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Salon I Purview

Salon I: Try a Little Tenderness

The maligned status in contemporary art of nostalgia and its close relative, sentimentality, as subject matter and approach is troubling. The sentimental is an arena associated with tenderness and feelings such as sympathy, affection, caring, and compassion; while the nostalgic can connect us to our pasts and our ideals. Yet, their potential negative uses and abuses in the art arena have come to define them as completely pejorative terms. As a fan of compassion, benevolence, tenderness, as well as related qualities: pleasure, happiness, beauty, joy, cheer; I’ve long thought it odd and disturbing that these traits seem so unwelcome.

The sentimental is generally a pejorative term for artworks with a perceived excess of emotional content. Further negative criticism is usually based on concerns of contrivance, manipulation, or intrusion, along with notions that such emotional content is canned, pat, or pre-determined. But the scale of permissible emotion is a relative concern, one that is connected to ideas of temperance, decorum, and sophistication.

What seems more dangerous than too much feeling is an affectless response to expressions of emotion and feeling. To have to joke about such things, to have to be ironic, to have to feel guilty for any pleasure it may bring about is simply callous at best, and heartless at worst. But ultimately this response reflects upon the culture and intellectual traditions from which it springs. In Art Criticism, Alexander Alberro’s essay “On Beauty” represents a typical voice of “progressive” politics as against the interests of the plebeian many. The essay is a critique of the then new, circa early 90’s interest in beauty in art writing. Alberro finds that there is no critical basis for this interest. For him the fact that beauty cannot be critiqued makes it suspect. His disregard for an aesthetic interest in beauty on the basis that it cannot be defended may demonstrate more about him than it does about beauty. Philosopher Deborah Knight-in her essay “Sentimentality: A Meta-Aesthetic Perspective” sets out to defend the sentimental and finds that sentimentality cannot be defended on traditional western philosophical grounds. She concludes that this says something more about our philosophy and our culture than it does about sentimentality.

Of course it’s not impossible for artwork to be overly dependent on the sentimental, or use its emotional power in a manipulative way. Appeals to our tender sides can be falsified, warped, and used in dangerous propagandistic ways. We need only visualize Nazi German propaganda posters of happy smiling families strolling the Alps with musical instruments in hand to understand how sweet images can be used for less than tender purposes. In discussing the sentimentalization of war, Robert Solomon notes that what is at issue is not feelings themselves but how we use and how we categorize them: “it is not the nature of feelings that characterize such problematic cases of ‘sentimentality,’ but rather the inappropriate or even dangerous way of misperceiving an ethically loaded situation.” (p. 16)

In Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey into Taste music critic Carl Wilson wonders why excess in the name of rage can be so cool but excess in the name of tenderness unacceptable.                                      

When a critic writes of Celine Dion that she “bulldozes a song,” it’s a plaint. When a critic says, “The Ramones ‘bulldoze’ through a three minute punk pounder,” that’s praise. Cliché might certainly be an aesthetic flaw, but it’s not what sets sentimentality apart in pop music, or there wouldn’t be a primitive band every two years that’s hailed for bringing rock ‘back to basics.'         

Such double standards arise everywhere for sentimental music: excess, formulaism, two-dimensionality, can all be positives for music that is not gentle and conciliatory, but infuriated and rebellious. You could say that punk rock is anger’s schmaltz. Punk, metal, even social justice rock with emphatic slogans of individuality and independence are as much inspirational or motivational as Celine’s is, but for different subcultural groups. They are just as one-sided and unsubtle. Morally you could fairly ask what is more laudable about excess in the name of rage and resentment that immoderation in thrall to love and connection (pp 124-125).

The extremity of disdain that I have witnessed toward the sentimental and nostalgic in art arouses suspicion. Such disdain can reveal an emotional hardness, an attitude of superiority of intellect over feeling (as if they were not related), an unwavering belief in the effectiveness of the critical function of art; and a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle class bias. A long-standing response to any semblance of the Romantic tradition could be a factor; we don’t want to be swooning, overcome with our emotion. The much revered and completely status quo critical tradition plays a role too; we feel it is an essential part of art to challenge and critique (how odd that the interrogation of the established order is the established order). It should also be noted that since early Postmodernism, irony, indifference, and detachment have been a part of the very syntax of contemporary art.

But both aloofness and snobbery are at odds with the very kind of “progressive” politics that many proponents of a critical approach to art claim as an integral part of their work and outlook. I heard the sentence “My mailman would like that” being leveled as an insult at a student artwork. I find this to express a kind of elitism that makes me wonder what could possibly be wrong with making an artwork a mailman would like. Are we only trying to woo an intellectually elite audience in our works? Are there no alternative models to following the critical tradition of dismantling and deconstructing?                                         

Taste is intricately bound with our upbringing, our class, and a myriad of other environmental factors. But it is not entirely external to us; we play a role in our taste as we develop. To speak of taste is not to speak of something superficial, but to our values. We value works of art, music, literature, because we believe they speak to something important, something necessary. Like taste, I propose emotions are not fickle qualities, but are connected through compassion to the cultivation of principles. I don’t think any sane person would argue against the necessity of the valuation of tenderness or sweetness. Perhaps many would argue for its place, but just outside the domain of art. It seems a cultural failing that we are so estranged from pleasure and experiencing positive feelings in our art.                                                      

Short of banishing the entire domain of tender feelings from serious and self-aware art, how can this line between acceptable and excessive amounts of feeling be drawn? Might it be possible to focus on the connection, community, and shared experience in approaching artworks that may have sentiment or nostalgia at their core? To not accept the expression of individuation as necessarily more valuable than that of what connects us? Can we even imagine the enjoyment of artwork on these terms?

Pamela Fraser, 2009. Edited by Ana Hansa-Ogren, 2012.



Artist and curator Ana Hansa-Ogren is MARN’s 2012/13 curatorial protege, and Co-director of the MARNsalons Exhibition Committee. Hansa-Ogren earned her BFA from UW Madison in 2011. Recent exhibitions include Try a Little Tenderness (MARN Gallery- curator), Levitas/Gravitas (MARN Gallery), Burial Practice (Sculpture Courtyard, UW Madison), This Is What You Really Need [collaboration w/Eva Odessa Maxwell] (MPCA), and t/f (7th Gallery). Working with sculptor and designer Nadeem Mesbah, Hansa-Ogren transformed the top floor of an old school building in Milwaukee’s Bayview neighborhood into a vibrant studio and project space, Home Studios, which seeks to  serve as a rotating exhibition and community critique venue offering opportunities to artists working in locally under-represented mediums of installation, performance, and video.