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Tuesday, January 05, 2010


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Then there's the third category Scruton aptly labels "preemptive kitsch" -- postmodernist art-as-a-joke a la Warhol and Koons:


BTW, delighted to see once again the occasional combox over here, Bill!

Hi Ed,

That is an excellent article by Scruton. Your name came up in the "Souls and Murder" thread below in connection with hylomorphic dualism. The ComBox is open on that one too. I 'll also leave it open when I talk some more about HD dualism, shortly.

All the best for the New Year,


I find the first painting more offensive to the eyes, if only because the colors are too bright (really it's the windows). Still, it's pretty. I like the simplicity of the second -- and I think Plato might have approved of it too.

Sometimes of course an artist can show a certain rhetorical mastery when it comes to "pulling our heart-strings", and this in itself is something difficult and interesting, even if it amounts in the end to nothing more than what Socrates calls (in translation, of course) "a knack". I'm thinking particularly of the movies I've seen by James Cameron, that is, Titanic and more recently Avatar. I remember being very moved by both movies at the time when I saw them, though looking back on them they seem pretty flimsy. (Though I think there are a lot of interesting ideas behind the movie Avatar -- though that is often true of science fiction.)

Of course I would never hang *any* painting in my apartment. More minimalist than minimalist art is the absence of art altogether.

On your characterisation of kitsch, I think this is difficult.

"What is offensive in kitsch is the thoughtless purveyance of visual cliché's, the pandering to the viewer, the 'pushing of his buttons,' and in some cases the cynical attempt to elicit a stock emotional response in order sell the stuff"

Doesn't 'good' art push buttons also, and doesn't it attempt to elicit a stock emotional response? The music of Wagner elicits standard emotional responses, but it probably counts as high art. And what about music that in the original arrangement is regarded as high art, but in popular settings becomes kitsch? Examples, 1. the magnificient 20th prelude by Chopin, which was set to words by Barry Manilow, and later recorded by Donna Summer. 2. The finale of Stravinsky's Firebird, which was recorded in the 1940's as a popular ballad. The music is the same. Perhaps we should include any music by a great composer that was later set to a hymn. E.g. 'Hark the herald angels' (Mendelsohn), and in particular 'I vow to the my country' - the music by Holst, the words are high kitsch. You could argue that it is just the words that are kitsch, but in all these examples the emotions invoked by the words fit very well those of the music. (Further thought to explore: how is it that words and music can fit together at all in this way? It's not as though there are two sets of emotions running in parallel).

I appreciate I haven't addressed your second point about the avant-garde. This is addressed to the attempt to define or characterise kitsch, which I think is difficult. Although briefly to address your second point, what about the art of Jeff Koons.


Koons claims there is nothing hidden in his work. He deliberately produces kitsch, and calls it high art. There is a similar problem with the work of Douanier Rousseau


The works of his that you see in galleries are primitive, evocative and so on. But if you see the rest of his work, it is terribly done - the man simply couldn't paint. So with Koons you have high art that is kitsch, done knowingly. With Rousseau you have high art that is kitsch, but un self conscious. How do you explain all these things?

Scruton is (obviously!) correct that art ought to be trying to be beautiful - Kincade is trying, Rothko is not.

Kincade is only moderately skilled as a painter, and seems to lack a sense of colour - but there is a beauty there which is accessible to the uneducated and those whose appreciation of art is limited. Kincade is therefore a real artist, but only moderately good - there will be many thousands of other US artists as good as him, and therefore his exceptional success is essentially random.

Rothko is not trying to be beautiful, but is instead trying to be truthful - in other words he is not an artist at all (not really) but is trying to do philosophy by painting. In so far as he succeeds, the philosophy is extremely simple, indeed banal. There is (obviously) no sign of skill in his painting. In a rational world, Rothko would be unknown.

An interesting case is Rockwell, who was a very skilled painter but who worked in illustration rather than the genre of high art and whose psychological penetration in potraiture was confined to fairly simple emotions, usually humorous. He was genuinely great in a minor genre - like Garrison Keillor.


I agree with your comments, and I especially liked the one about Rothko. I think you are right: he is trying to make a philosophical statement by painting. Although it is not clear what that statement is, it is along the lines of nihilism. The poet John Ciardi said that one should not send a poem on a prose errand. One could saying something similar to Rothko: don't send a painting on a prose errand.


BTW, I liked your piece, Is Atheism Literally a Delusion? http://scientistsconsideringchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/10/is-atheism-literally-delusion_150.html

Thanks for your comment on my atheism delusion piece. Do you agree this is a kind of Jamesian 'pragmatic' argument? It probably isn't really that strong an empirical argument in favour of monotheism, but it did have a biggish effect on me! - probably because I cobbled it together for myself and was therefore biased in its favour...

In general, I find that atheists (such as I was until recently) are much too ready to assume the delusional quality of religious explanations, without trying to understand the implications of what they are saying. They need to ask what would be the consequences you would expect if religiousness was a delusion.

I suggest that a delusion should be maladaptive (reduce reproductive success) and one would also expect a delusionsal system to be either very simple or else self-contradictory/ incoherent.

The most coherent system seems to be Thomism - and this should count for a great deal more in its favour than is credited. By contrast, atheism is very obviously self-contradictory.

I always knew that atheism was self-contradictory but blithely assumed things were on the verge of being sorted out (and had fantasies of contributing to this solution).

And I also knew that Thomism was both complex and coherently explanatory, but I underestimated how unusual this was, how all-but unique it is for a man made system to be both complex and coherent - maybe only mathematics is comparable?

But adaptiveness and coherence may pull in somewhat different directions - at least in the short term. Thomism is the Roman Catholic philosophy, so RC has the least contradiction; but Roman Catholicism is associted with some of the lowest birth rates in the world (Spain, Ireland, Italy) - far below replacement levels. Indeed RC does not seem to influence behaviour very much when you look at survey data (indeed, it does not much influence abortion behaviour, which is surprising - hence the very low fertility in RC countries.)

In many ways Mormonism is the most adaptive religion - and the only modern social system which has fertility that increases with social status - yet the Mormon theology, while very beautiful, is not particularly coherent (RC has, of course, about 1800 years head start!).

Anyway I'd better stop since this is way off topic...


I am thinking of devoting a separate post to your piece. Maybe tomorrow. I want to make sure I have carefully studied your article before I comment further on it.

People interested in commenting on the atheism-delusion question should hold off until I begin the new thread.

You have I suspect deliberately picked an example or Rothko's work that will reproduce terribly on screen---not that any of his paintings will be well represented, but at least some of the more well-known works might have allowed people the potential for some positive associations. To say that there is no skill in his work is simply childish, have any of you even spent any time with a well-curated and installed Rothko? To say that there is no merit in it is to ignore a hugely important part of american aesthetics. Look at the american luminists and then at Rothko, does it not make sense to you? Does to me.

I could not locate the popular tune based on the Firebird. However there is a similar example in Johnny Mathis' wonderful version of Stranger in Paradise http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZN42w0S4HI which is pure kitsch, and the Dance of the Maidens from Prince Igor of which it is a close copy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8C8frqCKKg

However there are subtle differences between the 'high art' version and the kitsch one. There is an underlying minor tonality in Boridin's original which has been eradicated from the popular version. Does this explain the difference between art and kitsch? Difficult. In any case, the original definition of 'kitsch' as poorly executed cannot apply to such a skilled and able performance by Johnny Mathis. The difference has to lie elsewhere.

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