Christian Kitsch #6: Painting
According to philosopher Alain Badiou, the twentieth century was the century the arts went avant grade. He writes, “Painting was an avant-garde art and only ceases to be so at that crepuscular moment when it is introduced into museums.” Most of us know that painting was the subject of almost endless innovation in the earlier half of the twentieth century, which spilled over somewhat into the second half as well. Movements from post-impressionism to cubism to suprematism, abstraction, expressionism, abstract expressionism, Surrealism, and the like all attempted to push the medium to the peak of its powers, producing innumerable great works which now hang dead in museums. To think of the painting of the last century is to think of bold artists putting their brushes to the work of revolution, smashing what came before and redefining their art. Even today, when painting has fallen from its formerly supreme position as the most honored art form, works of oil on canvas continue to inspire, bringing the joy of beauty and the terror of decay to millions of eyes every day.
Of course, that is not what we are discussing here. We are going to be discussing Jesus in boxing shorts.
Religious painting has a long and illustrious history, with many stirring pieces still being produced, albeit at a much slower clip than before. Consider most of the entire Western painting tradition, especially before the Enlightenment, was religious in nature. Even most of the great humanistic works of the Classical revival during the Renaissance were Christian. We have to acknowledge, however, that times have changed. High art culture is no longer a Christian culture, and the latter is now largely relegated to the production of terrible, terrible kitsch. This is kitsch that exists as a blasphemous outgrowth of a beautiful tradition–I find it hilarious precisely because it steals the solemnity and much of the iconography of good Christian art while completely destroying everything dear to good taste.
Stephen Sawyer is the vandal responsible for both of the paintings you see above. His vision of Jesus is a mix of old and new, drawing on the white-guy tradition of iconography and sacred art while adding a few hypodermic needles’ worth of testosterone while he’s at it. Long flowing locks and steely blue eyes abound, along with those gym-toned muscles Jesus surely spent his years between infancy and age thirty sculpting and perfecting. This brand of “relatable” everyman Jesus is one staple of the age of Christian Kitsch. People need to see Jesus as one of the (white) people, a patron of the masses, if you will. But accomplishing that is difficult, since you also need to keep people fully aware that Jesus is G-O-D, possessor of immense magical powers and son of the Most High. Liberal application of halo lighting is required, along with the depiction of an ideal physique. As a wise pastor from Seattle once said, “I wouldn’t worship a God I could beat up.” Sawyer has just enough HDH in his palette to make this God worthy of obedience.
The two other major categories in the sacred kitsch genre are the Biblical illustration and the Patriotic Inspirational. For an example of the former, we go to dear Nathan Greene, whose work has become well-known because of a certain comedy website. Greene’s The Introduction is of particular note because it seeks to capture a pivotal moment in history–the moment of humanity’s creation. Of course, Adam is already there, but you need two to tango, as they say, and the modern dance scene would not be nearly as exciting without multiple humans to liven things up.
Note that in the Biblical story, God brings all the animals past Adam before deciding on another human as a suitable companion. I have it on good authority, in fact, that in the Talmudic tradition Adam was involved with these other animals carnally before this scene took place.¹ That might explain that tiger’s sultry pose. After all, even Yahweh knows that you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it, though the thought of Adam attempting to couple with, say, a porcupine makes the entire story just a tad more wince-inducing. Luckily, Eve is right there, wearing nothing but odd green blotches because the fern the painter put in front of her nudity just wasn’t doing the job. Her hubby, meanwhile, has enlisted a fine-looking tigress as his cover. She reminds me of a friend I once had, other than that my friend was shot and skinned by poachers and her bones were pilfered for the Guangzhou medicine markets.
That brings us to the most critical question about this painting: what must the primeval couple be thinking of the weird cloth garments Jesus is wearing? Wouldn’t it have been more culturally sensitive of Our Lord to go naked as well? No wonder Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nudity when Jesus himself is prancing around in a glowing white robe everywhere. That’s bound to cause some fashion envy.
Finally, we come to Patriotism, the domain of painters with a more edgy and political message to bring to the people of greater Christendom. While ideas and policy aren’t their strong suit, artists like Jon McNaughton more than make up for it in sheer phantasmagorical, even transcendent ridiculousness.
Behold One Nation Under God, the work of a man possessed by pride in his country, faith in his God, and an unquenchable passion for gold lamé. In his extensive explanations and defenses of the painting found here, he states, “I wanted to create an image that would instantly be recognizable as Jesus. I am not painting an anthropological Jesus. Nobody would recognize him if I painted him that way.” My guess is that if you painted a clown in that getup holding the U.S. Constitution and ringed his head with a solar halo, people would get the idea. Of course, he’s got me covered here as well, talking about how blogs have distorted his ideas and denigrated his work unfairly. Guilty as charged, but I have no interest in being “fair” or charitable to work like this. And I don’t think I have to spell out just how horrifically this distorts Christianity into the foundations of oppression and nationalism and all that jazz. Let’s just call it here and let Mr. McNaughton continue painting, shall we? If we stay quiet enough, we might just get another blog post out of it.
1. Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan 2012), 134.