The Limits of Kitsch Criticism

by Bret Schneider

This article is a response to Jensen Suther's Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention on Schneider's May review of Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete.


Modern criticism developed when art became serious and demanded thought. Yet the vast majority of our culture today isn't meant to be seriously thought about. Oddly enough, cultural criticism has blossomed, and a very smart one at that. This has led to a purely contemporary condition whereby critics apply their erudition to works that aren't meant to be thought about, and are better off without thought: kitsch criticism. Only in an era when art has become completely throwaway will there be people who pathologically hear echoes of Beethoven in fleeting vapor trails. This has led to a great deal of bombastic claims regarding the latest trends and most recent dead pop stars, and how they must be expressing Marxist contradictions of society, being the last modernist and so on and so on. It advances a form of cultural tailism, where critical reflection, once the clarifying edge of art, chases the rearguard and becomes the obfuscating edge. But the correct philosophical position does not ensure progress in aesthetics. Such projections usually end up revealing more about detached academicism and unmediated criticism than the artworks in question. When this detached criticism is misrecognized as authoring culture, it reveals its own pretensions about bearing the torch of culture. Yet this new form of kitsch criticism merely reproduces moderate culture by tailing after the least contradictory expressions of society, assuming that erudition will somehow change them. In truth, kitsch criticism and kitsch emerge at the same time, but not necessarily critically. It is plainly delusional to believe one can write critically about kitsch—amongst the great rubbish heap of writings on kitsch there exist no examples of criticism that have actually transformed the way culture is produced. And yet the goal remains the impossible and undesirable task of making kitsch elegant. Why not critique works that demand critique and appeal to the development of aesthetic knowledge?

Kitsch criticism dispenses with this avant-garde aim to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production, instead opting to affirm talent within popular music conventions. This means it willingly does not address art's self-consciousness of its own historical position within contemporary society from the standpoint of cultural production. But there's a crucial difference between a work of art being good or interesting, and a work of art being critical. There's countless good, talented art out there, almost none of which is important. Perhaps I am mistaken, but Suther's criticism of Garden of Delete is exemplary of kitsch criticism's affirmation of the inessential because it liquidates the self-reflexive, immanent qualities of culture from the standpoint of cultural production into an aesthete's program that interprets culture by popular music norms—norms that are now supported by classical music criteria. Yet OPN inevitably creates from the standpoint of the producer of aesthetic knowledge in the culture factory, and not the classical beholder. Kitsch criticism is not only backwards, but recently it has taken the form of a desperation to defend kitsch in severe ways, of which projecting classical criteria is only one example.

The invocation of 'caesura' is only one example from Suther’s response that shows how criticism is unable to grasp the radical components of new music. Due to Suther's normative framework, his defense of G.O.D. on the grounds that it contains a caesura moment renders caesura a positive aesthetic value and something that is an intrinsic quality of all good artworks. Yet Adorno, Suther's reference, was only interested in caesura negatively, the extent to which it displayed early indications of contradictions in bourgeois society by negating compositional form within itself. Suther appears to turn Adorno upside down. This also goes against Suther's claim, (which is right in some respects), that G.O.D. is founded on the montage of samples from throwaway culture that are framed within a totality. As such, any caesuras contained must also exist as degenerated found objects amidst the culture trash that Lopatin selects. In other words, they are not traditionally composed. If caesuras are evident, they are only as oblique dark spots, or worm-eaten holes in the sampled trash that have nothing left to negate because society and its concepts of progress as transmuted into musical form is not assumed in new music, but rather suspended. Happening to find their way into a composition and being intentionally composed into one are two very different things, oblique and acute symptoms respectively. The progressive components of G.O.D. do not reside in an anomaly in musical conventions from two centuries ago. Such components may exist, but not as evidence of their newness.

