Elvis is cool; Vegas Elvis is cheesy. How come? To call something cheesy is,
ostensibly, to disparage it, and yet cheesy acts are some of the most popular
in popular culture today. How is this possible? The concepts of cheese, cheesy,
and cheesiness play an important and increasingly ubiquitous role in popular
culture today. I offer an analysis of these concepts, distinguishing them from
nearby concepts like kitchy and campy. Along the way I draw attention to the
important roles of cultural/historical context, background knowledge, and
especially artist’s intentions as they are relevant to aesthetic assessments
involving cheese and related concepts. I go on to contend that these concepts,
properly understood, serve as helpful test cases concerning some important
issues in contemporary aesthetics, such as the paradox of negative art and the
contentious debate between intentionalists and anti-intentionalists.
Key Words anti-intentionalism,
camp, cheesiness, kitsch, high art, intention, intentionalism, low art, paradox
of negative art, performance, popular culture
would be difficult to understand many aesthetic assessments in popular culture
these days without a good grasp of the concepts of cheese, cheesy and
cheesiness. Part of the reason is that the high art/low art distinction upon
which aesthetic assessments depend in the modern tradition following Hume and
Kant is not operative within contemporary popular culture.
It would be a bit too strong to assert that there are no sets of
of artworks at all to serve as standards by which to orient our aesthetic
assessments. But this is precisely what makes the concept of cheese useful, and
that is perhaps what explains its ubiquity. Cheesiness is relative, and the
conditions for applying the term are subjective in just the right way to make
it useful in a sea of relativity. My hope is that by shedding light on the
nature of cheese and cheesiness, we will, indirectly, shed light on what it is
for a work to be good art in contemporary popular culture.
an initial example. Bill Murray’s subtly brilliant bad lounge singer skits from
early Saturday Night Live episodes are a beautiful parody of cheesy
hotel-lounge entertainment. But Murray’s
act itself is not cheesy at all. Rather, it is a parody of the cheese or
cheesiness of bad lounge acts found across the United States but probably most
often associated with the ones found in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. There is
something embarrassing, perhaps painful, and almost contemptible about such
acts, even though they are completely and utterly harmless. They are harmless,
and yet the parody works because of a shared sense of derision we direct toward
the targets: real lounge acts. On the way out of a hotel hosting such a
real act we might advise people on the way in: “Whatever you do, don’t go near
the lounge. The singer in there is the biggest cheeseball we’ve ever seen.”
abounds in popular culture. Consider a few obvious examples: Celine Dion’s over
the top big-tent Vegas act that sold out nightly for over three years from
2003-7; much of what appears on “American Idol,” the most popular show on
American television; as well as just about anything by Barry Manilow, Pat
Boone, Michael Bolton, and Kenny G, just to name a precious few. And cheese
isn’t restricted to music. Cheese and cheesiness appear in all forms of popular
culture: music, movies, books, painting, photography, sculpture and
architecture—and this list is certainly not exhaustive. Examples might include
a pandering political speech, a gold chain on a hairy chest, the Rock and Roll
McDonald’s in Chicago, some Anne Geddes works, many Hallmark greeting cards,
special effects in some movies, precious photos of cute little baby tigers
wearing hats, and so on and so forth.
purely aesthetic senses of ‘cheese,’ ‘ cheesy’ and ‘cheesiness’ which I’m
interested in are distinct from some other perhaps related senses of the terms.
So distinguish this sense of ‘cheese’ from some others. For example, someone
might say, “Wipe that cheesy grin off your face.” to indicate mock-disapproval
of but wry appreciation for a shared in-joke. Of course one might also use that
same expression to indicate genuine disapproval for an inauthentic or
disingenuous smile. I’ve heard the term used in another alternative sense as
well: “Cover up those cheesy legs; you’re blinding us!” This is an aesthetic sense of the term, but
not the one I’ll be addressing here.
of the term ‘cheesy’ is widening rapidly. Witness an editorial in the New
York Times on October 16, 2008:
nation still doesn’t know the full extent of President Bush’s obsession with
eavesdropping on citizens, but here’s a cheesy new aspect: Phone calls home
from American soldiers, aid workers and journalists in Iraq were reported to have been
tapped and stored by military agents supposedly searching for terrorist
not even sure that this is a legitimate sense of the term ‘cheesy,’ but in any
case it is not the sense of the term I’m interested in. Further examples will
help to clarify this point.
more legitimate use of the concept and one much closer to the sense of the term
I have in mind appeared in USA Today just after the election of Barack
Obama. On the subject of Senator Claire McCaskill’s early endorsement of Obama:
was the first female senator to back Obama over Hillary Clinton. McCaskill said
her daughter had pushed her to take a stand and not be “a cheesy politician
who’s playing it safe.”
similar use comes from Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times, November 19,
2008, on involving the Clintons
in his new administration:
is overlooking all his cherished dictums against drama and leaking and his
lofty vetting standards to try and create a situation where the country can
benefit from the talent of the Clintons
while curbing their cheesy excesses, like their cash flow from foreigners.
point is fairly clear: cheesy politicians take the easy way out, securing their
position by clinging to what is safe, refusing to take political risks that
might constitute or precipitate genuine progress. Here is Maureen Dowd again on
March 19, 2008:
we expect them to be cheesy on ethics, so no one is ever surprised when they
examples shed some light on the seemingly odd use of the concept in USA
Today, which we saw above: Bush’s obsession with eavesdropping on his own
citizens can be seen as cheesy because a clear violation of civil rights is
being defended, not in some subtle, innovative or even devious way, but instead
by invoking the tired and lame old excuse that “it’s in the interest of our
national security.” Now, that’s cheesy. It’s not cheesy in the aesthetic sense,
but we’re getting there.
