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Sentimentality in Art: Hot Topic in the Art World

Updated on March 21, 2012

True works of art are made not only when the soul of the artist is revealed through their work but when the artist successfully can reveal the soul of the consumer simply by them viewing it. Three different authors lend their opinion to the debated subject of sentimentality within art in the compilation of articles known as, “Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates.” The three different articles and authors are Anthony Savile who wrote, “Sentimentality,” Ira Newman who states his viewpoint in, “The Alleged Unwholesomeness of Sentimentality,” and lastly, “Sentimentality and Truthfulness,” by David Pugmire. In the introduction of this section, the question is posed, “Is the attempt to offer us comfort against the often difficult and unpleasant realities of everyday life a respectable goal for art?” I would like to pose this question to you and also ask one of my own, where is the line drawn that separates emotionally driven and connected art and kitschy sentimentalism?

During the course of this article, I would like to break down each author and article individually and analyze and critique their take on this widely debated subject. In the first article, “Sentimentality,” by Anthony Savile, he argues that we are deceiving ourselves into viewing our world in an altered way than our given reality. He believes that sentimentality promotes a “false picture of the world” and that we do this to achieve a reassurance that the real world is not giving to us; Savile sees this as a weakness. Weakness is known as a defective quality that hinders people from striving. However, I feel that when a soul needs to “false-colour” their world when they are feeling weak from an overly-harsh world, that it is actually a different form of strength. This individual knows when to pull away and recharge, before they cannot handle it anymore. I am sure that Savile has sought a comfort in his life when trying to escape a harsh reality in his own world.

I realize that Savile is not arguing that sentimental art is not art at all, but he is trying to make the point that it is not “good art.” An artist that often comes under fire for not having “good art,” is Thomas Kinkade. This artist is often criticized for his kitschy scenes of cottages in the woods. Although I agree that Kinkade houses a certain amount of kitschyness within his work, I do not believe that is something to be criticized. I believe that “kitschy” has its own place in genres of art alongside abstract, realism, narrative, figurative and so on and so forth. Just because it is a different style does not make it any less “good.” It should be measured within its own genre and not judged comparatively. I do believe that kitschy art should contain aesthetic value still and not completely rely on the sentimental quality that initially catches the consumer’s eye. However, I will delve into that deeper later on in this writing. I believe that the terms high and low art were coined by pompous artists who needed an attitude adjustment. I agree that in some sense there is high technical and low technical art but I do not think that labels of levels of merit concerning art should be tagged onto works. If philosophers cannot even agree on what formula makes something a piece of art in the first place, then these tags should be refrained from being put on pieces of artworks. I do not say this to demean the pieces traditionally known as high art, but I say this to convey the point that admirers of high art and admirers of low art should be treated on an equal plane.

Savile argues that, “he (lover of sentimentality) tends to protect himself against the resistance of other things by softening them down, filing down their uncomfortable edges, or makes what is in truth rather alien and off-putting quite docile to his wishes and tastes.” I do not think that people are necessarily trying to run from reality but rather they are trying to deal with reality, and we all know that people deal with issues in their own individual ways. A young modern man might look to Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” as an escape; whereas his grandmother might find peace and reconciliation with the world in Thomas Kinkade’s “City by the Bay,” which comes out of Kinkade’s “Memories” collection. I can almost feel Savile cringe over the thought of that collection. I am not arguing that a piece of work that is drenched with sentimentality is instantly a masterpiece; of course every work should house aesthetic value and quality. The truth is everyone is different and we should not narrow-mindedly write off good or bad art before we define what even makes up art in the first place. We should judge an artist’s ability within his own ranks. If I were to make a wonderful piece of art that had a boy playing baseball with his dad and people wrote me off because I was “no Van Gogh,” I would very much be offended. Of course I am not Van Gogh! I am an individual that creates original art and should be judged in the genre in which I create artworks. David Pugmire touches on this issue in his article which we will discuss later on.

As we move along to our next author, Ira Newman, in the article, “The Alleged Unwholesomeness of Sentimentality,” we see a very different perspective. I do appreciate the structure that Newman provides in his piece. He presents two main arguments to that of Savile. He combats that the ideas that sentimental objects are “false to the world” and that sentimental people are “false to themselves.” I am encouraged to read Newman after sorting through Savile’s work. Sentimentality often gets written off because it is an exaggeration of reality. I believe that basic instances from everyday life must be exaggerated to be able to properly pull emotions out of us. This brings me to a thought I wrestled through about cinema art. For a film to be hailed by critics as a successful and wonderful film, our emotions have to be heightened. Do not we go to deceive ourselves into happiness, fear or sadness for a few hours? If a film fed us emotional stimulants at the rate that real life does, then we would grow bored as we sat in the theater. We seek the stimulant this gives us. I feel as if this goes the same way for art. We view art to get an emotional charge off of the pieces of work. Therefore, I feel that the exaggeration that comes along with sentimentality is justified if it is looked at through this lens.