It is of course very desirable to take culture seriously, and G.O.D. is potentially a worthy object, having some seriousness in it the extent to which it produces and advances musical knowledge for other artists. After all, it was to Editions Mego, the uber serious label of implacable electronic music that Lopatin first appealed and built his aesthetic program upon. Lopatin’s decision in G.O.D. to apparently pursue a style of 'montage' that sounds like it was constructed to the utmost details in tracker programs aims to critique the passive way a lot of so-called experimental music is created today. It protests the urge towards the formless, cosmic, and chillwave aesthetic in the same way OPN earlier protested the hyper-edited constructs of 'clicks 'n cuts' music that ultimately became an affectation. There is nothing of the jokey vaporwave Eccojams in this album. It takes itself seriously. And this is the main argument in my original review, namely that when artists enter the public realm and are tasked with putting forth a conclusive aesthetic statement, these statements often end up pathologically revisiting modernist movements that are otherwise considered dead or irrelevant (in this case Surrealism). It evinces a self-contradictory practice because on the one hand it claims heir to avant-gardism by trying to teach (lead) other artists, but on the other it relinquishes this project by trying to produce for non-artists and consequently emphasizing non-artistic things. The critique of the listener has nothing to do with the ‘market’, as Suther suggests, but points to the problems of cultural leadership as expressed in the actual music.

As such, self-reflexion in G.O.D. is expressed indirectly. This indirectness is echoed by Suther’s critique, insofar as the appeal to musical knowledge plays only a minor role in his discussion of arpeggios and pitch-shifting (admittedly, I didn't discuss these at all in my original review, for the sake of doing a more socially focused analysis). Yet the best music of our era leaves no stone unturned when it comes to investigating the technical means by which an aesthetic is expressed. For instance, Keith Fullerton Whitman's Generator was a thorough investigation of arpeggios that would raise sound artists' ensuing understanding of that particular sound organization to a more acute level. The means--which are like G.O.D., of a historical variety--play a leading role instead of a passive one, and it appeals not only to itself, but to an abstract musical subject that conditions the work. In G.O.D. many of these technical means appear to be included passively as subordinate features of a broader critique of society, and kitsch criticism reifies this. It is a road that ultimately leads back into traditional forms of music, for instance the pathology of montage since Surrealism, or the dead-end games of virtuosic songwriting. It is also why Suther's critique ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music. The discussion of puberty is very interesting, but has very little if anything to do with the avant-garde project of raising musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized. If a statement about prebuscent humanity was all that it expressed, it would be better formulated as an essay, and listeners would be better served by reading Kant. On the other hand, avant-garde music wagers that the examination of musical means of production will lead to unpredictable changes in culture because there are still techniques and ensuing sonic visions to be discovered, and that lay dormant.

OPN isn’t unique here, it is a hallmark of our era that musical knowledge and its expansion is enshrouded in non-musical expressions of reality. Even so, the wager of the vaporwave that Suther invokes is, generally speaking, to undertake a thorough investigation of not one modest musical technique, but rather the whole of music listening experience itself. It is an all-in wager, and one that, historically speaking, continually fails, at least in contrast to the successful expansion of musical knowledge in more modest, technical avant-gardism. Vaporwave (and similar currents in music) undertakes a serious inquiry into passive listening from the standpoint of production. The technical means by which passive listening is produced is now in the hands of listeners, who in turn become producers. But they can be either critical producers or uncritical reproducers. The social situation of listening is not extrinsic to the work in this genre, but a fundamental aesthetic principle that determines its content. The music itself is a self-avowed and explicit political critique of the culture industry from within. In turn it not only warrants a political critique, but demands it so that it's aesthetic can be raised to a level of politics. But kitsch criticism perceives successfully composed, and self-evident bourgeois music from the standpoint of the thing-in-itself, instead of acutely critical music in flux. Kitsch criticism is very specifically not immanent critique from within the development of cultural production, but instead in this instance what appears to be an expression of Heideggerian phenomenology. Discussing the artwork as a contained unity that does not point beyond itself is akin to trying to understand a political leader with no consideration of the base that constitutes their activity.

