20th October 2005
I’ve been asked by some readers “What is ‘Kitsch’?” In this post I will attempt to define it, or more accurately, I will show some ways that it has been used in the discussion of religion & popular culture. I should say at the onset that much of my thoughts on kitsch have been formed in part by the following books:
- Colleen McDannell. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. Yale University Press, 1995. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
- Frank Brown. Good Taste, Bad Taste, & Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2003. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
- Betty Spackman. A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch. Piquant editions, 2005. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
- Vincent Miller. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum, 2004. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
McDannell’s work is perhaps the classic work on the material culture of different religions from an outsider religious studies perspective, while Brown’s monograph focuses more on the aesthetics of taste. I have not had a chance to examine Spackerman’s work yet, though it looks intriguing. Miller’s absolutely excellent work is an analysis of the effect of advanced capitalism on religion, especially on the effects of the commodification of religion in our culture.
While I am primarily interested in “Christian” kitsch, all religions have their own material culture, and consequently their own kitsch. There are many examples of “Judaikitsch,” Islamic kitsch, and kitsch from eastern religions. Thus you can buy Mitsvah Bears, Krishnah action figures (as well as Shiva and Buddah), or “I Love Allah” rulers.
What is “Kitsch”?
The term “kitsch” gained popularly by the 1930s when it was used to describe poor art. While the etymology of the word is unclear, many suggest the term was coined by German painters during the mid-1800s to deride the cheap “tourist art” bought in Munich (Kitschen with the sense “to make cheap”). Thus, the term “kitsch” is used by many to denote trivial literature, low quality materials, sentimental arts, or vulgar merchandise. Beyond this, McDannell finds that there are three distinct ways or approaches that scholars, artists, and cultural critics use the term “kitsch”: cultural, aesthetic, and ethical.
A Cultural Approach
Sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies specialists note that for many the term “kitsch” is pejorative and reflects a cultural bias. In contrast to this understanding of the term, proponents of this perspective understand kitsch as a reflection of educational and economic levels, among other things. Thus Bourdieu notes, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” One person’s art will be another person’s kitsch.
Every social group has its own artistic expression that include a system of aesthetics with its own internal logic and we should not judge one group’s material culture by the standard’s of another.
An Aesthetic Response
Artists and cultural critics are not as forgiving as social scientists, and some tend to see kitsch as mass produced and inferior art, a cheap imitation of good art.
This approach places kitsch as a subset of art — it tries to be art, but it ultimately fails. Some proponents of ths approach understand this low quality art as an attempt to identify with the “real art” of the upper classes. Thus, kitsch required the existence of a mature cultural tradition from which inferior copies could be made (Greenberg). Of course, this approach begs the question of who gets to decide what is real art and what is not!
An Ethical Response: Kitsch as Anti-art
A final approach to kitsch understands it as containing a negative moral dimension. It holds that art should reflect the true, the good, and the beautiful — and kitsch does not. “Art, then, is, in its own way — no less than theology — a revelation of the Divine” (Lindsay). If this is the case, then kitsch is “the element of evil in the value system of art” (Broch). For example, the ability of kitsch to “sentimentalize the infinite” has ethical connotations as it reduces something meaningful to a bauble and divorces it from its original meaning-providing context. I can’t help but think of all of the “Precious Moments” figurines that elicit an “aww… isn’t that cute” response.
Kitsch and Commodification
The rise of Christian retailing in the 19th and 20th centuries added a new dimension to the whole kitsch debate. While “Jesus junk” has its origins in the 1800s, it exploded with the development of advanced capitalism in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the sales of Christian products exceeded 3 billion annually — and that’s just in the United States! Advanced capitalism, with its outsourcing, niche marketing, and new marketing and advertising techniques has clearly demonstrated that anything — absolutely anything — can become a commodity. This results in the reduction of beliefs, symbols, and religious practices into “free-floating signifiers” to be consumed like anything else. The result is the proliferation of what some would consider “kitsch.”
I have sympathies for all of the approaches to kitsch noted above. The more neutral social-scientific study of kitsch is crucial for understanding the material culture of different groups within Christianity. This I believe has to be the first step in any analysis of kitsch. In regards to the aesthetic approach, I think it is very difficult to maintain a rigid dualism between good art and kitsch — especially in the light of blurred distinctions between camp, pop art, hyper-realism, and even kitsch art.
But when I put on the hat of a theologian and take an “insider” perspective, I find it difficult to maintain neutrality. But rather than take an ethical stance based on some idea of aesthetics, I would base my ethical repsonse based on the affect of advanced capitalism on Christianity. In this sense, I am more concerned with the commodification that much of Christian kitsch represents, than with any evaluation of its artistic merit. I can’t help but think that much of what I would consider “kitsch” devalues and cheapens Christianity (or Judaism, Islam, Hinudism, or any religion) by taking it out of its faith context and reducing it to a product to be consumed like anything else. But then again, I could be wrong!