Newman states, “Although there may be unwholesome instances of sentimentality, there may be laudable ones as well.” This supports my point I began to make earlier about the importance of maintaining aesthetic value within a work even if it is sentimental. This reminds me of the age old statement of that just one person can ruin the whole thing for everyone. I think that there is sentimental art floating out there that holds no aesthetic value and just drips with a lot of “has-been” ideas. This type of art gives the whole sentimental name a bad one. I know that I personally create sentimental type work, but I create them so that viewers can have a recharging moment. However, some sentimental art makes the consumer’s thoughts be stuck in a different time. Art should make an individual push forward in life even if that means being recharged by memories; sentimental art can be confused with a bad form of art when the piece makes a person be stuck in the past and does not allow the consumer to pull the emotion that they need out of it and instead they push their own agendas.

This leads me to ponder; what are good aesthetics of a sentimental piece and what is an example of a bad aesthetic? In my opinion, Thomas Kinkade is a wonderful example of good aesthetics within sentimental art. He is an extremely talented painter and could probably run circles around most of his critics in that area. He exhibits great comprehension and knowledge about how to use and move paint to achieve the desired look he has. I think when it comes to bad aesthetics we are talking about artists that have poor comprehension of the medium in which they are dealing with. There is nothing that irks me more than poorly done graphic design images. When an artist uses generic Microsoft font and stock photo pictures to create a composition, nothing screams tacky more than that. Although sentimentality is a subject that deals with the past, sentimental artists need to find a way to express old things in a new fresh way that has never been done before.

Lastly, we are looking at David Pugmire’s “Sentimentality and Truthfulness.” Pugmire seems to be the nice voice of reason between the extremes of Savile and Newman. He acknowledges the importance of sentimentality but also stresses that aesthetic components must be present to make it effective and both worth making and viewing. Pugmire states, “Selectivity in how the object or focus of an emotion is portrayed, which can spawn a profaning sentimentality, may be, in judicious forms, actually necessary to the quality of emotion, to its purity and depth. Portrayal must submit to the need for suitably discriminating focus.” I could not have said it better myself.

Sentimentality is necessary in doses; which allows the point of the piece to be made. Bad art is made when the focus or point of a piece cannot be seen because the artist has not carefully constructed his or hers aesthetics to point in the direction in which they desire. However, Pugmire strays in a direction that I do not agree with. He seems to acknowledge sentimental art as good art, but he believes that its views are cynics because to view an object with your own emotion you are disregarding or throwing out the intended emotion and therefore becoming and different and consequently a cynic. Although, I do acknowledge his point and agree that in some cases this happens, I do not believe this is entirely true. I believe this happens when viewers try to be sentimental about a piece of art that was not created more a sentimental purpose. In this case, the viewer does take the piece entirely out of its context and construes it in a cynical way. However, sentimental art, if done right, is up to the viewer for what emotion they will pull from it and there is nothing cynical about creating your own explanation when the work of art requires it.


As I look at all of these authors, I do appreciate the criticism of sentimentality, because a lot of the criticism I agree with. However I agree with the criticism in a positive way not a negative way in which the authors intended them to be. Savile outright objects sentimentality, Newman finds the positive after sorting through the negative, and Pugmire needs to decide what bandwagon he is on. To answer the first question that I posed, “is sentimentality a respectable goal for art?” I whole heartedly agree with, yes. If you take emotion out of art, we are just then machines making objects. The point of art is to engage with the viewer in whatever means that implies. Also to reiterate, the line of kitschy sentimentality and emotionally driven art in my opinion is when the point of the piece is not conveyed and artist is too concerned with projected every emotion upon their work. If it has aesthetic value and an obvious thought process, then it lies within the realm of emotionally driven art. The point that I am trying to make out of all of this is as follows: Sentimental art is not only good art but it is necessary art. It allows individuals that require memories to make peace with a wild world an option for sanity. It also allows artists to express themselves in whatever way they so choose. Sentimental art should be acknowledged as a genre and a good one at that and its artists and fans should be treated as any other person that hales any other type of art as good or bad art. It is simply a different type of genre and should be judged in its own category. Every great thing that has ever come about started off being criticized, because it pushed the envelope on what people were used to. Although I am unaware of the origin of this quote, I try to keep it in mind when my first inclination is to judge, “They warned you about this, but they also warned you about rock and roll, mini skirts, and television.” Do not write something off because it is unfamiliar. Those things ended up not being that bad, maybe a new respected genre in art will be added to that list one day. Crazier things have happened.


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      Mobie Kenobe 

      6 years ago

      Good of you to tackle the subject of sentimentalism in art, and pose the question about whether 'art' can become a distraction. Something you said in particular caught my attention: "If you take emotion out of art, we are just then machines making objects." This is a mistake. The problem is not 'emotion or no-emotion.' The problem is becoming authentic and getting away from the habit of deluding ourselves about the meaning of life. The real criticism of sentimental art is that its intention is to gratify and provoke superficial or facile sentiments (especially nostalgia or the wish that the world is not what it is). In truth the better art is that which is less provocative, not trying to manipulate anyone's emotions or concretize the sentiments of the artist. The better art is sublime, serene, undramatic. Because it is precisely by taking the emotion OUT of art that art can start to give people the space to acknowledge THEIR OWN emotions, and THEIR OWN reality.


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