On the corner of Kitsch and Scam …
Philosopher and critic Roger Scruton, on the shocking possibility that much of the highest-profile, highest-cost modern art is the worthless scam ordinary people think it is:
“The fear of kitsch is one reason for the compulsory offensiveness of so much art produced today. It doesn’t matter that your work is obscene, shocking, disturbing – as long as it isn’t kitsch…. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise, which I call “pre-emptive kitsch”. Modernist severity is both difficult and unpopular, so artists began not to shun kitsch but to embrace it, in the manner of Andy Warhol, Allen Jones and Jeff Koons. The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch. Far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody.”
I’m reminded of the way audiences at live classical music are supposed to give a standing ovation because the performance is excellent, but so often stand and hammer their hands together not because of excellence but because of the need to be seen to be (and to seem to oneself to be) the kind of person who recognizes and responds to excellence. It’s a good example of what Sartre called mauvais fois – bad faith. So with art: the cost in cultural status of not “getting it” is so high that people are desperate to seem to get it. So they become easy targets, getting it (and giving millions for it) even when the “it” they think they’re getting is not what’s there.
This isn’t about realism (or even representation) versus modernism or abstraction. It’s about genuine versus fake aesthetic power, and genuine versus fake response. Nobody knows what art will look like in 50 years, but I can’t help but think it will involve a return to a concern with raw aesthetic power that will make so much contemporary art look like a huge, and hugely embarrassing case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.