are some further examples of cheesiness: Pick-up lines are almost always
cheesy. Cheating at video games, or at least winning unfairly over and over in
the same mechanical way is cheesy. A friend of mine recently complained about
how cheesy it was to hold a tropical-themed wedding reception at a chain hotel
in the Poconos. Similar uses of the concept are ubiquitous in contemporary
popular culture. “Did you see Burt Reynolds? He still has that cheesy porno
Whiz is cheesy but not in the relevant sense. However, the contrast with
cheese, the dairy product, is instructive. On the one hand, there is no food
product cheesier than Cheese Whiz. On the other hand, there is nothing about
Cheese Whiz itself that is cheesy in the aesthetic sense. Of course it might be
strikingly cheesy to serve Cheese Whiz at a cocktail party or something like
that, in which case, Cheese Whiz would be cheesy in both senses of the term.
What it is to be cheese in the former sense is to be a sample of a dairy
product of a certain kind, and what it is to be such a sample is a matter of
its composition. Thus ‘cheesy’ in this sense indicates something intrinsic; it
expresses an intrinsic property. But what it is to be cheesy in the
aesthetic sense is something relational. Thus to be ‘cheesy’ in the sense I am
interested in is a matter of the possession of a relational property.
For this reason, to someone from a country like France, where much natural cheese
is produced, Cheese Whiz might indeed seem strikingly cheesy in the relevant
sense: as unnecessarily processed food, almost as a snack packaged for children
and marketed to adults.
object’s being cheesy, then, involves, obviously, its relations to other things
that may or may not themselves be cheesy. Take this piece of ripe Camembert I
have in my pocket. It’s mine; I stole it fair and square from my friend
Philippe, who made it. But it could exist without me, or Philippe, for that
matter. Imagine now a possible world in which this piece of Camembert exists
alone, not just in Philippe’s and my absence, but all by itself—in a “lonely
This is just a way of saying that the property of being (a sample of) Camembert
cheese is an intrinsic property. Things are different for the aesthetic sense
of ‘cheese’. Cheesiness of this kind is relational. Something whose intrinsic
properties remained the same might change in its aesthetic cheesiness depending
on its relations to other things. Burt Reynold’s mustache would not have been
cheesy had he lived in the Civil War era, and it might not even be cheesy today,
if he moved, say, to Baghdad.
is also, obviously, a matter of taste. The popularity of KISS, Celine Dion and American
Idol make this point almost too obvious to mention. However, although
cheesiness is relational and a matter of taste, change with respect to
cheesiness is still genuine change, and not mere “Cambridge change,”
as they say.
2. Nearby Concepts
get a better grip on ‘cheese,’ ‘cheesy’ and ‘cheesiness,’ it will be helpful to
distinguish them from some other some similar concepts that are easily confused
find atonal music unpleasant but none call it cheesy, unless there are other
things about it that make it so aside from its unpleasantness. So to say that
something is cheesy is not simply to say that we dislike it because we
find it unpleasant. Not all cheese is unpleasant, anyway. Kenny G’s “Forever in
Love” is moderately pleasant. In fact,
it is this simple or simplistic pleasantness that, in combination with other
things about it, makes it cheesy. Obviously, not everything unpleasant is
cheesy. Dentist office visits are not cheesy, although the décor found in
dentist’s offices certainly can be.
Something can be tacky without being cheesy.
For example, the use of fluorescent paints in a barroom or a dance hall can be
tacky without being cheesy. During a KISS concert, when Gene Simmons spits
blood out of his mouth, it’s certainly tacky, but it’s debatable whether it’s
cheesy. A choreographer, set designer, or costume designer might dress his or
her dancers in overly revealing outfits, which we would call tacky but might
not call cheesy. Similarly, something can be cheesy without being tacky. A
cheesy picture of cute, little, cuddling, baby tigers hung on a dorm room wall
is cheesy but it’s not tacky, unless they are up to something vulgar.
might complain about the cheesiness of some exurban Mexican restaurant: its
frozen margaritas with mini-sombreros, its gaudy piñatas, red vinyl booths,
neon Corona Beer signs, looping vals mexicanos and wait staff dressed
daily in outfits appropriate only for Cinco de Mayo. Certainly part of our
complaint is that the restaurant is a cheap substitute for the genuine article,
something built out of the easiest and chintziest stereotypical elements that
exurbanites might associate with Mexico. But although we might want to say that
something is cheesy because it looks poorly constructed or slapped-together, and
hence looks cheap or chintzy, ‘cheesy’ is not synonymous with either ‘cheap’ or
‘chintzy.’ There are many examples of expensive, bloated-budget films that are
prime examples of Grade A cheese: John Travolta’s Battleship Earth, a veritable feast of cheese, is
a most obvious example. Nothing stands in the way of producing very expensive
cheese. In fact, and Battleship Earth is a good example of this,
something’s being costly might add to
rather than subtract from its cheesiness.
is harder. Judgments about cheesiness
are judgments of taste, and cheesiness is intrinsically derogatory. So to
describe something as cheesy in the aesthetic sense is to charge that the work,
or the performers or producers of the work, are lacking in taste. But it would
be a bit too strong to say that something’s being cheesy makes it or its
producers tasteless. Similarly, not everything tasteless is cheesy.
