As the National Post s Robert Fulford points out, on the back jacket of Roger Scruton’s new book, Beauty , you can find a tiny drawing of a garden gnome while on the front there’s a woman’s face by Sandro Botticelli. The two illustrations point us toward the sharp line that runs through the book, says Fulford, Thoughtful Renaissance beauty is good, brainless gnomes with pointed hats bad.
But why exactly are pointy-hatted gnomes so bad? Says Fulford:
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 . . . .
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. “It is no accident that the arrival of kitsch on the stage of history coincided with the hitherto unimaginable horrors of trench warfare, of the Holocaust and the Gulag—all of them fulfilling the prophecy that kitsch proclaims, which is the transformation of the human being into a doll, which in one moment we cover with kisses, and in the next tear to shreds.” Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is kitsch’s most exultant moment, its massed Nazis both adored and turned into statues.
Who knew garden gnomes and Nazis had so much in common?
Related: For a more light-hearted examination of kitsch, check out our new blog, Icons & Curiosities . Sally and Jody find the beauty, wonder, and weirdness (mostly weirdness) in the kitschy subculture where religion meets consumerism.