The following essay is reprinted January 26, 2005 with permission of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or would like to acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue for Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, please contact the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

A Sentimental Journey, or How Did We Get Here?

by Nick Capasso

 

These days, it is far wiser for an aspiring young artist to offend or disgust the viewer rather than evoke such gentle sentiments as sympathy and delight.

- Robert C. Solomon, 1991 (1)

 

Not anymore. The University of Texas philosopher's remark was true enough over a decade ago, but in the intervening years contemporary artists have increasingly turned their attention to the gentle sentiments. Imagery unthinkable in serious, high-brow, cutting-edge visual art for most of the twentieth-century has emerged as an important concern of the early twenty-first century. Painters, sculptors, and even art-and-technology/new media artists now employ the rich visual language of sentimental imagery for a wide variety of aesthetic, intellectual, and political purposes. The thirty-three New England artists included in Pretty Sweet represent a regional tip of a much larger national and international iceberg.

Sentimental imagery involves a large set of interrelated pictures, objects, symbols, formal qualities, and materials that have been traditionally used, primarily in popular culture, to evoke the positive, sweeter, softer, more tender emotions. A brief accounting of the components of this emotional spectrum would include love, happiness, delight, comfort, innocence, vulnerability, serenity, security, sympathy, nostalgia, bittersweet melancholy, and pleasure. The sentimental also parallels the quaint, the precious, the cute, the domestic, the beautiful, and the picturesque.

The iconography of sentiment is vast, and could easily be catalogued while on a stroll though any Hallmark card-book-and-gift store, ubiquitous in American shopping centers. Greeting cards overflow with hearts, flowers, sunny idealized landscape scenes, animals (especially puppies and kittens, birds and butterflies) and sentimental texts (poems, aphorisms, bon-mots). Next to stacks of books about angels and fairies (along with the bodice-ripper romance novels), and adjacent to the candy counter, one can find piles of stuffed animals, cute figurines, folk art and Victorian-inspired mementos, and decorative picture frames featuring photos of adorable smiling children. Sometimes prettified religious objects are available, or softly erotic or naughtily suggestive gift items. If you can't find what you're looking for, walk down the mall to the Disney Store or its Japanese doppelganger, Sanrio (purveyor of Hello Kitty). Don't forget to stop in at the fabric, jewelry, and home furnishings stores for country curtains, gold hearts and silver charms, and knick-knacks of all description. The source of the sentimental imagery that pervades American culture is the cadre of commercial artists, product developers, interior decorators, and advertising copywriters employed by a booming industry that is working hard to make us feel good.

The artists who exploit this kind of imagery reinforce its sentimental content by using formal devices and materials that are phenomenologically prone or culturally coded to evoke positive emotional response. Palettes tend to run to pastel, sepia, or Day-Glo. Scale is often intimate, sometimes miniscule, and much use is made of multiples, repetition, pattern, and excess. A collage aesthetic ­ associated with collections, collectibles, and scrapbooks -- is pervasive, and surfaces tend to be soft or shiny or plush. Overtly traditional notions of beauty prevail: clarity, cleanliness, purity, harmony, symmetry, hand-craft, and technical prowess. And in addition to the expected art materials (paint, canvas, pencil, paper, etc.), artists who deal with the sentimental use hobby and craft products like fuzz, fake fur, and feathers; domestic materials like linens, needlework, and wall-paper; and found objects that range from bronzed baby shoes to garden statuary to antique and family photographs.

With sentiment and its imagery -- whether found in popular culture or appropriated by artists ­ come some very close corollaries: sentimentality, kitsch, and camp. Sentimentality is sentiment polluted. Whether expressed in art, literature, politics, or other fields of human endeavor, sentimentality presents emotions that are false, manipulative, superficial, distorted, excessive, or self-indulgent. (2) Sentimentality tells emotional lies, and is therefore considered by many to be immoral, unethical, and culturally and personally dangerous. According to philosopher Deborah Knight, those who abhor sentimentality find it

....blameworthy because it simplifies the object of our attention. Sentimentality depends upon quick, predictable, and familiar reactions. Such reactions are....shallow, trite, or clichéd, and moreover they become habitual, routinized. Sentimentality makes no demand on us, requires no struggle, involves only a narrow range of feelings, arouses no thought or feeling about the real world, and both contributes to and is supported by a general failure of the imagination. Sentimentality prefers the obvious and avoids the ambiguous. A sentimental response is somehow unsophisticated, unlearned, undisciplined....sentimentality leads us away from active, cognitive engagement with the ambiguities and complexities of the real....toward the over-simplified, the distorted, the falsified, the fantasized, the fictional. Sentimentality encourages complacency....[and] it transforms the aesthetic into the anesthetic. (3)

Given its host of sins, sentimentality, often unfairly bound up with the sentiments themselves, is posited against truth, reason, fact, cognition, and will. Sentimentality also finds parallels in other phenomena that share its tendency toward emotional deception, like pornography, nationalism, propaganda, and even irony. Oscar Wilde, ever attentive to these matters, remarked: "the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism." (4)

Kitsch is where sentimentality and art come together. The pejorative word "kitsch," of murky etymology, emerged in nineteenth-century Europe to describe art -- or more loosely, products of visual culture -- that are mass-produced for the middle class, banal, in bad taste, and/or aesthetically questionable. Most of the objects described in our jaunt through the mall would be considered kitsch by the cultural literati and savvy high-end consumers. But what lies at the heart of kitsch, according to kitsch historian and aesthetician Gillo Dorfles, "is essentially the falsification of sentiments and the substitution of spurious sentiments for real ones. That is to say that real feeling becomes sentimentality."(5) Art historian Matei Calinescu agrees: "kitsch may be conveniently defined as a specifically aesthetic form of lying." (6)

Camp is an aesthetic attitude that uses irony to redeem kitsch from the aesthetic gutter, and elevate it to a pinnacle shared by the fine arts. The camp sensibility, a product of mid-twentieth century gay urban culture, turns bad taste to good, and enjoys the cheap thrills provided by schlock guilt-free.(7) Camp is funny, camp is fun, and it is seriously unserious. Those who do not share this knowing, somewhat snobbish outlook are regarded as irretrievably déclassé. Like kitsch, camp has developed its own industry, which produces John Waters films, musicals based on the ABBA songbook, and the Archie McPhee toy catalogue.

Artists today are as deeply interested in sentiment, sentimentality, kitsch, and camp, as they are in their intersections and implications. The artists of yesterday, a mere generation ago, avoided these issues like the plague. The dominant Modernist ethos of the twentieth century was pitted against sentimentality, which it conflated with sentiment and treated like a disease.

 

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