As my original claim was that OPN is middlebrow and appeals to both regressive and progressive tendencies, (not merely regressive, as Suther believes), I think Lopatin's goals with G.O.D. still may fall within an avant-garde framework, and not a popular-classical one. Suther clings to the traditionalist conception of through-composed music, something that all experimental music has dispensed with in favor of various non-compositional strategies—strategies that are ultimately thought to be in the greater service of developing new forms of sound organization. Even though it's present, G.O.D. is not particularly exemplary as a through-composed album, nor is it meant to be; large chunks of sound awkwardly sit side-by-side, and it intentionally falls far below the threshold of the intricately arranged IDM that OPN comes out of, for example. OPN is no Beethoven, let alone Stockhausen or even Aphex Twin. Rather, the sound objects have a common sensibility to the way painters like Frank Stella have desired to not 'paint' or 'express' an artistic vision but rather to use paint as a readymade, albeit one that has to be actively extracted. It is actually a non-compositional technique that makes up G.O.D., and it is one that assumes a subjective position that prioritizes a more amateurish bedroom producer position over traditional composition. Lopatin and collaborator Jon Rafman’s images that reference trashy bedroom studios and troll lairs are evidence of this total absorption into production. It's an absorption that may offer no reward other than its own activity, and which deserves to be raised to an objective position. It posits this condition as a rewarding immersion into individual creative experience, but also one that is potentially nihilistic when not framed within a broader context for aesthetic development. It is a self-reflexive activity that constantly seems to slide back into the vacuum of isolated pseudo-activity and unconscious cultural production. By airing its aporia with this condition, it aims to move beyond it.

OPN truly does come out of the modest Boards of Canada IDM tradition, which has always been tough to clarify because it is designed to operate on the subconscious. G.O.D., like Geogaddi for example, appeals to something like a musical unconscious, reminiscent of Surrealism. It doesn't quite use subliminal advertising techniques like Geogaddi, but it comes close in smuggling in reality and exploiting passive listening as a means of critiquing it. It feels out the ideas of music that have had passive influence on listening, and questions it by working within those forms, hoping to ultimately appeal to self-reflexion. This is perhaps what Suther is referring to when he thinks G.O.D. tries to make kitsch elegant, and this is what I meant when I said that OPN is the quintessential pastiche artist. G.O.D. is not really montage, not in the way musique-concrète set out to be—and it alone perfected the art—because Lopatin usually makes his own sound objects from scratch instead of sampling and transforming them. Even if it were montage, those techniques are not actively questioned in form but assumed. And these sound objects are constructed in the manner of a certain style of MIDI composition that is hard to consciously identify, yet known in some way, like the enchantment of muzak. It is MIDI composition that was almost exclusively utilized as background music in videogames, one wasn't supposed to notice it, and this is precisely its appeal. It's practice in mining the historically overlooked, the 'minor', partakes in the culture of research that has been prevalent since electronic music’s arts and research turn in the early '00s, exemplified by Editions Mego’s Recollection GRM series, and the Creel Pone project. This is expressed more acutely in Lopatin’s dredging of Ben Zimmerman’s '80s tracker compositions. Nor is this specific to music: contemporary art is currently entrenched in digging up the fossilized remains of minor artists, in an attempt to rewrite history. It seems to say, "What if we had gone in this direction?", as a symptom of the ugly appearances and newness inherent in the present cultural crisis of ambivalence. 

But on G.O.D., research and composition are utilized by being framed within a traditional artwork. They are tested, so to speak. And like Geogaddi, it embeds the hellscapes of the new in the easy listening of yore so that the listener can absorb the ugliness of reality, the "bad new days" but unknowingly. It is like feeding a dog a pill by wrapping it in bacon. It's not really predigested kitsch, but it uses tricks in how it mediates listening experience. And now that the listener is disenchanted because they are also producers, tricks are easy to see through! This has been a style of electronic music since the early ‘90s—the tensed coexistence of enchanting fairytale melodies with samples from the contemporary musical hell on earth. The music makes no conclusions about the outcome, but presents the listener with both possibilities of culture, not society at large—is this a fairytale ending in which we finally create a music that is fulfilling, or a Boscshian hell of cultural production? It makes one feel like this is a critical juncture.