Sexual jokes can make a screenplay tasteless without making it cheesy. Andrew
Dice Clay’s act from the 1980s is a good example of tasteless non-cheese.
is trite is commonplace, stale and tired; hackneyed, corny and clichéd. At
least that’s what my Word thesaurus says. ‘Trite’ is certainly in the
immediate neighborhood of ‘cheesy’. But it is too harsh. When Celine Dion
breaks into her “air-guitar” routine, squinting her eyes and pouting her lips
in an attempt to inject emotive force into her performance, the result is
cheesy, certainly, but it would be overly harsh to describe it as trite. It
invites eye-rolling but not the same derision we direct at something trite like
playing “Stairway to Heaven” in a guitar store.
similar reasons, ‘crass’ doesn’t capture what it is to be cheesy. What is crass
is insensitive and is typically morally objectionable. The guy who insists on
injecting, “That’s what she said,” at every opening in a conversation is being
crass, not cheesy. Cheesiness is harmless, although objectionable for other
reasons. The cute little baby tigers on the dorm room wall are cheesy but not
crass because there isn’t really anything insensitive or morally objectionable
say that ‘schlock’ is the Yiddish term for cheese. I can’t claim any kind of
authority here, but this doesn’t seem to be quite right. ‘Schlock’ implies
sloppiness in construction. This is
sometimes the case with cheese too. But it need not be; cheese can be very
carefully crafted. Again, Kenny G is a great example of very carefully
handcrafted, Grade-A Cheese. So something might be cheesy and yet fail to be
Rock’ which applies to “Hair Metal” bands of the 1980s, such as Poison and
Winger, as well as to contemporary acts modeled after the originals, provides a
good example of the ground on which the two concepts converge: the big hair,
the spandex, the three-power-chord-progressions, the fluorescent guitars with
the acute angles, the smoke, the pyrotechnics, the towering banks of
amplifiers, the twenty-five-piece drum kit . . . .it’s all too much to take
seriously, and this is surely some of the appeal. Aesthetic and artistic
quality are sacrificed in order to make room for the grossly over-the-top
concept of corniness is obviously very close to the concept of ‘cheesiness.’
First of all, there is the food connection, and there is certainly an overlap
in application of the two concepts. What is cornball might just as well be
described as cheeseball. In some cases, the two terms are interchangeable:
corny special effects are cheesy special effects. Yet ‘corny’ might have an
application to certain cheap and silly jokes that wouldn’t typically be termed
‘cheesy’. The former is more playful than the latter, and the latter implies an
inauthenticity not part of corniness. A speech at a wedding reception might be
corny because of its sentimentality or silly humor but fail to be cheesy
because the sentiment or humor involved is not invoked for manipulative effect.
natural suggestion might be that we react negatively to cheesy art because
“it’s so 1999.”
But cheesy isn’t the same as cliché either. Consider the contrast between cool
Memphis Elvis and cheesy Vegas Elvis. The problem with the rhinestones and the
bellbottoms and the giant collars and the throwing of the sweaty scarves isn’t
that it’s so 1950s. We don’t say, “I can’t believe Elvis wheeled out that old
chestnut of an act.” The act is cheesy but not cliché. Of course someone who
covers his Vegas-era act now is almost doomed to cliché. But his own act, in
1972 Las Vegas,
was not cliché.
cliché is not sufficient for cheese. An eight-year-old child at the school
talent show might sing “Good Ship Lollipop” and it would be, of course, cliché
but not necessarily cheesy. If the act included in addition lots of make-up and
American Idol-style over-singing and over-acting, then it would be
approaching cheesiness. But being simply cliché is not enough to be cheesy. In
fact, if Elvis had simply recycled his 1950s act for the shows of 1970s Las Vegas, this would have been
preferable simply because it would have been merely cliché and not
cheesy, as well.
can result from something’s being overly showy. There is evidence that at one
stage in the evolution of the term, ‘cheesy’ did just mean ‘showy’, descending
ultimately from “the big cheese.” But the two concepts have since diverged.
Memphis Elvis and Vegas Elvis are both showy, but only the latter is cheesy.
For that matter, the Taj Mahal is showy but it’s not cheesy. Similarly, not
everything cheesy is showy. Neither Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife”
nor Sonny Rollins’ “Moriat,” based on the same tune, is particularly showy, but
only the former is cheesy.
especially revealing and instructive use of the concept of cheesiness I found while
listening to a recent playoff series on the radio. The announcer gleefully but,
paradoxically, also slightly peevishly charged that “Tonight the pitcher has
been painting the corners of the plate with cheese.” Here the term is used to
indicate a pitch that has an allure similar to that of a specious argument. On
the surface it looks good, but it is misleadingly good-looking. In the end,
it’s what leads to the batter’s demise: “Struck him out with the high cheese!?”
Kitsch, Camp and Cheese
I give you a piece of kitsch art, perhaps as a gift or a joke, what I give you
is an inferior, tasteless copy which I know will produce in you an easy
sentimental response. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s complicated.
There is a voluminous literature devoted to kitsch and kitsch art,
but apparently, the term was used originally to refer to cheap and sentimental
imitative art, popular among the Nuevo Riche in mid-to-late nineteenth
century Munich. Over time the term came to connote artwork of such poor
construction, bad taste, pretentiousness and, especially, melodramatic
sentimentality, as to be considered immoral.
At least this is the conclusion drawn by Robert Solomon,
of several suggested etymologies is that the word is German for “smear” or
“playing with mud,” and, toying with this, we might speculate that the “mud” in
question is emotion and mucking around with emotions inevitably makes a person
might level an obvious objection here, pointing to the fact that lots of what
goes by the name ‘kitsch’ is, although certainly sentimental, nevertheless sweet and harmless. Pink
Flamingoes, lava lamps and lawn jockeys are kitschy but, surely, are not
is a genuine dispute here. Some authors adhere to what Deborah Knight calls
“the standard view” that kitsch objects are of such poor taste that they
deserve our moral derision.
