A discussion of taste is one of the most difficult (and unrewarding) ones to have, for most people are unreflective about their likes. “I know what I like!” is supposed to end the discussion, followed up with “different strokes for different folks”.
Aesthetic immaturity is one of the reasons for a discrepancy in taste among people. Some have not developed their powers of discernment to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11). A second reason is the sheer allure of sentimentalism in art. Christians who care about truth and care about truthful affections should care about the dangers of sentimentalism.
Art that trades in sentimentalism is sometimes called kitsch, for it cheapens the aesthetic experience by giving a shallow substitute. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote this much-cited description of kitsch:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
When in the grip of sentimentalism, people are not moved by the beauty of the object, people are moved by how moved they are. They feel deeply the depth of their feelings; they fall in love with their love. The art becomes merely something used to obtain what seems to them a moving experience. The only way this is possible is when the qualities of the object perceived possess only superficial schemas of beauty that are instantly recognisable and provoke familiar emotions. Objects of true beauty resist this treatment; they insist on one’s submission to them; they insist on honest scrutiny. Roger Scruton:
Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.
Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality.
Dorothy Sayers called such art “amusement art” and noted that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be.
Real art helps its participants to escape, not from reality itself but from their own unimaginative experience of it. They are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Sentimental art simply gives pleasure with the illusion of true imagination. Its consumers do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.
Real art gives those who receive it a kind of objectification, in which they are able to see themselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. They see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Sentimental art is all-too human, and ultimately childish. Its consumers want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so they escape into non-existent worlds where they are already experiencing pleasure and existing as beautiful. Sentimental art turns its back on a world it has never known.
The problem is not the symbolism in sentimental art, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, sentimental art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which its consumers are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of man’s own making, where everything is selected and placed in one’s own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. One quickly recognises the stereotypes and fills them with the feelings one knows he or she is supposed to have.
For this reason, sentimentality is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Richard Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.
Differences in taste are explained not only by differing levels of aesthetic maturity, but by the human propensity to prefer what is easy, familiar, and flattering. Here the difference is not mere preference, but whether art will be used selfishly or sacrificially, whether it will be an act of learning or an act of narcissism, whether it will be a childish encounter with ourselves or a receptive encounter with reality. Since Scripture describes man’s propensity for self-deception, and his inclination towards self-worship, it is no surprise that sentimental art is popular and that unreflective people consider it their preference.