Editor’s Note: Christian Kitsch Series Intro
Every once in awhile, Alexius feels down and out, and the words don’t come as readily as he wants. This happens to all of us. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to fill in for him, as I have been trolling the Internet and found just the subject from which to fashion an ongoing series. While most of the culture Alexius and I address on this site consists of art objects from accepted categories–music, film, painting, etc.–much of popular culture is not so elevated. “Christian Kitsch,” as a series, will be oriented around relatively lighthearted reviews of kitsch objects. Focusing on Christian T-shirts, mugs, toasters, jewelry, and the like is natural since it’s the area of kitsch culture with which I am most familiar and qualified to comment on.
For this first post, I want to offer a definition what Christian kitsch is and come up with a couple of reasons why it exists. Kitsch itself is a somewhat nebulous concept, befitting the ephemerality of the objects to which the label applies. The term is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well. According to this analysis, cultural critic Walter Benjamin notes that kitsch “undermines the distinction between art and the utilitarian object,” and, rather than creating a critical distance to allow itself to be an object of sublime observation or intellectual challenge, it is instead superficially intimate and warming.
One of the best examples of this is coffee mugs plastered with phrases like “Best Dad.” They’re objects intended to be utilized for some practical purpose–to hold coffee, for instance–but they also convey easily digestible and “cute” messages that never disturb or cause undue personal reflection. After all, you don’t want the person who receives your coffee mug to be so paralyzed by the messaging of their avant-garde coffee mug that they can’t sip their caffeine in peace. According to Benjamin, kitsch, unlike art that you see in museums, has “100 percent, absolute, and instantaneous availability for consumption.” There is nothing about kitsch that resists or critiques mass production and commodification. Rather, the very nature of these objects is that they offer no barriers to purchase. While you could say with ample justification that “high” art is just as commodified but with a more blue-chip clientele, I think we can still hold up a useful distinction between “real” art and kitsch, even if the line between the two has been intentionally blurred by many artists from Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami to Jeff Koons. Kitsch aesthetics are often fascinating because of their innate appeal, and there is a great deal of critical work to be done in visual art by parsing and screwing with our attraction to such objects.
When considering Christian examples of this phenomenon, one could well ask: if Christianity is supposed to be anti-materialistic, or in some way opposed to or at least aloof from the capitalist order, why is there so much Christian kitsch? Well, Christianity in the United States is, in general, successful in large part because, rather like kitsch objects, it readily identifies with and succumbs to the values of the culture around it. That’s in large part because, as the privileged religious/cultural order in America for centuries, Christianity has had a huge hand in creating American culture as it is now. If Christians want to be critical of American culture, they must be self-critical. But kitsch, as we have established, is not self-critical, and is a material symptom of the wholesale succumbing of Christianity to capitalist values.
This identification is easily justified since, after all, Jesus followers are supposed to spread the message. What’s wrong with letting people know about Jesus with sandals that leave inspirational messages on the ground as you walk? So there’s a utilitarian ethic underpinning much of the marketing and production of these objects. And one could look at Christian kitsch as just another manifestation of religious folk culture, just with a whole new set of amulets, totems, and icons. Rather than warding off evil spirits or winning material favours from a spectral realm, the “rational” consumers of today’s folk objects derive comfort and affirmation from their purchases. Objects made by humans are extensions of the human body, and so these products are basically physical manifestations of how they want to feel on the inside. They reinforce the hormones and neuron pathways that make them feel tingly. They’re doing good work by buying this junk, because anything that uses Jesus’ name in some vaguely “nice” way is good, right?
Issues with idolatry and capitalist exploitation of easy emotional payoffs aside, my fascination with these objects comes from the fact that they are unaware of just how disjunctive the marriage of message and medium is. Because we’re culturally conditioned to see kitsch objects as passive and “innocent” there is a trove of humour to be mined from these objects when they exceed a certain strangeness threshold. These coat hangers, for instance, take a graphic, theologically-loaded act of violence against Christianity’s central figure and transform it into stuff you throw your clothes on after walking in on a cold day. If there were any ironic distance to these, I would call it a good attempt at high art. As it is, though, I can only laugh and shake my head at them because they’re marketed and contextualized as sentimental and innocent. The graphic violence of the crucifixion is so tame and absorbed into the cultural ethos of America that it has lost all inherent meaning except as a signifier of the vaguest “Christian” emotion. I could spin this into a much longer critique about how evangelical Christianity has so emotionalized the Christian narrative to make Jesus palatable and intimate that it’s lost all meaning other than as a false banner for conservative politics and insular group therapy “worship,” but I don’t have the time for now.
While I will certainly be harsh on the kitsch objects I examine in this series, remember that I wouldn’t be writing about these items at all if I didn’t have some kind of gut attraction to it. Manufactured, plasticky knickknacks appeal to me in the same way as they do to other people, because they’re designed to be attractive. It’s only through ironic distance and intellectual consideration that I can summon up the energy to truthfully hate on them. And, even now, laughing at them brings me pleasure. What I want to end on is that simply condemning kitsch doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to understand it, like scientists trying to defeat a sea monster in a B-movie. Without looking at the material conditions in society that produce the desire for these things, we won’t be able to see them for what they are and proceed to comment on them.