[I have an abiding interest in kitsch and this post provides some theoretical background into kitsch. Originally posted 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:
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!
In my sad post lamenting the fact that Edmonton was not among the first North American cities for the U2360° Tour, I begged Bono and the Edge (sorry Larry and Adam, but I didn’t think you had the pull) to reconsider and make Edmonton one of the stops, and I am pleased to announce that they listened to me and U2 is coming to Edmonton 23 June 2010!
Presales start tomorrow and I can buy my tickets Wednesday at 10:00 am. Tickets are available to the public 2 November 2009.
If last night’s Rose Bowl show was any indication, it is going to be a great night on 23 June 2010! I can’t wait!
20th Century Fox has announced that they will be remaking The Ten Commandments in the style of “300“! I am not sure of what to make of this. “300″ was a visually stunning — if not ultra violent — film, but I can’t imagine what they would do to the story of the Exodus from Egypt to make it work. Here is a snippet from the announcement in Variety:
For his first significant film project acquisition, Peter Chernin is taking on a project of Biblical proportions.
20th Century Fox has made a preemptive acquisition of a pitch to tell the story of Moses in “300″ style. The tale will start with his near death as an infant to his adoption into the Egyptian royal family, his defiance of the Pharoah and deliverance of the Hebrews from enslavement.
Chernin will produce with Dylan Clark, who recently moved over from Universal to become president of Chernin’s Fox-based film company.
The script will be written by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who make this their followup to a high-level deal they made to reinvent Herman Melville”s “Moby Dick,” with a graphic novel feel, for director Timur Bekmambetov and producer Scott Stuber at Universal. That script is in, the extensive pre-visualization work is done. It could be Bekmambetov’s next film, if “Wanted 2″ doesn’t come together first.
The Moses story will be told using the same green screen strategy as “300,” so it will feel more like that pic or “Braveheart” than “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film.
The popular mythical and magical elements inherent in the Book of Exodus will be there–including the plagues visited upon Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea–but the Cooper & Collage version will also include new elements of Moses’ life that the writers culled from Rabbinical Midrash and other historical sources.
I can just imagine it… Moses shouting out, “THIS is YAHWEH!” or perhaps “THIS is COMMANDMENT!”
The DVD of the first — and last — season of NBC’s biblical drama, Kings, was released yesterday (Michael Green, 2009; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). The thirteen episode series is a modernized and very creative retelling of the biblical story of the reign of King Saul and the rise to power of King David found in the books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.
The series opens with a young man being called into his rustic farmhouse to watch on TV the dedication ceremonies of a new capital city. This young man is David Shepherd. The scene then shifts to what appears to be the royal palace in Shiloh, the new capital of the Kingdom of Gilboa. The city has all the trappings of a modern city, yet is ruled by a benevolent monarch, King Silas Benjamin (played wonderfully by Ian McShane). King Silas addresses his people and forthrightly expounds on God’s blessing upon Gilboa, its new capital Shiloh, and upon his kingship.
The series narrates the rise of a naive David, initially through his heroic blowing up of a “Goliath” tank, and the demise of Silas, and slowly becomes a tyrant who has lost the favour of God.
There is much more I could say about this TV series, such as the clever way it harmonizes the problematic introduction of David to Saul in the Bible (did David first come to Saul’s attention as the boy who defeated Goliath or the young musician whose playing soothed Saul’s tormented spirit — see 1Samuel 16 and 17) in episode 8, or how it portrays the subtle intrigue within the royal court (which is present in between the verses of the biblical text, although most devout readers miss it).
All in all I found the series quite engaging. Its look is lavish, the dialogue is clever and intriguing. It doesn’t follow the story of David and Saul slavishly, but is a very creative adaptation that is both faithful to the contours of the biblical text, yet doesn’t fear to push the envelop in controversial ways (such as the closeted homosexuality of King Silas’s son and heir apparent, Jack Benjamin).
The first season ends with King Silas surviving a failed coup and David fleeing for his life into Gath. Unfortunately, because Kings got cancelled, we will never see how the series presents the eventual rise of David Shepherd to the throne.
If you haven’t heard of the popular novel The Shack (Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), then you must have been living in a cave for the last two years. William P. Young’s bestselling novel about a man’s encounter with the Triune God one weekend has touched the hearts and minds of millions of readers. It has also raised the ire of a few theologians and self-appointed guardians of the faith.
