sentimentality – plusses and minuses

by isaac black

You know the book your aunt won’t stop talking to you about? the country album your friend from high school listens to? the movie your girlfriend loves? You hate those things. It’s not a rational hate; you should just be able to dismiss them as categorically bad and move on with your life. The point of this post is to help you put a name on that hatred.

You hate those things because they’re sentimental. What this means is that they offer no emotional, intellectual, or aesthetic value of their own. They are simply an empty box that the audience can fill with his or her own feelings. This is precisely why these things are so insipid, bland, cliched, and manipulative. This is why very vague, abstract words are used and their use treated as profound: “love,” “death,” “life,” etc. The less concrete detail there is, the easier it is for the audience to impose their own experiences onto the narrative. Remember Bella’s non-personality from when you saw Twilight ironically? This is why she didn’t have any character traits. Oh, right, I forgot–she’s clumsy.

Are you feeling nice and superior? Feeling pretty good about your sophisticated bookcase? Here’s the catch: we all have sentimental movies, books, and music in our collections. In college I fell hard for 90s emo. That music echoed the mix of frustration and wonder that was firing my neurons. A handful of albums soundtracked memories that I will have for the rest of my life. I have an emotional association with that music, and it means something to me beyond what its creators inscribed. I’m not trying to put that music on par with Josh Groban–it was inventive, adventurous, and came from a respectable pedigree of punk rock. But so what? We don’t enjoy art solely based on the objective merits of the artist. If that were the case, we’d only ever listen to Bad Brains. 

If you examine why one work of art might be considered legitimately sentimental and another might be shame-inducing, it has a lot to do with largely arbitrary criteria that come from cultural context. Why is popular media less worthy while obscure works are given a pass? The concept smacks of elitism.

I’m not saying that sentimental works can be considered great art; they can’t. It’s important to note the ways in which they fail to provide anything intrinsically meaningful, which is the work of criticism. But we all can and do claim works of art which mean more to us than they should, none of which is any more respectable than the other. So the next time you’re at your cousin’s wedding and a Celine Dion song comes on and you feel your hackles rising, remember that Rainer Maria album on your iPod and be gentle.