July 08, 2014

Rolf Harris

Rolf Harris

Source: Shutterstock

“€œPerhaps it all goes to show that the middlebrow is inherently corrupt.”€

That’s a particularly sweeping statement of smug class-conscious snobbery, even by Guardian standards. 

Guardian blogger Jonathan Jones feels vindicated. He alone once had the courage to call the inexplicably famous Rolf Harris a shitty painter to his face, and now Harris is a convicted child molester, so there. Or something.

Jones didn”€™t even bother name checking the usual convicts”€”disgraced American daubist Thomas Kinkade; serial killer-cum-clown painter John Wayne Gacy; the freeze-dried personification of evil Amerikkka, Walt Disney”€”to bolster his theory. Why bother?

“€œFor me, what’s most revealing is that liberals treasure their own beloved catalogue of”€”and there is no other word for it”€”kitsch.”€

Pointing to frustrated artist Hitler’s taste for baroque spectacle and corny symbolism, leftists have equated lower- and middlebrow kitsch with fascism for generations, and “€œfascism”€ with “€œanything they don”€™t approve of”€ rather more recently. (When I still “€œworked”€ with flaky progressives, my complaints about their inefficiency were always met with a somber, “€œMussolini made the trains run on time, you know…”€)

If earnest, unironic kitsch is Nazi Germany, then its first cousin”€”gay, “€œedgy,”€ winking camp (which the left adores)”€”is Weimar. And we all know who won that scuffle. But leftists love nothing so much as a lost cause. Camp is the Spanish Civil War of aesthetics.

Jones is convinced that Rolf Harris’s paintings and those of his ilk are not only the artistic equivalent of asbestos, but that their lumpen admirers deserve to die of such chemical poisoning anyhow. For instance, Jones loathes ubiquitous café-wall-décor-generator Jack Vettriano, too, condemning him for being “€œpopular with “€˜ordinary people”€™”€ and “€œthe artist we deserve.”€ With his tone of millenarian misanthropy, the gnostic Guardian critic sounds more like another Jones”€”the Jim of People’s Temple infamy.

It’s all simple and obvious to me, if not to Jonathan Jones (who fairly personifies the phenomenon): our personal taste and aesthetic judgments”€”our sheep vs. goats categorization of “€œkitsch”€ and “€œcamp”€”€”are status signifiers of social class and tribe. (See the exquisite satire at Stuff White People Like.)

If Jones were correct, then Lourdes”€”the roads to which are lined with tacky gift shops”€”would be piled with bodies, not crutches. The music of Lawrence Welk or Pat Boone may prompt thoughts of suicide, but rape? Murder?

But Jones is a culture critic at the Guardian, and I”€™m not. So I turned to his opposite number overseas, who, appropriately enough, also belongs to a tribe not my own.

I have little in common with Slate music critic Carl Wilson other than a 416 area code. He announces early on in his essential Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (aka “€œThat Celine Dion Book”€) that he feels “€œput off”€ “€œwhen someone says they”€™re pro-life or a Republican.”€ To his credit, he promptly acknowledges that such a “€œgut reaction”€ is “€œcrudely tribal.”€ Indeed, the book might have just as profitably been entitled Up From Snobbery.

After introducing myself as one of those off-putting types, I asked Wilson via email: Wasn”€™t Jones”€™ conflation of tacky art with child abuse and presumably every other imaginable atrocity not only just plain weird, but also embarrassingly dated? Did critics still believe in a “€œmiddlebrow,”€ a taxonomy I thought they”€™d agreed to denounce as “€œracist”€ some time ago?


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