The Shack is by no means perfect. As a novel it has weak dialogue and doesn’t quite hang together as it should. As a novel that explores some important theological questions about God, the Trinity, and suffering, it also has some weaknesses. Despite its weaknesses, this unassuming novel has elicited more theological discussion and reflection than any recent academic work of theology. While this work has raised many questions it is a bit short on answers; or at least the answers it provides at times only scratch the surface of some complex theological topics. What would be helpful is a theological guide to The Shack.
This is exactly what my colleague and friend, Randal Rauser has written with his just published volume, Finding God in The Shack (Paternoster, 2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). In seven short chapters, Rauser explores a number of the theological issues raised by The Shack, including the provocative portrayal of God the Father as an African-American woman and the Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman (Sarayu), the nature of the relationship between members of the Trinity (hierarchical or egalitarian?), and the problems raised by the existence of horrendous evil in the world. In each of these discussions Rauser begins with the novel and then explores the theological questions raised by the book in an engaging and accessible way. In addition, each chapter ends with questions for further reflection.
Eugene Peterson’s blurb on the back cover of Finding God in the Shack is as good as an endorsement you’ll find anywhere:
If you have ever had a conversation on The Shack, whether with an enthusiast or a critic, you will want to invite this skilled and accessible theologian into the conversation. Before you have read a dozen pages you will know why we need to keep company with theologians. They help us keep our conversation on God intelligent, informed, and irenic.
If you have read The Shack and want to explore some of the issues raised by the novel in more detail, I encourage you to pick up Rauser’s book. It will help you navigate through some of the deep theological waters raised by the novel.
Interestingly, Roger Olson has also just published a book with the same title from InterVarsity Press: Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption (2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).
U2 just announced the dates and locations for their worldwide tour. The tour, called the U2360° Tour, is starting in Ireland and then stopping for one show in London before hitting Europe. The North American leg of the tour is next, with two Canadian dates: Toronto (16 September 2009) and Vancouver (28 October 2009).
Unfortunately, the tour is not making a stop in Edmonton, even though we have the largest permanent capacity outdoor stadium in Canada (it can hold over 62,000). The stadium, called Commonwealth Stadium in honour the the 1978 Commonwealth Games for which it was constructed, also has the largest and most advanced video screen JumboTron in the world. U2 has played Commonwealth Stadium on June 14, 1997 for the Popmart Tour (just before I moved back to Edmonton).There are actually a number of cool YouTube videos of this concert.
If Bono and the Edge are reading this (and I am sure they are), I am begging you to reconsider: Make Edmonton one of your stops!!! You won’t regret it!
If they don’t add an Edmonton date, I guess I will be heading to Toronto or Vancouver in the fall!
I decided to dub this “U2 Week” in honour of U2 releasing their new album, No Line On the Horizon, on Tuesday 3 March 2009. You probably also have heard that U2 was on Late Show with David Letterman all this week and that they even had a street in NY temporarily named “U2 Way.” They were also guests on Good Morning America this morning.
The “Top Ten” highlights from “U2 Week” for me were the following:
10. Larry Mullen, Jr’s brief interview at the NY Knicks Game (4 March 2009)
7. U2 on the Tom Snider Show from 1981. OK, I know this isn’t from this week, but I did watch it this week. It is quite a blast from the past with The Edge with almost a full head of hair. This is during U2′s first US tour for their first album, Boy.
5. Breaking news that U2 already has another album release planned. According to @U2, the band is planning on releasing “Songs of Ascent” in 2010. Here is an excerpt from the post on @U2:
Bono tells Rolling Stone magazine that U2′s next studio album will be called “Songs Of Ascent,” it’ll be released in 2010, and that “Every Breaking Wave” will be the first single — a “surging anthem.” And here’s a choice Bono quote about the next album: “Songs Of Ascent will be quieter than No Line in many ways, it’s that ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing. We’re making a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflexive piece of work, but not indulgent.”
They [80s bands like U2] were all born out of the embers of punk and new wave and they’ve retained that restless, adventurous, questing spirit. Punk may have become a debased cultural currency now (and it was responsible for some terrible bands at the time) but its enduring ideals have been responsible for some of the finest music of the last 30 years. Bands from the most ridiculed of decades are still pushing on, unafraid of change and trying something new, making some of the best music of their creative lives. The Rolling who?
3. U2′s performance of “Magnificent” on the Late Show. I Really, REALLY, like this song.
I have had a chance to listen to U2′s new album, No Line on the Horizon, a number of times. I’m not sure if this will be my favourite U2 album, but I quite like it. Some songs remind me of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, while others could be off of U2′s more experimental albums like Pop or Zooropa. Here are some of my initial impressions on the individual tracks:
No Line on the Horizon (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 4:12). I really like sound and feel of the title track — especially Bono’s soulful raspy voice (although the refrain is a bit awkward).
