Perhaps there is a philosophical way to identify what is objectively beautiful. Could beauty be something shared by many?
How might people participate in a communal experience of beauty? A group of people could also participate in a collective delusion. How can we tell the difference?
Recently, I was invited to meet a community of artists who are very concerned about this question. They gather together, at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, to debate and discuss ways to deal with our culture of fakes. Known as the Catholic Art Guild, they support one another in the creation of artworks of real beauty.
There is such a thing as fake beauty. Unlike fake news, or fake history, it is something much harder to submit to fact checking and philosophical analysis. Matters of truth can be expressed in propositions, but the objective assessment of beauty is something subtle indeed.
The first step is to identify fake beauty in its most pandemic form. For this, we can turn to one of our greatest contemporary philosophers on aesthetic matters, Sir Roger Scruton. Sir Roger diagnoses the sickness with a single word: “kitsch.”
“Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious,” says Scruton in an essay written in 2014, for the BBC News Magazine.
Fake art is hard to define, but we can know it when we see it. Sir Roger gives some simple examples, showing us we are capable of basic aesthetic judgments. “The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair,” offers Scruton.
But wait a minute, what if you like some of those things? Perhaps then you immediately feel yourself objecting to the philosophical distinction between “fake beauty” and the real thing.
Maybe “kitsch” is simply a nasty insult, offered by a grumpy old man, who thinks his subjective preferences for beauty are better than yours.
No, the philosopher is asking us to step back from our experiences and to reflect on them. For the moment, let us lay the aside the feeling about whether we are offended or not when someone suggests we could be too ardently attached to kitschy art.
At Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch — worn out clichés, which have lost their innocence without achieving wisdom.
Sir Roger reflects on the significance of our experience of Christmas kitsch: “At Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch — worn out clichés, which have lost their innocence without achieving wisdom.”
It’s not that kitsch isn’t attempting to be beautiful. It desperately wants to be the beauty for which we seek. If we didn’t need beauty so badly, we wouldn’t find comfort in fake beauty. Often it seems to be the only thing available to meet our needs.
“Children who believe in Santa Claus invest real emotions in a fiction,” writes Scruton. Something similar happens when we feel comfort from our repose in fake beauty.
No doubt the comforting experience is real. Yet this is its subjective dimension, which the philosopher is seeking to measure, against a more objective standard.
Think about what we have all experienced: namely, growing up, and not believing in Santa Claus anymore. What does the Christmas kitsch involving Santa make us feel?
“We who have ceased to believe have only fake emotions to offer,” writes Scruton. “But the faking is pleasant. It feels good to pretend, and when we all join in, it is almost as though we were not pretending at all.”
We find a kind of satisfaction, even in fake emotions. Objectively, this is exactly what is happening when we cease to look beyond fake beauty.
Kitsch is a plague, because it does not take people outside themselves. An encounter with real beauty does. However, kitsch “does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll,” says Sir Roger.
“All sentimentality is like this,” he writes. Encouraged by fake beauty, sentimentality “redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it.”
Scruton thus exposes fake art: “The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this — how nice I am and how lovable.’”
Making real art is hard work. So is any effort to clear aside the clutter of kitsch, to make room for real beauty in our lives. Thankfully, we don’t have to make the effort all alone, since groups like the Catholic Art Guild exist to accompany us on the journey.