Others attempt to deflate such claims, noting either that there are
value-neutral instances of sentimentality or that there are genuinely morally
The fulcrum of the dispute seems to be a matter, first, of the magnitude of the
sentiments involved and, second, the manner and degree to which they are
exploited for the purposes of manipulation of the intended audience. The
complaint about kitsch art is that it traffics in reproduction, sentiment and
cliché, and that this makes its appeal purely superficial, and potentially
dangerous by making the audience vulnerable to easy manipulation.
The purely superficial appeal of kitschy objects, it is claimed, fails to
engage the intellect in the way needed for genuine art-appreciation. Of course
kitsch art and kitsch art-appreciation are not much concerned with
non-aesthetic but art-relevant properties—things like originality and genius.
As kitsch-object, a pink flamingo purchased at Wal-Mart for $5 is just as
good—just as valuable—as one handmade by Picasso.
cheese is similarly wrapped-up in sentimentality, reproduction and cliché, an
analogous and equally genuine dispute arises in the case of cheesy art. But
cheese and kitsch are not the same thing. ‘Kitsch’ can be used as a term of
aesthetic approval, as when applied to works of art that embrace the
sentimentality for what it is. I might complain about the Velvet Elvis above
your fireplace: “Why do you have that horrible, tacky thing up there? I thought
you had good taste.” You might correct me: “No, it’s kitschy; I love it.” But
‘cheese’ is a derogatory term. After I complain about your Velvet Elvis,
“What’s that horrible tacky thing doing up there?” it would be a misuse of the
concept to reply, “No, it’s cheesy; I love it.”
something can be kitschy but not cheesy. The Velvet Elvis on the dorm room
wall, the lawn jockey in the front yard, the garden gnome in the back yard, the
studiously retro décor in the corner café are some examples. Similarly one and
the same thing might be cheesy but not kitschy. Pick-up lines are like this.
The music of Kenny G is another good example. Although unquestionably cheesy,
Kenny G is way too uncool to be kitschy; someone might collect Kenny G music as
a joke but not for its kitsch value.
pick a different example, of course the music of Dean Martin is or was at one
time very popular, and a great number of people actually listen to it deliberately
and for the purpose of enjoyment. Isn’t that a counterexample to the claim that
‘cheesy’ is a derogatory term? No. The distinction with kitschiness supplies
the difference. A person can enjoy kitschy art while at the same time
recognizing that it is kitschy. But no one simultaneously enjoys cheesy
art while recognizing that it is cheesy. If they thought it was cheesy,
they wouldn’t enjoy it. The claim is simply that no one simultaneously enjoys
and judges as cheesy, say, Dean Martin’s “Volare”-- although one might find it
kitschy and enjoy it that way.
mightn’t someone enjoy an artwork despite its cheesiness? What then? It
is common to say things like, “I know it’s a little cheesy, but I still love
it…” But this is not a counterexample either. Something’s being a little cheesy
doesn’t make it cheesy. My grandmother is a good person even though she speeds
occasionally. Nobody’s perfect.
possible suggestion is that cheese is unintended kitsch. In other words, the
claim would be that cheese is tacky, unoriginal, tasteless, sentimental art
that is intended to be refined, original, tasteful and intellectually
engaging art. There is something correct here, but although cheese involves a
failed intention, this failure is not itself enough to make something cheesy.
If it were enough, then all cases of failed art would be cases of cheese, and
this conclusion is surely too strong.
fits with Milan Kundera’s famous remark about kitsch:
causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to
see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved,
together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second
tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
does suggest an analogy or a least a similarity with cheese, but cheese is not
mere sentimentality, not even a complex, self-reflexive sentimentality. Cheese
lacks an authenticity present in kitsch. Kitsch is sincere, whereas cheese
involves a kind of insincerity in that it aspires to a level of appreciation it
does not warrant.
So cheese cannot simply be unintended kitsch. That way of thinking about it
gets the intention wrong. Cheese arises not from a lack of intention, but
rather from a failed intention. Success or failure, of course, depends
upon the receptivity of an audience. Thus, for example, whether a pick-up line
is cheesy or not depends at least in part on the receptivity of the audience.
Similarly, much of the dialogue in the recent teen book and movie sensation Twilight
can be understood this way.
similar reasons, the accordion music of Weird Al Jankovic is kitschy but not
cheesy. Although it is unoriginal, unsubtle and showy, it is too self-aware to
count as cheesy, and the intention is not right. The intention is subtle and
self-aware, involving the equally self-aware, winking complicity of the
audience, neither of which is involved in deceptive inauthenticity.
all cheese is kitsch. Hair Metal from the 1980s is cheesy but not kitschy. Hair
Metal trades in the “power ballad” designed to produce sentimentality of the
amorphous sexual desire variety. It does produce in its audience an authentic
response, as intended, and so its intention succeeds to this extent. There is
nothing intrinsically cheesy about grown men sharing in the production and
consumption of such sentiments, but when it is for an audience composed chiefly
of teenage girls, the result is pure cheese -- creamy Velveeta.
and Broadway musicals paradigm cases of either kitsch or cheese. All of that
overly-cheery singing and dancing and over-acting, the melodrama, the gaudy
wardrobes, the ever-so-clever lyrics are really all too much to bear, and so
people often consider the result cheesy or kitschy. But they are typically
wrong. Similarly, Ru Paul’ outlandishly over the top drag queen act is neither
kitschy nor cheesy, although it shares many of the elements of both. It
certainly shares the winking self-awareness of certain kitschy acts like Weird
Al Yankovic’s parodic accordion playing, and Paul’s studious frivolity
resembles in those respects Gene Simmons’ spectacularly cheesy blood-spitting
KISS routine. But in other ways Paul’s act itself, the audience’s response to
it, and the intentions and expectations involved are distinct from those
involved in kitsch and cheese. Paul’s act is more accurately described as
with kitsch, there is a voluminous literature devoted to camp,
but the locus classicus of camp literature is Susan Sontag’s “Notes on
is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an
aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but
in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.
essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: artifice and exaggeration.
arises when “we can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the
attempt” to create something serious or of high-quality.
