The Sentimental Education

bush pups

War criminal George Bush likes to paint. His favorite subject is ‘puppies’. He paints himself, too, in the bathtub or shower.

Sentimentality is pervasive in the culture of the West.

John Wayne Gacy painted clowns.

The world of sentimentality is one linked directly to the structural mechanisms of social domination. The sentimental world is a false world. It is reductive and cleansed of ambiguity. It often parades a faux ambiguity and moral complexity when in fact it is assiduously one dimensional.

James Baldwin said:
“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel…the mask of cruelty.”

The false world of kistch narrative is a repository for this disproportionate eliciting of emotional response from set pieces designed for exactly such a response.

Arthur Koestler called sentimentality a “metaphysical brothel for emotions.”

The selling of war is usually a manipulation of emotions that employ sentimental devices. In the fact the sentimental is the mark of a core sadism and of the armored character formation. Deep or complex moral questions are buried beneath the simplistic, and most basic cause and effect world view.


One factor in looking at the rise of a kitsch culture, the popular self deceptions of Hollywood and the culture industry, is the resentment of the masses in feeling excluded from high culture, even if high culture was by the mid 20th century mostly an illusion anyway. The sentimental in its 21st century incarnation is linked to patriarchy, misogyny, and a belief in the naive vitalism of male power freed from the fetters of rationalism. It simplifies, and makes heroic a simply desire for vital male nature.

So there is a dialectic here between instrumental thinking and anti-intellectualism of all fascist movements. The fascist elevates a simple sentimental view of a noble savage (subjectively) at war with the forces of elitism…and hence with all nuanced complex moral questions. The sentimental seeks approval with both ‘the masses’ (excluded from that high brow arty farty bullshit) and with a paternal authority — the powerful virile male figure (Generals, coaches, party leaders). Sentimentality also is set against an anti intellectual backdrop that sets “common knowledge”, or ” common sense” as unassailable authority.

The sentimentalism of the scene from Newsroom (above) is simply the revisionist re-narrating of history (much like Zero Dark Thirty, or Homeland, or dozens of others) coupled to a very narrowed monochromatic set of bromides that teach this treacly earnest brand of white educated patriotism. Note nothing in that episode (of the series) ever asks questions of US Imperialism, or colonial history, or anything much else. It also adopts a specific tone of kitsch seriousness…it’s saying OK, we can joke about my hemorrhoids, but we don’t joke about serious matters (i.e. the State Dept propaganda on Iraq, terrorism, etc). In fact, this same show loves to double down on its liberal virtues by slapping itself on the back for its own perceived virtues (the special black or chicano assistant, snatched from the jaws of those criminal mean streets and given a good white man’s education far far away from his own community). Conflict is the conflict of white men, or the conflict of the ‘other’ as it affects white men.

Painting by John Wayne Gacy

Painting by John Wayne Gacy

There is a core aggression beneath the sentimental, however.

Jung called sentimentality; “a superstructure erected upon brutality”.

The cloying emptiness of Bush’s puppies is actually not far away from certain depictions of stereotypes:

The share something of the same style codes, the manufacturing of false consciousness made concrete in racialist adverts or chocolate box art. It’s all the same morbidity of the soul.

This bleeds into certain low brow aesthetic codes…many of which were appropriated for ironic uses. The design elements in early Mexican graphics, just as an example, are actually quite sophisticated on some levels. They are not necessarily sentimental however. They may have orientalist overtones, or be outright racist, but the particular insulin inducing sentimentality of wet kittens, or dewey eyed children pouting, is the province of the anal sadistic character. Bush, as Governor oversaw record numbers of executions in Texas. He was reported to have mocked the appeals for mercy from Karla Fay Tucker, the only woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

What else would he paint but puppies?

The sentimental though is expressed in a narrative — however abridged — and this narrative is what is worth examining. The aesthetic kitsch image of Bush’s puppies, or the sanctimonious superiority of Aaron Sorkin, are both connected to the uber nationalism and pieties of any good propaganda machine. They accept and preach hierarchy.

It is interesting, perhaps, to compare to emotional material (tragic material, really) in the hands of a ruthlessly unsentimental director like Fassbinder:

The sense of historical form in just this one scene is clear, an operatic dissection of the melodramatic, made tragic in part by the movement of the camera. The scene is, in one sense, actively avoiding a manipulation of material that in other hands would lend itself to the most lurid sentimentality.

The Norman Rockwell of the new century is probably Thomas Kinkade — the pride of Placerville, CA…and Design Center in Pasadena, Kinkade is the most widely purchased artist in the world, though mostly by way of the home shopping network. This is the grotesque visual violence of Christian zealots, the pastel comic book erasure of real life; it is really a sort of emotional mausoleum and in that sense perfect image-food the repressed masses (well, white masses). This is the philistine artwork proud of its philistinism.

