Kitsch as dehistorisized aesthetics

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Monday, Mar 9, 2009

At 3 Quarks Daily, Asad Raza responds to philosophy professor Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, a book that attempts to explain the existence of art in terms of evolutionary psychology. This thesis is probably important to argue if you have some stake in evolutionary psychology, less so if you are interested in art. Without having read the book, I can’t see how it can be useful for anything other than attempting to derive a depoliticized and faux-universal aesthetic. Art serves political functions; the sexual selection it may help facilitate is political as well—the signaling occurs within a given class structure and serve to reproduce it or react against it. Attention to the evolutionary aspect of artmaking (which ultimately strip the history out of art history; i.e. the stuff about art that is actually interesting beyond the sensual pleasure it gives) seems likely to divert attention away from the political aspects of aesthetics, which ideology about the supremacy and autonomy of individual taste already makes it difficult to perceive.


Raza points out some of the inherent problems of attempting to deduce the evolutionary significance of some supposedly universal tastes in art, focusing particularly on Dutton’s assertion that landscape painting derives from early humankind’s predilection for savannahs:


Your first chapter cites a survey finding that human beings are attracted to a certain type of landscape, which you point out resembles the most habitable savanna landscapes of the Pleistocene: “a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals.”  You hypothesize that people are attracted to such landscapes innately, and that is why calendars tend to feature them.  When we are pleased by such a landscape, you conclude magisterially, “we confront remnants of our species’ ancient past.”


Raza points out that this is an extremely short-sighted account of the variety of landscape painting the world has produced.


Obviously, some landscape painting is meant to be beautiful and thus pleasurable, especially in European painting between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But just because this particular genre of painting (lasting only ten generations or so) has some analogues in Eastern painting does not establish, to my satisfaction at least, that humans innately take pleasure in such pictures.  To the contrary, most forms of painting, including that which decorates the caves in Lascaux, do not depict perspectival landscapes.  Also, much landscape painting does not produce pleasure but fear and awe (think of Friedrich, or Turner).  Isn’t it just as likely that landscapes with a certain prospective view, from high ground, with sublime natural features such as high mountains at a safe distance, but with an enticingly serpentine river or path winding from foreground to background, producing a sense of exploration and travel, became popular when they did for historical reasons?  And, having become popular, were later spread around the world, after technologies for the mass reproduction of images were invented, in the lowbrow form of calendars?  Finally, even if you had a strong scientific case as to why humans take pleasure in looking at certain kinds of landscapes, that doesn’t explain why paintings of such landscapes have at some times in some places been considered art, which does not mean simply pleasurable things—what you are arguing for (a love of calendar landscapes) might be better called “The Kitsch Instinct.”


Regardless of the alleged science behind the pursuit of universal taste, one ends up with an effort to reject the plurality and particularity of actual aesthetics in action, and what purposes they serve and effects they have in a given sociohistorical moment, in favor of generalizations that efface history. Such critics have to generalize and universalize their own sentimentality under a series of scientific veils and recondite justifications. But that generalization inevitably results in kitsch, which is dehistorisized aesthetics. Kitsch is perhaps the only “universal” taste out there—it is what one is inevitably left with when one is prone to generalizing about what pleases everybody.

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