For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin. To say a work of art is sentimental is perforce to damn it. To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd. It is the art of religious dupes, conservative apologists and corporate stooges. As kitsch, it is likened to fascist or Stalinist propaganda by Milan Kundera, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight MacDonald and of course Theodor Adorno. The German novelist Hermann Broch wrote,”The producer of kitsch does not produce ‘bad’ art….It is not quite impossible to assess him according to aesthetic criteria; rather he should be judged as an ethically base being, a malefactor who profoundly desires evil.” The punk sneer pronounces the same verdict.
“Subversion” today is sentimentality’s inverse: It is nearly always a term of approval. To show the subversiveness of a song, TV show, or movie is tantamount to validating it, not just in pop criticism but in academic scholarship. What is subversive? Transgression, satire, idiosyncrasy, radicalism, asserting a minority identity, throwing noise into the signal, upending convention, generally mitigating for change. But as social critic Thomas Frank has long argued, today those are values promoted by advertising, corporate-management gurus and high-tech entrepreneurs. Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s entertaining polemic The Rebel Sells adds that anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism, seeking the cutting edge, the very soul of Bourdieuvian distinction, whether in designer couture, organic cuisine or “uncommodified” culture.