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade

The elevation of emotional manipulation, this exaggerated focus on story elements of great complexity (birth, death, betrayal, etc) but contextualized in ways that reduce them to mere emotion — is really in the service of distancing the complexity (of the narrative and of life). It is the branding of emotion, in a sense. The public become consumers of packaged emotion. Those tears shed for On Golden Pond or Love Story, are not connected to either pain or joy. They are in fact sort of utterly disconnected.

For this branding of emotion to be effective, the packaging must be as simple as possible. If sincerity was crushed beneath the weight of Irony — it may have not have been extinguished but merely migrated to crass advertising and kitsch film and TV. For sentimentality is the last refuge of sincerity, only the sincerity is enclosed within a very narrow spectrum of material. It is the insincere sincere.

 VladimirTretchikoff, Chinese Girl

VladimirTretchikoff, Chinese Girl

It is, in a sense, a counterfeit sincerity, for the image or narrative must be so stripped of attendant material, of secondary meanings, or of contradiction that it barely exists.

Princess Diana’s death was the absolute emotional event horizon for sentimentality. The video below (if you can stomach all nine minutes) is an exercise in the geometry of emotional exploitation — and its impossible not to see the subsidiary tropes of Empire, nationalism, patriotism, royalty, and that sense of hallucinatory fatuousness — narrated in this sickening mealy mouthed unctuous tone of revery — which is quite almost as if spoken to grade school children at a special assembly.

“The New Sentimental Order is merely the latest form of the New World Order. Other people’s destitution becomes our adventure playground…We are the consumers of the ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe, and of the moving spectacle of our own efforts to alleviate it (which, in fact, merely function to secure the conditions of reproduction of the catastrophe market); there, at least, in the order of moral profits … we see to it that extreme poverty is reproduced as a symbolic deposit, as a fuel essential to the moral and sentimental equilibrium of the West.”

~ Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End

The sentimental must be general and not specific. If specifics are introduced, they are rarely concrete — they are transitory and fleeting.

What sentimentality links to, and is an expression of, is a synthesis of ideological classifications that probably can be traced back to the mid 19th century where new disciplines such as eugenics, anthropology, microbiology, and then psychology were born. It favored, as Traverso noted, the mixing of science and politics. It was an ideological application of science and medicine to social issues. If ‘progress’ was to be trusted, there had to be an explanation for things like cholera epidemics, for drug addiction and crime. For all kinds of things. The ruling bourgeois needed reassurance.

The enemies of social progress could be pointed to without (Africa, Asia, etc) and within (at least within the proletariat). This marked the start of a ‘social biologism’ (per Sartre) that served to justify the physical separation of classes. The pathologizing of the working class as a “breeding ground” for disease, etc. The diseases were real, the causes though were attributed to inherent biological flaws in the poor. Social repression was a medical procedure meant to protect society from the vermin ofthose on the lower ranks of the economic ladder. The Imperialist project found justification (if any were needed) in social repression as the creation of pre-conditions for progress. This is the backdrop against which certain aesthetic values evolved. Fascism in the sense we think of it, cannot be separated from the desire inherent in it to protect the interests of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie who identify with them — the manners and morals must be protected. The aesthetic was shaped by a lot of factors, but perhaps most influential was the impulse to reinforce the validity of the hierarchical class system, and white patriarchy. Artworks must not promote disquiet or question the essential rightness of the master narrative. Small quibbles were a sign of democratic tolerance, but there would always be a line that could not be crossed, and that line was the darkness and uncertainty of allegory and tragic doubt. Such expressions were seen as springing forth from the fetid Bolshevik (Jewish) swamp, and in general the untermensch of the colonized world. The world of shadows and guilt, of destiny, fate, and myth would survive only in cartoon form, shorn of real psychic weight– or at least carefully classified (again the question of the birth of horror and the grotesque).

lichtenstein couple

There are interesting and complicated shifts in the ruling class ideology over the last two hundred years, and all are worth looking into at some point, but there remains a pretty clear line from the Industrial Revolution and Bentham’s designs for control, through colonial practices to the growing embrace of technology as the instrument that would insure final domination (and the victory of the project of white European male world control). Its not so far from the battle fields of WW1 to the U.S. prison complex and the demonizing of the American poor as the final source of disease and those traits most threatening to order and stability (i.e. autonomy, independent thought, etc). The War on Drugs is the war on the poor, and one quickly sees all the medical themes, and exerminationist rhetoric employed by the state.

The aesthetic applied to this narrative is of necessity a simplified and reductive set of generalized templates for reality. The gradual wearing down of ‘realism’ to something like a children’s crayon drawing of their house and parents. This is the background to almost all studio film and TV today, but so naturalized has it become that it barely registers as an element in the grand narrative.

