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A Defense of Christian Kitsch

Christians ought to pause before accepting the view that kitsch is trashy.

The term kitsch is usually intended as an insult. To call a painting or a musical composition or a piece of decorative art “kitschy” suggests that it’s crude, cheap, unsophisticated, unoriginal, mass-produced, and above all sentimental. It’s Norman Rockwell’s urchins, Soviet-era statues of heroic workers, angels and kittens (especially together), velvet Elvises, flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark, and Kylie Minogue. And, it’s the crucified coat hanger and the Sacred Heart you can see on this page.

Such things lack, above all else, nuance. They leave no doubt about how you should respond to them, and they don’t invite varied interpretations. You sigh with warm sadness at the sight of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, or a tear comes to your eye at the thought of hanging your coat on his crucified hands (you’ll probably need to be Catholic for the first and Protestant for the second). You’ll also likely feel, at least for a moment, pleased that you’re the kind of person able to respond in that way.

Kitsch is, by this account, trash; and you, to the extent that you like it, are trashy. You ought to be ashamed of yourself and go to some art appreciation classes at once.

So runs the anti-kitsch argument. It’s usually a finely tuned instrument of class hatred. Those who offer it are typically people who know what kitsch is, don’t like it, and want to educate others out of liking it. They’re rarely far from contempt for kitsch-lovers.

Christians ought to pause before accepting this view of kitsch. Christianity—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—has been and remains among the great generators of kitsch, and that’s because Christianity is and always has been a religion of peasants and proles. Most Christian art is and always has been kitsch: that’s what most Christians like. They—we—like it exactly because it’s nuance-free. The Stations of the Cross, present on the walls of every Catholic church, aren’t subtle and aren’t supposed to be. They’re there to conform you to the bloody sufferings of Christ. The American Protestant praise song (“Jesus is your boyfriend,” it seems usually to be saying, over and over again) is likewise unsubtle, and supposed to be. It’s there to conform you to the love of Christ.

The connoisseur is the kitsch-lover’s opposite number. Connoisseurs cultivate a hushed, detached, analytic gaze; they’re acolytes of the aesthetic and the sublime, and they find kitsch either revolting or pathetic. Their gaze values subtlety, complexity, ambiguity, irony and (above all) novelty, and it is self-satisfied: connoisseurs are pleased to be people who like the rare and beautiful thing, and they tend toward contempt for those too crude, too uneducated, or too simple to be able do so. These attitudes are very far from being acceptable to Christians.

But hasn’t Christianity also been the home of and stimulus for great, non-kitschy art? Haven’t Christians made beautiful as well as kitschy things? Aren’t there connoisseurs among Christians? Yes. And that can be celebrated, too, if you’re among the tiny minority of Christians to have a care for it. But let’s be clear that it’s not the main event. The main event in Christian art is kitsch, which is exactly as it should be. Among Christians, connoisseurs have much more to learn from kitsch-lovers than the other way around.

Can we then not make distinctions between the beautiful and the kitschy, between the Sacred Heart reproduced here and Rublev’s icons? Can we not say that Christian high art is more beautiful than what you’ll find in the souvenir stores of Lourdes or in the Precious Moments™ catalog? We can say this, and even argue for it; but it’s not easy (it raises some of the most difficult questions in the philosophy and theology of art), and attempting it is a hobby for the leisured few. The connoisseur is at the margins of the sacred page, if there at all; what kitsch-producers and kitsch-lovers do is, by contrast, at the center.

This is a fallen world. Kitsch-love and connoisseurship both have their deformities. But the former is much closer to Jesus’ beating heart than the latter.

Opening image: “Coat Hanger (Jesus Welcomes You),” by Oscar Perez,