelist (The Death of Virgil, The Sleepwalkers) and Catholic convert, argues that in our present age of “value-anarchy,” artistic expression dramatizes an “enormous tension between good and evil within art.” Broch calls good “that art which in its purest state is under the rule of the ethical.” Here he is not praising sentimental, moralistic uplift but rather hard-won portrayals of both a widening gyre of civilizational decline and the vestiges of goodness that counter dissolution. On the other end of the continuum, “the evil in art is kitsch.” Kitsch, a bastard child of the bourgeois age, is no harmless outgrowth of materialism. No: this elevation of “the mundane . . . to the level of the eternal” is akin to the “the mask of the Antichrist, who bears Christ’s features but is Evil nonetheless.”
Formulaic prime time specials and streamed series sealed with canned laughter, what Bob Dylan called “factory-made Christs that glow in the dark”: on what grounds are these apparently harmless entertainments and bathetic indignities elevated to ethical offenses? Broch charges kitsch with posing as “the Beautiful” by “patheticizing the finite to the infinite” in such a way that no authentic action occurs (boilerplates replace the irradiation of being), and the infantile and irrational are poured into premade moulds. To be clear: authentic folk art, which harmonizes cultural history and symbolic memory, is not kitsch. Whereas the former is rooted in the people’s prophetic antennae, the latter is rooted in derived from a surrogate sham. Whereas folk creations elicit a deep celebration of what’s permanent amidst the passing, the instant Jell-O of art elicits a cheap and ephemeral satisfaction—something like a sugar high. Though kitsch wears the costume of reality’s vocabulary, it does not describe things as they are. Its fabricated productions simply are not true. You could only call it good without qualms of conscience after a downing a Dionysian dose of expired boxed wine.
In spite of these deep deficiencies, kitsch has perfected the “proven” means by which its desired effect of “affective gratification” is achieved, fooling those who behold it to gasp “how beautiful!” Broch’s characterization of ersatz beauty finds friendship in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s depiction of pop music,
which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal.
Everywhere—in music, in movies, in literature—kitsch apes art: whenever, in detective shows, we see a series of identical victories over the criminal; wherever, in narrative, we witness “an array of indistinguishable good deeds rewarded and bad deeds punished.” In all such cases, the corruption consist of “monotonous vocabulary units of reality” fitted into the over-easy rails of a theme park ride we have all ridden so many times that we’re immunized to the attendant nausea.
Broch is serious: as kitsch is a stand-alone species, we ought not to flatter it with evaluations rooted in the categories of beauty. Lacking any imagination of his own and thus thieving true art’s methodologies, the maker of kitsch cannot discover the “vocabulary of reality from the world directly but will apply pre-used vocabularies, which in [his] hands rigidify into cliché.” Caught red-handed, this sculptor of ruses is “ethically depraved.”
In his recently-translated Aesthetics, the sometimes-Austrian Dietrich von Hildebrand also condemns as morally marred any man who is “filled with enthusiasm over kitsch,” because “a response of rejection ought to be given to that which is a disvalue.” On the other hand, if someone were to behold a genuine work of art or sublimity of nature and yet “no response whatever is given because the human person remains totally obtuse,” he would be the bearer of an “objective disharmony.” In the face of that which is innately good, “an appropriate response ought to be made.”
I am not arguing that, according to this rough school of fish we might call Austrian Aesthetics, the full force of the law should be leveled against kitsch-mongers. Aquinas explains that because human laws are “framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue,” they “do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices.” To civilization’s eternal sorrow, he would likely not include sham beauty among the most grievous faults.
Even if Broch is being hyperbolic in calling the kitsch maker “a criminal willing radical evil”—even if the peddler of mantelpiece atrocities or artless “family values” movies ought not to be jailed or fined, we cannot be so naïve as to think that widespread vulgarity (in the aesthetic sense) does not sicken the pulse of the polis and weaken mankind’s ability to see and to be. As Plato proclaimed, “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”
Existing as we do in a world bereft of goodly shame, where what passes for art is mainly an apocalypse of ugliness or a culture industry of decriminalized kitsch—including a proliferation of ideological “essays” with sketches woven through them—what can we do to separate the precious from the specious? Enter Robert Musil, another novelist (The Man Without Qualities) member, alongside Broch and von Doderer, of the Austrian Aesthetical triumvirate. For Musil, art itself is “a tool we employ to peel the kitsch off life.” In Musil’s rendering, kitsch “which prides itself so much on sentiments, turns sentiment into concepts.” The truth of lived experience is swapped for what Patrizia C. McBride calls “the automatism of emotional reaction,” the pseudo-stabilization of our affections not through cathartic fear and pity but through sanitization and oversimplification, leading to an unhappy ending wherein “kitsch . . . peels life off of concepts.”
For Musil, this rivalry between kitsch and art does not remain in the domain of dilettante aesthetics. The coatings of kitsch cramp our very lives. “Art equals life minus kitsch,” he quips, which means that not just works of art but also ethical actions peel away at these encrusted coatings. A fact that should surprise no one: if we habitually imbibe kitsch—in our devotional images, in our songs, in our screened subscription entertainments—our very lives will become wedded to the sentimental shortcuts and moral impotence of that faux art.
This rough Austrian school of aesthetical fish forms an alliance against that laissez-faire artistic liberation which has fought to keep “beauty” located in the eye of the pleasured consumer. They swim upstream, bidding us to clog those deregulated gutters that daily flush countless gallons of kitsch.
That which forms or deforms our very souls ought not to be consigned to the aesthetical relativism of perspectivist preference. The making and partaking of aped art unworthy of the name may not be a grievous vice, but it is also not simply a private peccadillo to be tolerated with indulgent smiles. Truly beautiful artistic arcs are a common good: they attune citizens’ souls to the difficult virtues, and are not diminished or depleted when contemplated by many. Kitsch, on the contrary, diminishes the common good by encouraging citizens to take their unexamined predilections as possessing authority, and by inuring the populous to what Peter Augustine Lawler called “everyday nihilism”—an evil so banal it seems harmless, even cute.