Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild
Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:
The term [kitsch] 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.
In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink. Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.
Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.
Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.
None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.
At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:
1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?
2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?
Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.
As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.
This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.
I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.