As such, G.O.D. does not so much try to make kitsch elegant but rather uses kitsch as a carrier for difficult music. However, as such music has become a purely transparent activity because so many people produce it and can see through the tricks, one always wonders, Does such avant-garde music use kitsch for its own purposes, or does kitsch rather use the avant-garde? If the title Garden of Delete has meaning, it is not as an indictment of culture writ large, but rather the way musical knowledge and music experience as music experience is constantly deleted from the program, with the caveat that it might still be recovered from the hard drive. G.O.D. is like a beta run through the new program of deletion: when kitsch passivity absorbs active listening, all that remains is to be an active deleter. It is not traditional composition, as Suther suggests, but an attempt at decomposition. G.O.D. does not need to be “undeleted”; it is a requiem of deletion that openly reflects the social situation of music that constantly wastes the potential of music as social knowledge. G.O.D. is truly a negative album, an example itself of the near meaninglessness of constructing in a wasteland society wherein possibilities are no sooner raised than they are deleted from experience. By representing this phenomenon, it hopes to pass beyond its enchantment.

If I have reservations about G.O.D. it may simply be because I personally prefer the 'technical' avant garde, so to speak. As a sound artist I prefer to listen to something that teaches me about sound in some way. I'd guess that thousands of sound artists elsewhere feel similarly. Sound artists sense that one is being disingenuous when he or she proclaims that they are good humanitarians and that they appreciate all types of music. In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest to what they themselves make. Music is less and less a beholding activity, and more and more an actively developing body of knowledge. This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish. Otherwise, the concept of progress in art is neutralized.

By analogy, OPN and someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman are like Surrealism and Analytic Cubism: different types of inquiry that are both ultimately aimed at teaching musicians about sound. And I think that with the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation, and more importantly the fact that listeners today lack the listening comprehension that can distinguish between a still life of a fruit and a piece of fruit itself, what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level. G.O.D. tries do this by showing a process of how listening is exploited and how listeners are manipulated, as if to say, “See, this is how it happens, snap out of it!” But the history of art that tries to strip the veil by teasing the beholder with it usually ends up in a new type of enchantment with said veil. And in this day in age, anything even remotely resembling Surrealism needs to be seriously questioned instead of assumed. G.O.D. is at its best, and this sets it apart from earlier vaporwave, when the lines between enchantment and disenchantment are clearly demarcated, not unlike a game of peek-a-boo with a baby.

OPN may not be the next Beethoven, but he may be Boards of Canada in distress. If ensuing music in this sensibility takes up the culture trash of passive listening as its content, it shouldn't be expected to venerate the sordid remains of bourgeois music composition, but instead treat its techniques as trash amidst trash, no better or worse than kitsch. This is the ultimate contradiction of kitsch criticism: it believes that after all this cultural decay, bourgeois music composition can get through culture unscathed and can be applied to culture trash to save the day, instead of understanding that bourgeois music, perhaps above all, has been degraded to trash. Lopatin is well aware that he is composing music from within the uncultured trashcan of culture. It is kitsch listening that doesn't understand this by supposing itself cultured. In 2010, writing about vaporwave before it had a name (I proposed “conceptual ambient”), I posited that the aesthetic is one of searching through trash to find something that glistens, which involves holding it up to the dim light and rotating it. OPN's recent work is a slight change in direction because it introduces an activity of decomposition in time. OPN exposes composition as pseudo-activity, and represents it as something readymade and reified, not transformative. Composition is also trash, so new music in this framework will probably take the form of trash more thoroughly organizing trash, and with trash. Only in this way will aesthetic knowledge be built in this particular practice. Such a critical aesthetic of the self-organization of trash is highly preferable to the false veneration of talent, sublimity, or virtuosity that pervades popular musical consciousness and its appendage, kitsch criticism.