The following essay is reprinted January 26, 2005 with permission of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or would like to acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue for Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, please contact the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park directly through either this phone number or web address:


Canonical Western art history tells us that this anti-sentimentalism began in the mid-nineteenth century, when the proponents of Realism turned away from the overt emotionalism of Romanticism. Then, two things happened simultaneously. Romantic content merged with idealizing Neo-Classical style in the work of Salon-approved, academic artists like William-Adolphe Bougeureau and Alexandre Cabanel, who painted wildly popular scenes of frolicking nymphs, sexy goddesses, peasants-in-love, and charming children. Meanwhile, modern painting advanced towards the opticality of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism and the spirituality of Symbolism, and the desires of both the eye and the soul were no longer fed by the sentimental. Bougeureau became the bête noir of avant-garde painting, and he and his crowd were roundly condemned by progressive artists and critics for their sweetness, so much so that by 1900, anything associated with the positive emotional spectrum was assumed to be dangerous. All happiness was cloying, all pleasure self indulgent, all nostalgia maudlin.

The twentieth century left sentiment far behind, as all things that smacked of the past were cast ruthlessly aside. The manifestos of Modernism made this quite clear. In 1908, in The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, F.T. Marinetti wrote:

To admire an old picture is to pour our sentiment into a funeral urn instead of hurling it forth in violent gushes of action and productiveness. Will you thus consume your best strength in this useless admiration of the past from which you will forcibly come out exhausted, lessened, and trampled? (8)

Twenty years later, André Breton adopted this anti-traditional, anti-sentimental position in his Surrealism and Painting:

I do not necessarily mean that no emotions can be aroused by a painting of "Leda," or that no heartrending sun can set behind a scene of "Roman palaces," nor even that it would be impossible to give some semblance of eternal morality to the illustration of a fable as ridiculous as Death and the Woodcutter. I simply mean that genius has nothing to gain by following these beaten tracks and roundabout paths. (9)

The content of Modernist art -- whether angst-ridden Expressionism or Freudian Surrealism, anarchistic Dada or formalist abstraction -- did not allow a sunny outlook. And periodically, Modernist apologists would find it necessary to preach to the choir, to make sure that sentiment and sentimentality, once thrown out, stayed out. In 1939, critic Clement Greenberg wrote a lengthy and learned screed against sentimental art, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, which contained this description and denunciation:

Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough -- simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomemon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc. etc. Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivatesinsensibility.Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but always remains the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time. (10)

Twenty years later, another extremely influential American art critic weighed in. Harold Rosenberg denounced kitsch as "mass art," that

follows established rules at a time when all rules in art are put into question by each artist. As a result, the production of kitsch is manageable at a time when works of art succeed in coming into being only through tragedy, irony, or a cast of the dice. (11)

Rosenberg went on to characterize the audience for true art, as opposed to the bourgeois market for kitsch:

The best art of our time restricts its appeal to other artists, a group that has neither money nor social glamour to bestow and whose members are for the most part bitter and miserly in handclapping. Or it appeals to introverted adolescents, to people in crises of metamorphosis, a small-town girl who has met an intellectual, a husband forced to give up drinking, a business man who feels spiritually falsified (12)

Surely positive sentiments would seem mawkish to such an existentially challenged bunch. Despite such critical carping, kitsch did not expire, and it remains a dominant force in popular culture to this day. And sentimental imagery did make a few cameo appearances over the decades in Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art, but always as the object of derision, satire, or cool irony. For the most part, artists who dealt in any way with the iconography of sentiment were summarily dismissed. Even artists who dared to use materials associated with sentimental objects were outcasts. Critic Lucy Lippard, looking back on the situation in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote that

Female techniques like sewing, weaving, knitting, ceramics, even the use of pastel colors (pink!) and delicate lines -- all natural elements of artmaking -- were avoided by women. They knew that they could not afford to be called "feminine artist," the implications of inferiority having been all too precisely learned from experience. (13)

But this changed with the rise of feminism in the 1970s. Some members of the first generation of feminist artists redeemed "feminine" forms and materials, while others appropriated sentimental objects and imagery to attack the disturbing socio-political realities that sentimentality often masks. The artists of the Pattern-and-Decoration movement took on the male-dominated field of non-objective painting with artworks created with a female gendered iconography. Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, and even male artists Kim MacConnel and Robert Kushner created artworks with flowered fabrics, lace, glitter, and quilting that celebrated joy and comfort and the domestic. Meanwhile, students at the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, under the guidance of Schapiro and Judy Chicago, created the massive installation Womanhouse in 1971. Womanhouse set the precedent for the ironic and aggressive feminist use of sentimental and domestic imagery to question its cultural use in the marginalization of women. According to Lippard,

This immense and immensely successful project was an attempt to concretize the fantasies and oppressions of women's experience. It included a dollhouse room, a menstruation bathroom, a bridal staircase, a nude womannequin emerging from a (linen) closet, a pink kitchen with fried-egg-breast décor, and an elaborate bedroom in which a seated woman perpetually made herself up and brushed her hair. (14)

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