On Sentimentality

In Newman’s analysis of sentimentality, the presence of artworks that present a more truthful or “sobering” account of the empirical world mitigates the potential harms that stem from the existence of sentimental works.  Specifically, he juxtaposes the comparatively sentimentalized version of war in the Iliad against Wilfred Owen’s account of World War I, “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  I think that Newman has a point here: artworks that deal with similar issues exist in dialogue with each other in the public sphere.  Still, I find that this particular example is problematic.  The Iliad and Owen’s poem do not exactly represent different accounts of the same violent phenomenon.  Homer’s epic may present an exaggerated or “falsified” version of warfare, but it could never glorify the sort of horrific atrocities of World War I.

In his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell examines the effects that World War I had on artistic production.  One of his central theses is that the war caused a level of disillusionment that made sentimental accounts impossible.  Going back to Newman: I think that different artworks can only create a “balanced” dialogue if they have similar contextual origins as well as thematic continuities.  After the Great War, glorified views of war seemed ridiculous; sentimental language became an insult to the victims of the tragedy.

I think that the discussion on sentimentality could benefit from the historical considerations seen in work like Fussell’s.  Sentimental artwork produces different effects, and creates different problems, during different public crises.  The public’s tolerance for sentimental art probably depends on the cultural moment.  I don’t mean to say that it is easy to predict how an audience will receive sentimentality in a given moment.  World War I produced the Lost Generation, but the tragedy at the World Trade Center opened a space for what was arguably a highly sentimental patriotism.

– Michael Baum


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: