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Preston Sturges’s splendid old Sullivan’s Travels is a wonderful film with an important message. (I assume a spoiler warning is not necessary for an eighty-year-old film.) The protagonist, John Sullivan, is a director of lowbrow comedies who aspires to instead make serious art about the suffering of the poor. He tries to do experiential research about their suffering, and winds up being falsely imprisoned at hard labour. The prisoners’ one reprieve is to watch a Disney Goofy cartoon, at which Sullivan finds himself laughing uproariously. His lesson, from actually experiencing the suffering of the poor, is to go back to making silly comedies. The film closes with his lines: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Sullivan in prison laughing at Goofy

The story of Sullivan’s Travels serves as an eloquent defence of lowbrow or shallow art, of kitsch and even smarm. And I think it helps us see what is wrong with the philosophical critique of kitsch.

Critics of kitsch, like Milan Kundera, see it as “the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being”: kitsch falsely depicts the world as entirely good, in accordance with the claims in the Book of Genesis that “the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply.” I agree with Kundera’s existentialist metaphysical critique of the Hebrew Bible: there is no God, and no value underlying the physical world.

What I strongly disagree with is the aesthetic view that is claimed to follow from this metaphysical critique. Existentialists are known (and sometimes caricatured) for making gloomy, miserable artworks that depict the gaping void of the cosmos in all of its awfulness – like Lovecraft without the fantastical. In that, they are like John Sullivan at the beginning of his travels. But his journey within the film reminds us that often when one is personally – one might even say existentially – confronted with the suffering of the universe, the last thing one needs is art that dwells on that suffering! Rather, one needs the escape: one needs a depiction of a happier, prettier world, the more comfortable world that kitsch and comedy provide. The existentialist demand for grim art turns out to be an expression of privilege – a privilege that insulates one from existential contact with the universe’s darkness.

In the work of Marxist critics like Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg, kitsch is depicted as a so-called opium of the people or opiate of the masses: numbing people in a way that harmfully detracts from the true task of revolution. But Marx himself, in the original quote (about “religion”) from which the “opium of the people” (Opium des Volkes) phrasing is drawn, is smarter than this: he prefaces the “opium” quote with “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation.” That, to me, is exactly what kitsch is. It gives us joy amid a world that all too often takes joy away from us. It gives us the light in the darkness so central to the festival of Christmas – the most kitschful time of the year.

For Marx, the need for such an opium – prescribed in Marx’s day as a painkiller – will wither away with the arrival of a better society that ends oppression and alienation. It is that part of Marx’s thought that I think naïve: not that I think a better society is impossible, just that it would still leave us with far too many sorrows and woes. It may well get rid of the painful hardship that John Sullivan came to experience, and that would be a great thing. But there will remain the sickness, old age and death that shocked Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddha. There will remain people being mean and petty to each other, getting angry over perceived slights. There will remain the ultimate inevitability of human extinction (in millions of years if not hundreds). In short, in such a society there will be no shortage of potential sources of suffering, and so there is no reason to think that either religion or kitsch will wither away there.

20th-century Marxists and existentialists draw significant parts of their thought from Hegel and Heidegger respectively. I think this is influence extends particularly to aesthetics, in a way that I find detrimental. For I suspect Hegel’s and Heidegger’s aesthetics are among the weakest parts of their thought: as far as I can tell, it comes down to a strikingly single-minded aesthetics, in which the point of art is to reveal truth, and nothing more. Thus Hegel can find art to be fully superseded, first by religion and then by philosophy. There is no significant role in either of their aesthetics for joy or pleasure; indeed, as I understand him, Heidegger disliked the very word “aesthetics” because it put the emphasis in the study of art on subjective experiences like joy rather than on the revealing of truth. This strikes me as a bleak and depressing conception of art, one that reduces humans to nothing more than seekers of truth. (Adorno, to his credit, speaks of the “autonomy” of art in a way that resists reducing it to truth-revealing – though he too leaves no room for the joy produced by kitsch).

The lesson of Sturges’s story is, I think, a very wise one. The world can indeed be a cold and a dark void, and that is all the more reason for us to create pleasing works of light – however fake and fantastical they may be.