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July 07, 2003

Rethinking "Kitsch"


As I was glancing through the July-August issue of The American Scientist I came across an interesting article on “The Value of Positive Emotions” by Barbara L. Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan. She points out that the study of negative emotions—anger, fear, sadness—has far outstripped the study of the positive emotions—joy, contentment, gratitude and love. Her explanation of the difference in attention struck me as having “cultural” implications far beyond the sociology of science:

The study of optimism and positive emotions was seen by some as a frivolous pursuit.

However, she summarizes the benefits that recent research has shown to accrue to positive emotions. Some are medical:

Back in the 1930s some young Catholic nuns were asked to write short, personal essays about their lives…More than 60 years later the nuns’ writings surfaced again when three psychologists at the University of Kentucky reviewed the essays as part of a larger study on aging and Alzheimer’s disease…What [the researchers] found was remarkable: The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest. This gain in life expectancy is considerably larger than the gain achieved by those who quit smoking. The nun case study is not an isolated case. Several other scientists have found that people who feel good live longer.

Some benefits are cognitive:

Two decades of experiments of Alice Isen of Cornell University and her colleagues have shown that people experiencing positive affect (feelings) think differently. One series of experiments [involved] such tests as Mednick’s Remote Associates Test, which asks people to think of a word that relates to each of three other worlds. So, for example, given the words mower, atomic and foreign, [a] correct answer is power…Isen and colleagues showed that people experiencing positive affect [i.e., happiness] perform better on this test than people in neutral states. In other experiments, Isen and colleagues tested the clinical reasoning of practicing physicians…physicans who felt good were faster to integrate case information and less likely to become anchored on initial thoughts or come to premature closure in their diagnosis. In yet another experiment, Isen and colleagues showed that negotiators induced to feel good were more likely to discover integrative solutions in a complex bargaining task. Overall, 20 years of experiments by Isen and her colleagues show that when people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information.

Finally, some of the benefits are social:

Isen demonstrated people who experience positive emotions become more helpful to others.

Naturally, being a Blowhard, my thoughts turned to the topic of happiness and positive emotion in art. Scanning quickly through my mental databanks of contemporary high culture for examples of positive emotion, I drew a blank. Granted, there is a fair amount of jokey art, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing. There are bushel baskets full of art loaded with a rather smirky self-satisfaction at how much smarter or hipper its creator is than his middle-class audience, but I don’t think that qualifies, either. Middle- and low-brow art, on the other hand, are full of depictions of happy people, of joy, of contentment, of gratitude, of love.

I’m not setting up a straw-man here; read that last sentence over with your high-art hat on and notice how immediately the impulse comes to treat such emotions—joy, contentment, gratitude and love—with skepticism, pessimism, and/or righteous disapproval. In short, positive emotion in art is and indication of, well, kitsch.

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this selection from the Wikipedia entry on “Modernism”:

In literature and visual art some Modernists sought to defy expectations mainly in order to make their art more vivid, or to force the audience to take the trouble to think 'outside the box' of their preconceptions. This aspect of Modernism has often been seen as a reaction to consumer culture, which developed in Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Whereas most manufacturers try to make products that will be marketable by appealing to people's preferences and prejudices, Modernists rejected such consumerist attitudes in order to undermine conventional thinking. This theory of Modernism was expounded by the art critic Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg labelled the products of consumer culture "kitsch", because they were designed simply to have maximum appeal, with any difficult features removed. For Greenberg, Modernism was thus a reaction against the development of such examples of modern consumer culture as commercial popular music, Hollywood, and advertising. Greenberg associated this with a revolutionary rejection of capitalism.

According to Doctor Fredrickson, one consequence of moving from negative emotions to positive emotions is that it shifts one’s mental view from a “local” focus to a “global” focus. In tests, happier people see “the bigger picture” so to speak, while less happy people focus more on the trees than the forest. Given the huge scientific, technical, industrial and economic earthquakes of the past 150 years, perhaps the social elite (the audience for “high art”) was so unsettled it could only focus on the unhappy details of change. Meanwhile, the middle and lower classes, not so tied to the “old” order, could look past the discontinuities and still appreciate the larger patterns of life—which surely include the positive emotions of joy, contentment, gratitude and love.

Think of it: perhaps Modern Art is simply a case of becoming anchored on initial thoughts or coming to premature closure in one's diagnosis of social change.



posted by Friedrich at July 7, 2003


This explains the both the popularity of Jan Karon's Mitford books, or Alexander McCall Smith's new series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (in Botswana, of all places); both of them accentuate the positive; the authors spend as much time describing good people as most authors spend describing the nasty, neurotic, and destructive. I like them, and yes, it always does feel (unfairly, I think) a little kitschy.

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 7, 2003 10:21 PM

What about Richard Wilbur (IMNSHO the fines poet writing in English)?

