There's an interesting review of Brithish philosopher Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty, that looks at the value (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of kitsch. In "Finding Kitsch's Inner Beauty," Robert Fulford praises Scruton's text for holding the "now marginalized view" that philosophers should help the rest of us "think about issues that really matter." (Marginalized? Really?) The "issue that really matters" here is the issue of beauty, and the question that concerns both Scruton and Fulford is why the hoi polloi can't seem to direct their/our aethestic and moral sensibilities towards the beautiful. Instead, we love kitsch, which is at best a degraded, narcissistic and utterly mundane imitation of (real) beauty. Scruton argues, following Kant, that this is not simply a matter of "bad taste," but a moral failure on our parts. As summarized by Fulford, Scruton's argument is as follows:
Kitsch encourages us to dwell on our own satisfactions and anxieties; it tells us to be pleased with what we have always felt and known. It reaches us at the level where we are easiest to please, a level requiring a minimum of mental effort.
Beauty, on the other hand, demands we consider its meaning. It implies a larger world than the one we deal with every day. Even for those with no religious belief, it suggests the possibility of transcendence...
Kitsch trivializes human conflict and demotes feeling into bathos. It's a mould that forms, as Scruton says, over a living culture... The moral effect of kitsch may be obscured by sentiment but it's there. Kitsch, Scruton correctly points out, is a heartless world. It directs emotion away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without truly feeling them.
Reading this reminded me of a discussion about Kant's notion of the sublime that we had on this blog sometime last year, which was itself a reminder of how difficult and brilliant the Critique of Judgment really is. Anyway, here's my question: I wonder whether or not all forms of kitsch have this "narcissistic" effect that Scruton describes? I'm not talking about the ceramic duck pictured above or those obnoxious garden gnomes, but maybe something more like Velvet Elvis renderings or pop music. Isn't part of the pleasurable feeling that we experience with these examples of kitsch attributable to some sense of a community connection that they inspire? That sense is not the same as Kant's sensus communis, of course, because it at best only connects us to a part of the human community (e.g., the part that loves Elvis)-- but isn't it a moral feeling nonetheless? Doesn't it signal some sense of the transcendent, in a way that Scruton denies to kitsch?