Saturday, October 22, 2011

Christian Kitsch

Kitsch.  Defined as an inferior form of art, a tasteless or defective copy of an existing piece or style of art. Kitsch tends to take that which is iconic and make it trivial and common with cheap mass-produced objects that are both unoriginal and sentimental.

Catholic kitsch is easy to spot.  Open the pages of nearly every church supply house and you find tacky rosaries, art works, gauche crucifixes, plaques that plague us with all sorts of trite and trivial sentiments, etc.  The Romans may excel at this but Protestants are not immune from it either.  Visit any individual or chain Christian or Bible book store and you will have abundant examples of the genre.

Sadly, kitsch does not only exist on the walls of the well meaning, it happens in churches as well.  It happens in the liturgy.  It is the poorly chosen choir anthem or the throw away hymn that is cool today and lukewarm tomorrow...  It is vestments that embarrass rather inspire, children's sermons that are meant more for America's Funniest Home Videos than the faithful, PowerPoint because we have the technology rather than for salutary purpose...

Some find it rather benign.  I once thought that way.  Like the Elvis on velour, it was something better ignored than noticed.  I don't think that way anymore.  Kitsch has diluted and distracted what is real and genuine.  It has contributed to the sense of the moment, lost from the frame of time, without reference to that which went before or the best to be commended.  Kitsch has come to define what Christianity is for too many people tired of well meaning but tasteless analogies that do not teach, or at least, do not teach well.  The singing group Lost and Found once had a lyric in which they likened their parent's church to the YMCA -- devoid of mystery or presence or eternity.  They rejected such plastic portrayals of Christianity and insisted that they wanted the real palms and wine of something that was an is real instead of pale imitation, a symbol instead of sacrament.

I wonder if we don't drive off as many folks with the kitsch we tolerate as we do the other factors so often named by those who pay attention to those who leave.  Honest ritual and ceremony is not an end but that which points to what it the end, or should I say, Who is the end.  Our kids are being run off the real religion of the cross with a fake and tacky religion of sentiment without power, feeling without fact, and reality stripped of mystery.  We explain everything away so that there is nothing left to behold.  We throw out reasonableness as if God were merely a riddle to be solved and religion mere morality or path to your better life now.

I enjoy art and humorous art and good copies of great art.  But I get sick at the thought that Santa kneeling at the manger is what we have come to or that the best we can offer our people is a Beanie Baby Nativity Set.  Yes, Christmas seems to bring out the worst in us.  I am not appealing to taste but to that which is authentic, real, and true to the faith.  When St. Paul calls us to focus on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things, he is not appealing to taste or speaking snobbishly.  He is appealing to us to offer our best, to seek the best, and to honor what is good for its goodness.  Our kids are calling us out.  They do not want trash.  They want reality.  If we believe that Jesus is more than a metaphor, let us give them the reality that is Jesus... in word, in action, in art, in worship, in song...  In the end we will also be the better for it.  Really.  We will.


Anonymous said...

Kitsch, annoying and embarrassing though it may be, actually requires greater technical skill to execute than much of what is lauded in our great national galleries. So, while the subject matter is rather incongruent, it is at least recognizable unlike the grotesque and expensive, gauche and gruesome products that inexplicably garner critical acclaim from the alleged intelligentsia.

Janis Williams said...

The "expensive, gauche and gruesome" are not products. I don't agree with some of the horrible things done in the name of Art. At the same time, the mentality of most (not all) of the world's great artists carries a far greater understanding of truth and beauty than the average person cranking out kitsch.

Kitsch and Schlock, while generally more representational ('at least recognizable') are making the popular 'artists' far more dollars than many artists who have that critical acclaim. I could name several, but won't.

Critical acclaim does not make good art. There are approximately 10,000 of the so called intelligentsia worldwide who can make or break an artist. They can bring even mediocre artists to national or global acclaim. That is to say there are many artists who go unnoticed by the art world. They are not all representational artists by any stretch of the imagination,

I am a watercolorist, and while much of my work is representational (the stuff that sells), I do create non-representational work. This is mainly art for myself and my Creator, as most people won't attempt to understand or appreciate it.

If you want to understand how a believer should see the fine arts, I suggest you read Francis Schaeffer's old book, 'Art and the Bible.' For a couple of more modern books, Phillip Graham Ryken's 'Art For God's Sake' or Gene Edward Vieth's 'State of the Arts' give a Presbyterian minister's and Lutheran educator's perspective.

Art is a gift of God. To crank out Kitsch because it's easy (yes, for some people, it's not a technical hurdle) or makes money is not honoring the gift or the Creator of the gift.

Sorry if I sound miffed; I'm not. Just a frustrated artist who wished more of popular culture made an effort to understand.

BTW, in case you might have Picasso in mind: He made abstract paintings, but was fully capable of meeting in a room with a model for 10 minutes, leaving the room, and then painting that model perfectly (representationally).

Sage said...

Janis, thank you.