Nihilist kitsch and villages

I came up with something in the comments on my Wednesday post, and I liked it so well I’ll repeat it here, for the sake of those of you who don’t read comments.

It occurs to me that much of what passes for art today is a kind of “nihilist kitsch.” You know what kitsch is. It’s sentimental or cutesy art produced on the cheap for people without much taste. Black velvet paintings are kitsch. Pictures of Jesus with moving eyes that seem to follow you around the room are kitsch. Garden ornaments that depict a fat guy leaning over so that all you can see is his legs, his butt and his butt crack above his jeans, are kitsch.

When a little old lady, not very bright but devout, looks at her 3-D Jesus portrait, she sees it as very beautiful. This is not because it’s really beautiful (it’s actually pretty disturbing), but it’s lovely to her because she associates it with her sincere love for Jesus.

I think the pleasure an art connoisseur feels when he/she looks at a piece of art consisting of blood or urine or dung or garbage is a reverse form of kitsch. The viewer knows that what he or she is looking at is in no sense beautiful. But he/she enjoys it and praises it because it represents an assault on things that he/she hates.

So we’ve got the kitsch of love and the kitsch of hate. Both of them are kitsch.

But I know which one I prefer.

A little more about Jonathan Kellerman’s nonfiction book, Savage Spawn.

It’s a frightening book about children who seem to be born bad, and who can’t seem to be stopped except by death or lifelong incarceration.

Kellerman’s opinion (and he admits he can’t prove it) is that the cause is a combination of genetics and nurture. Some kids may be genetically designed for psychopathy, but a good upbringing might prevent it.

So how do we as a society intervene to rescue these marginal kids before bad environments send them on the road to something like Columbine?

Kellerman has a number of suggestions, which he admits are generally utopian. I don’t agree with all of them (especially the one that would make it a crime to teach a child to use firearms). Many of them make sense. None of them seem likely.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve reached a cultural impasse. If we could give the government new powers to intervene radically in families, it might be worth it (if the power could be limited), if we had confidence that the government would use that power wisely. Unfortunately, “government” and “wisdom” are for the most part mutually exclusive terms.

My opinion is that the kind of radical evil in children that we see today is mostly a new thing, and it comes from the way society has changed. In the past most people lived in small, homogeneous communities—villages or tribes where everybody believed the same things, valued the same things, and were intimately involved in each other’s lives. The kids were monitored all the time, by the whole community.

When Hillary Clinton said “It takes a village to raise a child,” she was being disingenuous. She was right about the village, but the new-style village she wants is not a village but a bureaucracy (I’ve blogged about this before).

I think people need close-knit networks of likeminded relatives and neighbors, all gathered in the same place, to raise children in the most healthy way. But today we value diversity and individuality, which means a terrible, dangerous environment for children.

Will we figure out a new way to build villages? I hope so. But I don’t know how we’ll do it.

I’ll be off the blog for a couple days now. My relative Trygve from Norway will be in town, and I’ll be giving him the grand tour. I’ll tell you about it when it’s over.

5 thoughts on “Nihilist kitsch and villages”

  1. A question. Can christians view anyone as ‘genetically designed for psychopathology?’ I don’t see how. The ancient greeks saw man’s problems as being material… but the orthodox christian position has always been that the problem is ethical. I personally put a good deal of the blame on popular culture. Teenagers imitate what they see in flims and on tv. Just a couple days ago some young man attacked an elderly man with a chainsaw. (NY subway.) Would he have done that if he’d never seen it or heard about it?

  2. Here’s how I see it — it would be nice to believe that we start out equally, as clean slates. But it’s not true. God doesn’t deal equally with anybody. Some are born with more talents than others. Some are born with more intelligence than others. All are born desperate sinners, and some appear to be born with an extra measure of natural depravity. Doesn’t mean they’re not redeemable under the Cross.

    Kellerman himself refers to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, the law concerning an incorrigible son who will not accept discipline and must be put to death. Kellerman doesn’t take it literally, but I don’t doubt that it may have been used from time to time.

  3. Lars,

    I’m not so sure that we “value diversity and individuality” as much as many of us have decided that making moral judgements is too much work. Thus, we shrug our shoulders and mutter things like “Different strokes for different folks” when we’re confronted with differences, rather than doing the hard work of deciding when “diversity” is just a cover-up for depravity.

  4. No doubt, Roy. But I’m looking at it from another angle. It seems to me that any attempt to create a homogeneous, interconnected community would be met with accusations of racism, bigotry, and hate crime.

  5. Tell Trygve Aitchmark says hey!

    If we admit to a genetic component for temperament or any other behavioral predisposition, then we have to admit to the possibility of people who are born disabled in these areas being as profoundly deformed as any physical birth defect–some of which are fatal and some of which are thoroughly life altering.

    I think we tend to shy away from the topic how to rear this kind of child. We’re all voer the technology of repair and amelioration for everything from muscular distrophy on… but when the subject of character comes up, we go silent. I thnk we do so becasue the moral analogs of medical devices and procedures for the physically disabled are difficult to contemplate.

    Having said that, I have nothing much more to offer. My own mind shies away from where logic would lead me.

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