Many examples of Camp are things
which, from a “serious” point of view, are either bad art or kitsch.
The ultimate camp statement: It’s good because
results from the presentation of what appeals to naïve, wholesome, middle-class
sensibilities but in a way that exhibits an exaggerated degree of artifice,
stylization, and extravagance, or even grandiosity to the point of frivolity.
Camp sensibility involves the love of all of this. Thus it requires, importantly,
authenticity. But it also involves the
appreciation of a dual-effect generated: the over-theaticalized earnestness
makes way for an ironic sensibility. Campy performance thus involves a wry
self-awareness, a winking at the audience who winks back: It’s good because
it’s so bad. In this way, camp both enjoys and employs the gaudy and the
sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp;” not a woman,
but a “woman.”
best examples of camp, according to Sontag, come from Rococo and Art Nouveau
that employ the appropriate high degree of artifice and exaggeration. They are,
she says, cases of “pure” camp, which tend to be more satisfying than the
“deliberate” variety because of their naïveté.
pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.
course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which
has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and
works of the art nouveau genre are “dead serious,” and the camp effect achieved
is more pronounced when the artist is working earnestly but producing camp
unintentionally. Sontag here is not making a conceptual claim about camp but is
simply making a psychological observation: better examples of camp are produced
unintentionally when the performers or artists are utterly serious. It is a
seriousness that fails in its pretentions to greatness but succeeds,
unintentionally, in producing something that can be appreciated in a wholly
different way: as campy marginalia.
claim about the respective qualities of pure and deliberate camp may not hold
up forty years after the publication of “Notes on ‘Camp’”. Consider the
Australian sitcom, Kath & Kim, which has already become something of
a camp cult-classic. Its over-the-top parody of suburban middle class life in
all of its lovable hypocrisy is pure camp fun.
It is clearly intended to be such and it can only be truly appreciated
as campy satire. But it is nevertheless camp of the highest quality and it
produces the most satisfying effect. Further examples of high-quality
deliberate camp are easy to find. Steven Cohan makes the case that the
classical MGM musicals starring Judy Garland are both textbook examples of camp
and deliberately produced as such.
Cohan’s claim, though not uncontestable, is certainly plausible.
And it is not really that important anyway: in distinguishing between “pure”
and “deliberate” camp, Sontag is not making a conceptual claim but is, instead,
dividing up the evidence from empirical cases and drawing some evaluative
any case, camp is not to be confused with cheese. Something can be campy
without being cheesy. Again, although many elitist-types might be inclined to
dismiss Broadway musicals like Hairspray as exercises in cheese, this
would be a mistake because these productions are more properly understood and
appreciated for their campy celebration of their own awfulness . Similarly, no
one would mistake Monty Python’s “Camp Square-Bashing” sketch, another camp
cult-classic, for an instance of cheese, although no one mistakes it for high
art either. Conversely, something can be cheesy without being campy. The recent
Baz Luhrmann film, Australia,
starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, offers an interesting illustration.
Its cheesy CGI backgrounds, just part of that film’s overall failed attempt to
produce a grand epic on the scale of Gone with the Wind, does not result
in camp. It is a failed attempt at seriousness which, although it does have a
mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve,
nevertheless fails as camp, and results instead merely in cheese. Even Hugh
Jackman’s softly lit, soapy, rippling-muscled shower scene fails as camp and
simply adds to the net cheese effect. Similarly, the Sean Daniel and James
Jacks cheese vehicle, The Mummy series, is an exercise in cheese. It is
enjoyable cheese, to be sure, but not intellectually charged enough or
flamboyant in the right way to count as campy.
then, is closely related to but is distinct from both kitsch and camp. Unlike
‘kitsch,’ ‘cheese’ is a derogatory term, and cheesiness, unlike kitschiness,
involves a failed intention to move an audience in a certain way. Cheese, like
camp, is bad. But unlike camp, cheese is inauthentic and manipulative, in that
it attempts to pass off its badness as something good, which it is not. Camp,
although it certainly dwells in the land of complicated and multiple levels of
meaning, does not suffer from this kind of inauthenticity. Thus some cheese can
be seen as failed camp.
I mentioned earlier, there is evidence that the current sense of the term
‘cheese’ derives from the expression ‘the big cheese,’ whose source ultimately
is the Persian or Hindi word ‘chiz’.
it had nothing to do with cheese — the source is the Persian or Hindi word chiz,
meaning a thing. Sir Henry Yule wrote it up in Hobson-Jobson, his famous
Anglo-Indian Dictionary of 1886. He said that the expression “used to be common
among Anglo-Indians” and cites expressions such as “My new Arab is the real
chiz” and “These cheroots are the real chiz.” Another expression with the same
meaning that predated the real chiz was the real thing, so it’s
highly probable that Anglo-Indians changed thing to chiz as a
bilingual joke. Once returnees from India
started to use it in Britain,
hearers naturally enough converted the unfamiliar foreign word into something
more recognizable, and it became cheese.
phrase big cheese developed from it in early twentieth-century America,
as a term to describe the most influential or important person in a group. The
first written example we know about is in Ring Lardner’s Haircut of
1914. It followed on several other American phrases containing big to
describe a person of this kind, most with animal or vegetable associations — big
bug, big potato, big fish and big toad, of which the oldest is
probably the British English bigwig of the eighteenth century (more
recent examples are big shot, big enchilada and big banana).
