Keep Liking What I Don't Like: Art, Kitsch, and Video Games

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

This one took a long time to figure out. I’ve wanted to write it ever since reading Brian Moriarty’s Apology For Roger Ebert and Tadhg Kelly’s essay on muggles in March of 2011, but there were so many entangled ideas I couldn’t find the core for years. I did eventually peel off the first layer and turn that into 2015’s post “Are Video Games Art?” was Always the Wrong Question but there was still a long way to go.

At one point I planned to talk more about why condemning kitsch is easily read as elitism. As pointed out by Vili Lehdonvirta and by Colin Northway (and surely others), an appreciation of “high” art requires a degree of access and familiarity that is difficult for lower classes to achieve; it’s thus quite unfair to look down on them for their kitschier tastes. And the “playfulness” I think of as key to the “magical” mindset requires having time and energy - both in short supply if, say, you’re struggling to support a family.

Kitsch, on the other hand, can bring us together. Chris Franklin discussed this in his video on Saints Row IV, and British Christmas crackers somewhat famously feature deliberately bad jokes to bring people together. As Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t want to come across as shaming anybody, so I didn’t go down this road. Putting people on the defensive is not a good way to encourage open-mindedness. I wanted the focus to be “Hey, kitsch is fine and you even like it too” and not “Stop ragging on kitsch, you BIG JERK.”

Similarly, there’s a tangent I had to restrain myself from going on because it’s a pet peeve of mine - reviews that tell you to go into a work blind. I understand the desire to avoid spoiling twists in works like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, but if the twist is that the work is actually a deconstruction, it’s irresponsible consumer advocacy to tell general audiences to spend time or money on such a work without warning them. Doing that creates situations like the one in Chipman’s review of The Cabin in the Woods, where people feel misled and insulted. Similarly, I would never tell general audiences to go in blind to games like Spec Ops: The Line or Doki Doki Literature Club! and the more a review tells me that it can’t tell me anything about a work without spoiling it, the less willing I am to go in blind.

I really appreciate the ability to know ahead of time whether something is kitsch or is going to CHANGE THE WAY I THINK ABOUT ADVENTURE GAMES or whatever. I noticed recently that the kitschiest movies also seem to have the most revealing trailers, to the point where the movie’s entire plot is contained in the trailer - this is a feature, not a bug. If you’re looking for a kitsch movie, you aren’t looking for surprises anyway, and now you know you don’t have to worry about them.

Anyway, that’s it for this blog post. Hope you enjoyed!