The role of “irony” is to reinforce this simplified canvas, to validate the by-products of domination as “culture”. The “camp” aesthetic contained an element of critical subversion…maybe…but if it was there it was quickly contained and put to work as simply consumerist ad-copy. The problem with camp, in fact, is that is was so amenable to co-option right from the start. It was dated before it began, in a sense.

The paradox of course is that the highly sentimental was born of sincerity, but as part of an ideology of social domination. It lent itself to racism, misogyny, and fascist impulses. Irony in turn undercut the impulse of autonomous creative work that looked to step outside the enclosing of commodity hegemony. The birth of snark went parallel to an intensified sentimentality.

“To make up for its lack of a moral compass, the British public is prey to sudden gusts of kitschy sentimentality followed by vehement outrage, encouraged by the cheap and cynical sensationalism of its press. Spasms of self-righteousness are its substitute for the moral life.”
Theodore Dalrymple



  1. (It’s Art Center, Pasadena, and I very much doubt that Kincade is its “pride” )
    I’d add that the factors of fear and denial on the personal level create the ground for this ruthless and exploitive sentimentalism. Deeply guilty and wounded people, as you pointed out in the case of Bush and Gacey, really respond to sentimentalism, but because morality (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) is so rooted in punishment, revenge and retaliation, people are generally very fearful and guilty even if they have only venal sins not worth hiding.
    Where the f did you find those obscene white fluffy puppies???
    Speaking of which, your favorite gal(Lena Dunham) just wrote an execrable piece of sentimentalism on her new puppy for this issue New Yorker.

  2. John Steppling says:

    missing irony read………….alert alert……………
    and yes, its art center, school of design … be exact. But of course he’s not their pride and actually I doubt Placerville has put up any plaques. Kinkade was deeply Christian, and all four of his children’s middle names is “Christian”……but he was known for public intoxication and deep resentments of other artists. He died at age 53 of acute alcohol and valium poisoning.

    But he had been hired by major league baseball to paint commemorative pieces for yankee stadium and Fenway Park, and he also got hired to paint a commemorative painting for Elvis’ purchase of Graceland. It all sort of makes sense I guess. Industrial level manufacture of sickeningly bad kitsch embraced by large american institutions.

    yeah, a lot of serial killers are deeply sentimental, imagining themselves deeply in love in the most arch romantic manner. Raoul Moat being a good example (in the UK)…but there are MANY.

    the white puppies? I didnt find them, Bush did.

  3. Do you think the rise of sentimentalism is related to the excessive focus on “personality” in Romanticism? There is something pure and disciplined in the classical disdain for emotional effects, and I wonder if the eclipse of the classical view of art allowed for sentimentality to flourish.

  4. John Steppling says:


    yeah, I think there is a clear connection, but I dont think its the only connection, or rather only cause or constructive effect. I want to answer this at length…..(or maybe even post about this in a related way) because its not simple — the invention of the subjective is worth unpacking, as it were…..

  5. Placerville is alive to the cult of St. Thomas, for sure — there are galleries there and plaques, too. There was a fantastic piece by AS Hamrah in The Baffler on Kinkade and the economic crisis — can’t find it but will try to send/append if/when I do. I was fascinated by the weird rush for his excretions upon his demise; sentimentality squared!

    “In the Bay Area, the most popular Kinkades include Disney themes and scenes of San Francisco, Napa Valley, Carmel and the coast, Perata says. “The ones that are more religion-based sell amazing in the Bible Belt.”

    “Perata cautions customers against buying Kinkades as an investment, she says that some reproductions that sell out do appreciate. ” ‘Snow White’ was released three years ago in August” at a price of $995 for an 18-by-27. Before Kinkade’s death, it was selling for more than $3,000, “if you could find it,” she says.

  6. and i just have to say that the Mean Joe Greene ad is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a long time.

  7. John Steppling says:

    that mean joe greene ad was a HUGE success — wildly popular…..and I’ve always thought it weird, too.

    As for Kinkade………again, what would i know….Placerville heart kinkade. I just sort of love that kinkade was a drug/booze addled bundle of resentment….urinating on Disneyworld signs and so forth. But what would an “original” mean when the stuff was produced on an assembly line, essentially. Its pretty funny…………buy your art on QVC!

  8. “Maybe the amplification of sentiment in public life is like an addiction to high-fructose corn syrup sodas. Drink too many—consume too much fast food of sentiment—and eventually you get diabetes of the soul. It’s harder for the soul to process and use sentiment, even the healthy stuff, and it works sluggishly and inefficiently. None of this happens suddenly; it occurs bit by bit but momentously over the years.”

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