Like the others, big cheese was by no means always complimentary and
often had derisive undertones, no doubt helped along by the influence of other
slang meanings of cheese.
the latter are ‘cheesed off,’ ‘cheesed,’ ‘cheesy grin’ and ‘cut the cheese.’ Especially
important for the present discussion, there is also evidence that the practice
of saying ‘cheese’ when posing for photographs indicates the disingenuousness of
a forced smile: a ‘cheesy grin.’
us now gather some examples of cheese as the concept is used in contemporary
popular culture. Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife”, but not Sonny Rollins’ “St.
Thomas”; Pat Boone’s but not Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”; Mario Lanza’s “O
Sole Mio”; just about anything by Kenny G but just about nothing by John
Coltrane; The Mummy series; pick-up lines; 1980s Hair Metal (to which
1990s Grunge is a backlash); at least some of 1940s and ‘50s West Coast Jazz
(to which 1950s and ‘60s Hard Bop is a backlash); Barbara Walters television specials;
“You had me at hello”; “I can’t live without you”; “You complete me”; Dean
Martin; pandering political speeches and commercials. What do these have in
common? Here is an attempt at capturing the concept:
is lacking in originality, subtlety, and authenticity, often showy to the point
of showing-off, with the aim to induce an original, subtle and authentic
response in an audience, but where the intention typically fails in that the
response induced is typically unoriginal, unsubtle, and inauthentic, such as
cheap sentimentality or pathos.
might object: ‘cheese’ is not necessarily derogatory. Some of the dialog in the
recent book and movie Twilight, for example, can only be called cheesy,
and yet it is endearing of the characters nonetheless. “Sure it’s cheesy, but
in a good way.” This is wrong. Either the dialog is merely sentimental but not
cheesy at all, and our speaker simply means to say that it is sentimental but
in a good way, or else it is cheesy and bad for this reason, but its
badness is overwhelmed by something else, such as how adorable the person
uttering the cheesy lines is. Cheesy dialog might be forgivable if delivered by
a dreamboat, especially for a teenage audience. His dreaminess more than
compensates for his cheesiness.
why is Dean Martin cheesy and Frank Sinatra not, even though the two belong to
one and the same musical and performance genre and share not some small number
of similarities, including a fan base? By now the answer should be quite
apparent. Dean Martin aims for but fails to achieve the level of originality
subtlety and authenticity achieved in Sinatra’s best works, even though Dean
Martin employs similar performance techniques, works in similar musical styles
and affects a similar persona.
objection will be raised by anti-intentionalists, who are loathe to incorporate
intentions into interpretive aesthetic assessments. For example, one might
object: How can cheese arise from a failed intention? Surely Celine Dion succeeds in producing what
she intends, for her audience responds appropriately by being moved in just the
way intended. The flamboyant stroke of the air guitar sends the audience into
rapturous delight. The intention succeeds yet the act is still cheesy.
have more to say about this below, but for now it is enough simply to point out
that our judgments about cheese require that the thing judged to be cheesy is
judged also to involve a failed intention in its production, just as we can’t
judge that someone is being pretentious or presumptuous without assigning to that
person a certain kind of intention. Similar points can be made concerning how
our judgments about cheese involve historical or cultural contexts, as well as
background knowledge and experience of relevant categorial facts having to do
with, e.g., genre and style. I have more to say about these later.
now, it is important to at least make note of the culturally specific nature of
the concepts of cheese and cheesiness. In this paper, I am concerned with an
analysis of the concepts as they are used in Western popular culture in the
late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It may be that use of the
concepts does not occur outside certain linguistic communities or
sub-communities whose range is restricted by various geographical, economic,
ethnic, or other factors. Something like this is surely the case, and so for
what follows one must keep in mind that the discussion is culturally contextual
in these ways.
One rather clear example of the culturally sensitive nature of “cheesiness” can
be seen in the case of the exaggerated overacting prevalent in Latin American
telenovelas. To North American viewers, the overacting contributes to a cheesy
effect, but presumably members of Latin American audiences register no such
response. This is all as it should be.
for something to be cheesy it not only has to be considered bad by somebody,
but it also has to be liked by somebody, and in particular liked by somebody
whom the original somebody thinks has bad taste. “Burt Reynold's porno mustache? It's so cheesy—I can't believe he thinks it's
sexy!' “Kenny G is so cheesy—my mom
listens to that stuff.” Perhaps these
mean that when I label something cheesy, I'm not only disparaging the work but
also the people who like the work. This
is all rather elitist, but none of it precludes my occasionally letting out my
inner teenage girl and enjoying the special edition of Dirty Dancing, or
singing along to “My Heart Will Go On.” It just means that I can’t do so and
consider it cheesy at the same time.
More on this below.
relational character of cheese and related concepts is shared by other kinds of
aesthetic concepts, as is made clear from the discussions of kitsch and camp,
above. Thus I do not want to give the impression that the important roles of
historical-cultural context, artist’s intentions and audience receptivity are
unique to cheese. To the contrary: they are shared by many fundamental
What I hope to do here is to show, rather, how the concept of cheese provides a
good illustration and a test case for various debates in contemporary
Some Theoretical Points About Who Cares
Intentionalism and anti-intentionalism
art provides examples that help to illustrate the debate between intentionalists
and anti-intentionalists, or what Stephen Davies calls “value maximizers.”
With his highly influential work, “Categories of Art,” Kendall Walton convinced
many aestheticians that proper art interpretation requires that artworks be
perceived or experienced under the right categories.
He claimed further, and quite plausibly, that it is sometimes the case that
artist’s intentions supply some of these categories. Call such intentions “categorial
intentions.” One fairly uncontroversial example of such an
interpretation-determining categorial intention is simply the
“for-public-consumption” intention, which is the artist’s intention to produce
an artifact for public appreciation. Other interpretation-determining categorial
intentions might include the intention to produce a work of one or another
established artistic category, such as the intention to produce a painting
rather than a sculpture, or prose rather than poetry. Intentionalists and
anti-intentionalists disagree about all of this in various ways and to various
levels of vexation.
