Lexicon Valley

Cheesy, Syrupy, Corny: Why Do We Describe Art We Dislike as if It Tastes Bad?


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So much negative aesthetic criticism appears to take place in the kitchen. Saccharine and corny, schmaltzy and sour. Hammy, cheesy, vanilla. Applied synesthetically, visual and sonic descriptors often exalt creative work: A singer’s voice is shimmering, a film sequence is jazzy. But with a few exceptions—spicy erotica, bittersweet finales—we know exactly how to telegraph our disdain for (or grudging pleasure in) bad art. We compare it to bad food.

The food is bad in the way that the art is bad. It’s not so much disagreeable as unhealthy, even unvirtuous. Fluorescent with goopy cheese, oozing easy sentiment, it clogs our arteries and blunts our intellects. In his lyric Cattivo Tempo, Auden introduces an anti-poetic rascal named Nibbar, who whispers, in the writing room, of “the nearly fine, the almost true.” This scoundrel has “grown insolent and fat/ on cheesy literature/ and corny dramas.” He figures forth the dissipation he brings. He’s gobbled up his own bad aesthetics and battened on them.

Even in praise, a clear division exists. Between delicious and dazzling, guess which adjective is more likely to tag the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and which the guilty pleasure. The discerning eye perceives prose that glistens or shines or is luminous. The expert ear notices musical phrasing and a clarity of voice. But a scrumptious tell-all, a yummy story—leave that to your wife’s book club. Given five good senses, why do we turn to taste to communicate distaste?

Bodily denial is encoded deep in our aesthetic standards, not to mention our sensory hierarchy. Words like cheese, schmaltz, and sap connote glut, overload, and decadence. They evoke a sentimentality defined by the excess of feeling, especially coarse or cheap feeling. More refined sensibilities arch toward subtlety, like plants toward the light. But the slovenly palate of the rube requires heavy stimulation.

Some have argued that the category “sentimental” is intellectually spurious, a way of “sneering at emotion you don’t agree with,” according to psychologist Keith Oatley. They point out that the term historically attached to 19th-century fiction written by women—“silly novels by lady novelists” like George Eliot—and that no one would begrudge Keats his lyrical raptures, his poetry that “surprise[s] by a fine excess.”

Doctors first started using cheesy metaphorically in the early 1700s, to describe pathologies of the human body. “Cheesy plugs often occlude the bronchial tubes,” warned a popular medical treatise in 1881. Around the same time, English schoolboys adopted the term to mean “fine or showy,” then sardonically reversed its definition. By the turn of the century, cheesy denoted something “inferior, second-rate, cheap, and nasty.” From there, it was a quick jump to our current sense of tawdry or mawkish. According to the OED, late-20th-century usages of the word form a tacky, cubic zirconia-studded array: Cheesy Moroccan souvenirs for tourists. The TV hero’s cheesy superantics. Cheesy pub karaoke.

Corny sprang up in late 1920s jazz culture. Musicians called a style of play corny if it conjured the rustic, old-fashioned riffs of a hayseed suddenly transplanted to the big city. Or they’d fling the term to suggest a trite flourish of horns belonged at a square dance, not a jazz club. There’s also evidence that the insult arose from the folksy seed catalogs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which interpolated product names with broad, golly-gee humor. Thanks to these pamphlets, a genre of obvious jokes was christened “corn jokes,” “cornfed,” or simply “corny.” 

Schmaltzy. This one hails from the Yiddish word for grease; schmaltz is melted chicken or goose fat that congeals during the cooking process. Slate’s Carl Wilson points out it was used to describe the embarrassingly “heart-on-sleeve” work of immigrant singers in the early 20th century: “the Irish, Italians, and (as the term makes aromatically clear) Jews.” Auden, nursing an apparent preoccupation with unctuous, falsified emotion, wrote of the “schmaltz tenor never quite able at his big moments to get right up.”

Saccharine, a sugary adjective from 17th-century chemistry, acquired its metaphorical properties no later than 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson discussed “the abundant flow” of a “saccharine element of pleasure” through the American suburbs. A romance novel marketed to women in the 1950s described a lord struggling to free himself from “the saccharine entanglements” of “the Squire’s unlovely daughters.” (Was saccharine becoming the chief ingredient in warm apple pies baked by Stepford wives?)

Why is the overflowing emotion of sentimentality coded female? Why is it junk food? And what should we make of the spiritual obesity we’ve imagined is the consequence of aesthetic overconsumption? When I read about cheesy theme music or schmaltzy romance, I hear: Don’t be messy, gloppy, passionate, or needy. Don’t overindulge your feelings or your appetites.

Yet eating may be our most visceral metaphor for how great art gets absorbed and consumed. The analogy ministers to our feeling that creative work molds our bodies and minds in elemental, bone-deep ways. In Rilke’s most cruelly implacable verse, a carved torso of Apollo commands the viewer to seek, through aesthetic contemplation, a transformative goodness she will never reach. “You must change your life,” the perfect (though incomplete) physical specimen instructs. Since Apollo issues the same moral challenge to everyone who approaches, his point isn’t how you must change your life; it’s the fact of—the relentless need for—metamorphosis. There is no finish line.

You must change your life. What could the god mean? Perhaps that the world is too much with you—too much fleshly distraction enrobes your creative soul. He remains, of course, a fragment: 20 percent marble and 80 percent disembodied spirit. And his remorseless directive feels like a call for the museumgoer to pare away all her everyday crap and plug into something as ethereal, essential, and inhuman as electricity.

This paring away is not a quest that ends. It is the opposite of Nibbar’s gorging on crude sentiment, but in its own way it is insatiable. I wish we could link eating for pleasure to aesthetic bounty as tightly as we now bind it to aesthetic “badness.” If only our vocabulary for assessing art did not so persistently claim that less emotion, less femininity, and less physical presence on earth is more. (Putting aside the question of “More what?”—which Apollo doesn’t seem to answer—shouldn’t creativity be abundant and affirming?) Rilke gives his archaic morsel the last word in the poem, and yet I hunger to offer a contemporary retort: Don’t tell me to change my life, but to live it.