A Late Aubade

Richard Wilbur

You could be sitting now in a carrel
Turning some liver-spottd page,
Or rising in an elevator-cage
Toward Ladies' Apparel.

You could be planting a raucous bed
Of salvia, in rubber gloves,
Or lunching through a screed of someone's loves
With pitying head,

Or making some unhappy setter
Heel, or listening to a bleak
Lecture on Schoenberg's serial technique.1
Isn't this better?

Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot

Of time, by woman's reckoning,
You've saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
Than anything.

It's almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go,

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears.

Not a hint of kitsch, to my mind. But he can do the other:


The warping night-air having brought the boom
Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
"Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?"

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Posted by: Mike Snider on July 8, 2003 9:23 AM

But then, look at this ridiculous review:

"After a silence of 10 years, it might seem fitting for a major poet to publish a work much changed in style or tone from his previous efforts. Yet Richard Wilbur, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his poems, recently came out with a new book very similar to the vast corpus of his work."

I think perhaps the silly notion that "all happy families are alike" gets mixed up in the modernist and post-modernist drive for "experimenting" for its own sake. "Experimenting" in scare quotes because it has nothing to do with the kind of experiment characteristic of science, though the sillier pomos pretend it does.

Posted by: Mike Snider on July 8, 2003 9:30 AM

"No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."
-Helen Keller

"Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training."
-Anna Freud

Kitschy?...maybe. Make you feel good?...probably.

Posted by: linda p. on July 8, 2003 11:49 AM

Thanks much for this entry. It helped me to start to pull together some loose strands of thought about my own specific attitudes. (Thanks, too, for mentioning the wikipedia, which I had not yet discovered. Could spend quite a bit of time lost in that.)

Quite a number of my attitudes and prejudices seem thoroughly (informed by) Modern(ism). And they often do feel like 'prejudice' in the most negative sense of the word. Wikipedia used the word(s) 'elite' or 'elitist' 3 times in the definition of Modernism, and that probably pretty much sums up at least part of my identity with Modernism. From my teens, I seem to have set myself up as 'against' mass culture. I also got bitten by the Kitsch bug pretty severely. Does it make me happier to be defined 'against'? Nope.

But, man, it still makes me shake my ahead in agreement and feel justified when I read that "for Greenberg, Modernism was thus a reaction against the development of such examples of modern consumer culture as commercial popular music, Hollywood, and advertising. Greenberg associated this with a revolutionary rejection of capitalism." Ya see, I was right all along. I'm against it.

Posted by: Dixon on July 8, 2003 1:41 PM


I sense you're taking something away from this other than what I was intending, which is of course probably my fault. What I was getting at is that while lots of pop culture stuff is, well, kitsch, it's not a good thing that we find ourselves automatically classifying any work of art containing positive emotions as kitsch. And I offer that is pretty much what the college-educated art enthusiast is likely to find him- or herself thinking, assuming they've absorbed the "hidden assumptions" of Modernism and Postmodernism. Which is a shame. More than that, however, these hidden assumptions, as part of their general mental furniture, may even prevent said art enthusiast from seeing big-picture opportunities for such positive emotions in their life. High art is supposed to both entertain and instruct, no? Well, this intellectual misconception linking positive emotion and kitsch seems to be very bad instruction indeed.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 8, 2003 5:41 PM

I was just reading the book IMPERIAL BERLIN by Gerhard Masur (1970), an account of Berlin covering the later 19th Century and the 20th Century through 1918. Masur grew up in Berlin during the last years of the Kaiser, so besides being an arts-trained college professor he has personal experience with what he's writing about. The chapter on the arts in Imperial Berlin describes a situation of dull and lifeless "official art" (like heroic statues and paintings of historical scenes commissioned by the ruling aristocracy mostly to celebrate itself) versus an insurgent movement of radical innovators (Impressionists, Expressionists...). Supporters of official art denounced the work of the innovators as "art from the gutter," and the innovators had a few choice words of their own for the official art. ("It is not to be wondered at that the word 'Kitsch' was first coined in Germany," says Masur.)

Masur goes on to define the word: "KITSCH: an almost untranslatable word, meaning something trashy, showy, in bad taste, gaudy."

Well, that's one writer in one book published over 30 years ago, anyway...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 8, 2003 6:43 PM

No, 'twas me that was at fault, giving the impression that I didn't get what you were getting at. I got your message that we think of the positive as kitschy... though I think there's always been a distinction between positive and sentimental (but where the line between is drawn may be a 'class' prejudice).

But there were so many other ideas lurking in your post, and I picked up on one or two that resonated with me and made me see things a little differently (and that's why I read). I think I argued myself back around to my usual way of thinking. I was trying to agree with you, and then that Greenberg quote again justified my superiority complex 'against' or over kitsch in the sense of mass spoonfed opiated culture. Damn it, there I go again.

Big picture. Big picture. Open heart, open mind.

Posted by: Dixon on July 9, 2003 10:07 AM

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