Of course, evaluative intentions aren’t allowed by either side, since, for
example, the mere intention to produce a great work is presumably irrelevant to
matters of interpretation. Without attempting to resolve the debate here, I
want to hold simply that the intentionalist position is a viable candidate
position, and so any complaint that my account of cheesiness appeals
objectionably to artists’ intentions is off base.
this in mind, we can note that cheesy art is especially ripe for parody.
Whether Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” counts as a powerful and emotional tour
de force or a hilarious send-up of sappy, sentimental movie soundtrack
ballads depends on the intentions, or at least the hypothetical intentions,
of its performer. No one seriously maintains that Celine Dion was intending to
produce a self-parody with her version of the song, and that interpretation
should be rejected. She intended, rather, to produce a heart-wrenching power
ballad. Such categorical intentions are relevant—indispensible—to the
interpretation of artworks because categorial intentions help to fix the
identity, and thus the content, of the work. As Davies puts it, the interpretation needs
to be true to the work, not merely consistent with it.
Of course an artist’s categorial intentions might fail, if other requirements
are not in place.
illustrate what I have in mind, contrast Celine Dion’s version of “My Heart
Will Go On” with an instrumental version of the same song performed by Los
Straightjackets, a Nashville
band with a guitar-heavy style in the tradition of The Ventures. The Los
Straightjackets version begins, following brief introductory sounds of lapping
waves and a foghorn, with a relatively reverential rendering of the melody on
electric guitar with tremolo effects, but then proceeds through a series of
ridiculous clichés, including over-dubbed string and choral accompaniments, and
one-string guitar solos employing overuse of the guitar’s “whammy-bar” and
needlessly exaggerated reverb effects. The key then modulates upward for
dramatic effect as new parts are added to the mix, including overdubbed and
wholly gratuitous harp plucking and absurdly dramatic organ grinding. There is
a pause for a guitar bridge done in a kind of 1960s style “rave up,” which is
followed immediately by a chorus of “aahs” that repeats the main theme. All of
this continues to build to a climactic tympani-filled grand finale, followed by
the bubbling, gurgling sound of, evidently, the ship’s going down.
Los Straightjackets version is obviously a send-up of a cheesy movie theme
song. But it is not itself a work of cheese, despite the fact that it is
composed entirely of a series of cheesy clichés. It would be impossible to
appreciate the Los Straightjackets version of the tune without understanding
that it is a parody, and this categorial property is something fixed by the
intentions of the artists. Similarly, although the Celine Dion version is much
more enjoyable understood as a kind of self-parody, this way of appreciating it
is not really a way of appreciating the work itself.
we might reason as follows: for the debate between intentionalists and
anti-intentionalists, the tough cases involve situations where differences in
interpretation arise depending on whether we are guided by our concern for the
artist’s intentions (actual or hypothetical) or by concern for maximal artistic
value. Cheesy art provides a host of easily understandable examples from
popular culture that make this contrast particularly clear. Here are two of
understood as a sweeping epic love story in the tradition of Gone with the
Wind, is facile, tedious and rather embarrassing to watch, but understood
as a self-referential parody of such grandiose pretentions, is a hilarious and
biting satire that is rather enjoyable to watch. “My Heart Will Go On,”
performed by Los Straightjackets, is a painful series of ridiculous clichés if
heard as a reverential cover of the Titanic theme song, but understood
as parody, it is a masterful employment of technical expertise and a brilliant
send-up of a popular culture icon.
an anti-intentionalist might complain these are simply cases in which the
artists’ categorial intentions decide the case by fixing the category to which
the works belong, and anti-intentionalists as well as intentionalists can agree
on this point.
This objection is somewhat off the mark, for the intentions involved in works
of cheese are importantly different from those involved in the ordinary case.
With cheesy art, whether a categorial intention succeeds or not may still be
something that is audience-dependent. To see what I have in mind, consider that
there are further kinds of intentions relevant to cheesy art production, beyond
the categorial ones. Especially important is the kind of intention that is
involved in trying too hard. This intention is at least part of what is
objectionable about pick-up lines and gold chains, and it is part of what makes
them cheesy. Similarly, what makes an essential contribution to the cheesiness
of Australia is that it is so
clearly trying too hard, aspiring to a greatness it can never achieve. The same
is true of another cheesy movie epic, Pearl Harbor.
In such cases, our assessments of artistic value cannot escape reference to
this kind of intention. Even the attribution of a seemingly intrinsic aesthetic
property such as gracefulness can be influenced in the same way. Michael
Brecker and John Coltrane often differ with respect to gracefulness, despite
the fact that cheesy works of the former often incorporate non-cheesy elements
of the latter.
course all of this is, as it should be, largely subjective and
audience-relative. Production of cheesy art involves a failed intention to
produce something original, authentic and moving, but the intention may fail
only for the critically-inclined. Consider what might be one of the great
examples from the history of cheese: the French cheesy art of Francisque
Poulbot, whose early twentieth century works include paintings of weeping
clowns and of little Parisian boys in rags, often depicted peeing in the street
as sign of cute misbehaving.
Poulbot and other popular Montmartre artists
of that time (the practice disappeared with the 1960s) who painted weeping
clowns were driven by the idea that the paradox was interesting, and these
pictures did find their proper audience. Thus, it is important to take into
account the target audience that does enjoy the object and finds it not
cheesy but tasteful, like American consumers of cheese whiz versus the foreign
cheese lover. But the fact that judgments about cheesiness are always going to
be audience-relative does not change the fact that some of the intentions
involved in the production of cheesy art and essential to it are not merely categorial
intentions. At the very least, given the level of contention between
intentionalists and anti-intentionalists, it is not a decisive objection to my
account of cheesiness that it appeals to artists’ intentions. Furthermore,
cases of cheesiness in art provide nice illustrations of some important points
in the debate between intentionalists and their opponents.
