It’s unfortunate but probably inevitable that to profess aesthetic pleasure or distate is, unavoidably, to profess education and class. To my own surprise, I’ve stepped on more Bloggernacle toes in discussions of kitsch than in discussions of gender (maybe, as Lynnette suggested, because I know enough to tread a little more delicately through the gender minefield). I hadn’t realized how sensitive an issue trash art is. Whenever I say I can’t bear Janice Kapp Perry and wish she’d beat a rapid exit from sacrament meetings worldwide, or that I’d like to see recitations of doggerel over the pulpit ended, I belatedly realize that I have also–inadvertently–made a statement about my superior taste. Then I have to hastily backpedal and bring out my own trash: the Top-40 addiction of my early teens, the second-rate Romantic poetry of a later phase, the Yanni and the ABBA I’ve never wholly shaken off, more recent forays into the junky TV shows forbidden in my youth: ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and (worst of all) Grey’s Anatomy (which Janet’s candid confession here–scroll to comment 30–gave me the courage to own). Given the existence of my own little garbage-art collection, I’m clearly in no position to claw the romance-novel mote out of someone else’s eye.
But there’s no doubt that trash art, no less than “high” or “middlebrow” art, has profound political and moral significance. As Ursula LeGuin observes in one of her essays, “Sometimes the works that weigh the heaviest are those apparently fluffy or escapist fictions whose authors declare themselves ‘above politics,’ ‘just entertainers,’ and so on” (Dancing on the Edge of the World 199). Similarly, in a devastating critique of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind entitled “Look Away, Dixieland,” Patricia Storace notes that the novel’s sentimental portrayals of black characters are not merely an aesthetic lapse, but a moral one, a profoundly significant failure to imagine certain lives in fully complex and human terms, a willful and dangerous ethical blindness.
The reduction to caricature matters. It is in this reduction that the sentimental is the cousin, the necessary counterpart to, the pornographic. I still vividly remember being amazed and stung in my teens at the narrow, physical terms in which so many male novelists sketch their female characters, holding the vacuous wide-eyed virgins and worldly temptresses, with their grossly exaggerated sexual significance, against my ordinary life of joy and rage and sorrow and wonder, and angrily refusing to cast my existence in such alien, restrictive contours. And while we Mormons rightly denounce pornography, the cheap venerating sentimentality with which we too often speak of women and mothers may remain the more deeply embedded, unacknowledged sin. I’m past the point of endurance with the annual Mother Dear, I Love You Little Nell tripe, and I’m evil enough to wish that the mother who almost burned up in the fire to save her necklace and her daughter, whom she then proceeded to raise in heroic, fortified poverty, had died in the damn fire and spared us all the endless recitation.
That’s the trouble with trash. Whether in exaltation or in shame, it trashes people. And the tired barbarians-at-the-gates critiques of trash too often trash people as well.
As mortals, we experience this pressure both as the daily lack of enough time to do all the things we should or want to do, and as we contemplate the span of our lives, knowing that we will not live long enough to finish the !()#$##! Ph.D., become a world-class cellist, go to medical school, and learn to play timpani and French horn passably well.
Given injunctions like this, given the painful limitations of mortality, the heartbreaking, essentially infinite number of books we will never read, the transcendent music we will never hear, the exquisite art we will never see, should we waste our time on trash? I confess to a double sense of delicious liberation and gnawing guilt when I indulge in Buffy the Vampire Slayer–and yet the very relentlessness of my sense that I should be productive (at all times, and in all things, and in all places, as I do most solemmly strive to live the Young Women values, smile nicely at my fellow Saints even during sacrament meeting at the unholy hour of 9:00 a.m., and keep my grubby paws out of the Ben & Jerry’s).
Great art demands and rewards sustained, almost devotional, attention. There’s so much literature and music that I love, love beyond the expressing of it, and yet at times my attention fails, I turn away, I long, however ambivalently, for brain candy and easy pleasure. Too many easy pleasures are, I believe, insidious, but it doesn’t follow that all moral pleasures must therefore be hard.
Two cheers for trash art. Or, at least, a cheer and a half.
- 4 August 2006