Magnificent (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 5:24). This is perhaps my favourite song of the album. It is a faith-filled rock anthem that will no doubt become a U2 classic. “Only love / Only love can leave such a mark / But only love / Only love can heal such a scar.”
Moment of Surrender (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 7:24). The haunting lyrics and soulful sound of this song will make it grow on you, as it has me. “I was speeding on the subway / Through the stations of the cross / Every eye looking every other way / Counting down ’til the pain will stop.”
Unknown Caller (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 6:03). This song is kind of catchy, though the lyrics are a bit banal.
I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight (U2; 4:14). A light-hearted song; kind of catchy.
Get on Your Boots (U2; 3:25). As I said in my previous post, this song is a fun romp with Bono taking a break from his political activism (”I don’t want to talk about wars between nations”) and calling us to live in the joy of the moment together (“here’s where we gotta be / love and community / laughter is eternity /if joy is real”).
Stand Up Comedy (U2; 3:50). This song starts out as if it could have been on Zooropa, but then quickly becomes something that would be at home on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Fez – Being Born (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 5:17). No quite sure what to think of this one yet.
White as Snow (traditional, arranged by U2, Eno and Lanois; 4:41). This quiet and intimate song stands out from the rest of the album. According to Bono it is supposed to elicit the feelings of a soldier dying from a roadside bomb in Afganistan. A very moving song.
Breathe (U2; 5:00). No sure what to think of this one.
Cedars of Lebanon (U2, Eno, and Lanois; 4:13). This Pop-eque ballad grows on you.
All in all there is much to like about this album. Like most U2 albums, some songs resonate with you right away, others grow on you as you ponder their lyrics and appreciate their sound. As I mentioned, the album is being released in a number of different packages:
Back in November I announced an academic conference focused on the music and message of the Irish rock band, U2. As it turns out, the conference, “U2: The Hype and the Feedback,” which was supposed to be held in NYC on 13-15 May 2009, has been postponed.The primary reason for the postponement is economic; the university hosting the conference pulled the plug due to projected participant numbers. You can read the full explanation here.
From my perspective this is good news; I couldn’t justify attending the conference considering the questions surrounding my employment situation. But if they re-schedule the conference in a less-expensive location, then I may be able to attend, and perhaps even finagle my way back onto the “U2, Faith, and Justice” panel discussion I was invited to take part in. I only hope that people didn’t already purchase flights for the conference… that could get costly.
As a U2 fan, I am looking forward to the release of U2′s new album, No Line on the Horizon. While the album is slated for release in North American on 3 March 2009, the first single from the album, “Get on your boots,” has been available since mid-January. I’m not sure what I think about “Get on your boots.” I like it, though I don’t think it will be one of my U2 favourties. The song is a fun romp with Bono taking a break from his political activism (“I don’t want to talk about wars between nations”) and calling us to live in the joy of the moment together (“”here’s where we gotta be / love and community / laughter is eternity /if joy is real”).
The official (and somewhat surreal) music video for “Get On Your Boots” can be viewed on YouTube:
The first full review of the album was just published over at Neil McCormick’s Telegraph.co.uk blog. McCormick comes right out and give us his assessment:
It is a great record, and greatness is what rock and roll and the world needs right now. From the grittily urgent yet ethereal title track all the way to the philosophically ruminative, spacey coda of ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ it conjures an extraordinary journey through sound and ideas, a search for soul in a brutal, confusing world, all bound together in narcotic melody and space age pop songs.
What I found most interesting about McCormick’s review is his statement that “To me, it is probably the album ‘Zooropa’ was supposed to be, building on the sonic architecture of classic U2 and taking it into the pop stratosphere.” It seems like what we’re going to be treated to is another example of U2 departing from the easy route and giving us something that is a bit experimental yet retaining enough of the core sound that everyone expects from U2. As someone who loves pretty much all of U2′s albums, including the more experimental albums Zooropa and Pop, I know what I’ll be buying the morning of March 3rd!
I encourage you to read McCormick’s full review (btw, McCormick is a childhood friend of Bono and U2 and author of Killing Bono: I Was Bono’s Doppelganger [Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com] and contributor to U2 By U2 [Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com]).
The album, No Line on the Horizon, is being released in a number of different packages:
Limited Box Set including CD, Film, Hardcover Book, Poster ([Order from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com)
Limited Deluxe Digipak with 32-Page Booklet, Poster and Link to U2 Film ([Order from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com)