The naïve aesthetic theory
art provides straightforward challenges to the naïve aesthetic theory according
to which artistically relevant properties are determined by, or supervene on,
aesthetic properties. This is particularly interesting, as the naïve aesthetic
theory is the one held, implicitly, by the average person on the street, and
yet that same person easily grasps the challenges that cheesy art presents for
that theory. Aesthetically identical works can differ with respect to a variety
of artistically relevant properties, including semantic properties (reference
and meaning) as well as certain metaphysical properties (artistic category,
art-historical context, originality, forgery).
Murray’s cheesy lounge singer parody is a hilarious mocking portrait of an
imagined but aesthetically identical performance that deserves our derision. We
laugh at the one but not at the other, or at least not in the same way or for
the same reasons. Murray pokes fun at an
imagined performer who is trying too hard and failing, but Murray is neither trying too hard nor
failing. One act but not the other is cheesy because they differ in semantic
content, despite the fact that they are, we may suppose, aesthetically
identical. So two artworks may differ with respect to cheesiness and yet be
aesthetically identical. Making the same point in reverse, Ed Wood’s Plan 9
from Outer Space, is a classic of sci-fi cheese, not a brilliant send-up
that cuts against the grain of Hollywood
The paradox of negative art
provides some beautiful cases relevant to the paradox of negative art,
generating what we might call “the paradox of cheese.” Why, given its
cringe-inducing properties, does cheese attract such huge audiences? One
obvious solution would be to claim simply that a positive response compensates
for the negative response produced by cheese.
After all, we might say, Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” has sufficient enjoyable
qualities, aesthetic and non-aesthetic, to overcome whatever cheesiness it
exhibits. Similarly, the target audience of Twilight might find
something compensatory in its response to the cheesy dialog in that book and
movie series. But this seems wrong: the palpable cheesiness of Pat Boone’s
rendition of “Tutti Frutti” surely overwhelms the rest. Further, it would be
implausible in the case of Celine Dion’s several years of sold out shows in Vegas
that the members of her audience perceived any cheesiness at all.
a more sophisticated, or Eudemonian, account might do: the negative response is
genuine, we might say, but it is part of a broader art appreciation picture
involving deeper, cognitively driven satisfactions beyond mere pleasure. But
this seems highly implausible in the case of cheesy art. It seems, rather, that
the attitudes of cheese-inclined audiences of Twilight and Celine are
better captured by the conversionary account according to which the negative
response is turned into a positive one. It is not so much that the cheesiness
is overcome by other, more important qualities, but rather that it disappears
altogether. It is sort of like joining a benign cult: given that no real harm
is done, one converts. Upon conversion, one learns to love Celine Dion. If this
is right, then the radical relativity of cheesiness becomes inescapable. The
artwork can remain the same in all of its cheese-relevant properties and yet
audiences will differ in their responses. Enjoyment of horror films, which also
have cringe-inducing properties, albeit of a very different kind, might be
explained in a similar way.
its ubiquity makes the concept of cheesiness an interesting test-case for all
kinds of aesthetic theories of popular culture. In particular, what I’ve
discussed about the importance to cheesiness of the concepts ‘copy’ and
‘reproduction’ suggests implications for some themes of postmodernist
aesthetics. For example, Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois
Lyotard, and Umberto Eco, among others, discuss a family of notions, including
the iterative and the repetitive, serial production of tokens of one type,
sameness, and simulacra.
the paradoxical combination of the ubiquity of and aversion to cheese in
popular culture appears to count both for and against claims that originality,
authenticity and reality no longer guide aesthetic assessments in the
postmodern age. Ordinary use of the concept of cheesiness exploits these very
notions and their dialectical counterparts. It is a concept impossible to apply
without at least an implicit understanding of the importance of these various
distinctions. Nor should it be claimed that the concept of cheese is simply a
holdover from hierarchical, elitist, and modernist pretentions. Cheesiness
doesn’t really have application inside elitist culture.
is the land of cheese, and the way to consume what it has to offer is to
inauthentically immerse oneself in the not-so-expensive-but-not-so-cheap-either
copies of real things, both artifactual and natural, original and copy. Every
day is a veritable cheese-fest. And yet everyone knows this about Vegas. It is
an escapist paradise that no one would confuse with the real thing. Someone
might enjoy what Vegas has to offer more than the real things themselves, but
no one confuses Vegas with the genuine article either; they just don’t care.
They’ve gone over to the cheese side.
Erik Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org Erik
Anderson is Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Drew University.
Published March 3, 2010
* I borrow the title from the 1991 Primus album
of the same name, Interscope Records.
course this is controversial already. For more on the high art/low art
distinction, see John Andrew Fisher, “High Art versus Low Art,” in Routledge
Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Berys Gaut (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp.
David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Four Dissertations (London:
This strategy applied to aesthetic value is not wholly unlike the one
recommended in the case of ethical value by theorists who favor attention to
“thick” ethical concepts like “cowardly” over “thin” ethical concepts like “bad.” See, for example, Philippa Foot, Virtues
and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1978). Thanks to John Bigelow for this observation.
“Obama’s Win Ushers in New Group,” Susan Page, USA Today, 11 November,
David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986), pp. 60-63; see too Lloyd Humberstone, “Intrinsic/Extrinsic,” Synthese,
108 (1996), 205-267.
Paul Geach, God
and the Soul (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) pp.