[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!
I haven’t posted anything on kitsch lately (that’s the understatement of the year!), but when I saw these tasty nativity scenes I just had to post them. Perhaps they were inspired by Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Who knows?!
This one looks tasty:
This one, on the other hand, would need a lot of mustard:
For just under one hundred dollars you can get a barbie complete with tallit and tefillin. This barbie is in style! She’s uncomfortable in a kippah, so she has a nice beret. A siddur and a hefty Steinsaltz gemara are keeping her busy. You can also get a version with a big Torah scroll and a hard-core Vilna Talmud. Oi vey!
Perhaps what Christians need for Easter is a special “Jesus Tomb” doll set with matching ossuaries?
‘Tis the Season to be Tacky… that’s right, the Kitschmas season is upon us and its time for another installment of Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch highlighting the degradation, commercialization, and trivialization of Christmas.
This post is part of an on-going series on Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch. Perhaps the best place to start is with my fourth post that discusses some of the different academic perspectives of exactly what is â€œkitsch.â€? Other posts include:
This special Christmas season I had the privilege of being interviewed by Bill Radford of the Colorado Spring Gazette about my views on Christmas kitsch. The article, simply entitled, “Merry Kitschmas,” was published today — it is well worth a gander (how’s that for a shameless plug!).
Now back to the kitsch. As expected, this year all the standard pieces of Christmas kitsch are out in full force. While many of the items I highlighted last year are tough to beat, I think there are definitely some items worthy of mention.
Happy Birthday Jesus!
I must confess. One of our family Christmas traditions is to have a birthday cake for Baby Jesus for the kids on Christmas day. We put candles on the cake and the kids sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus” and then help Jesus blow out the candles. Now that I have that off my chest, I never realized how my “Happy Birthday Jesus” paraphernalia there is out there.
“Happy Birthday Jesus” tableware is avaiable from shop.com (but you’ll have to wait until next year as they are all sold out!). But if you don’t want the full meal deal, you can just get some bright neon “Happy Birthday Jesus” cups from the Christian Dollar Store:
The Christian Dollar Store actually has a whole bunch of other “Happy Birthday Jesus” merchandise, so go take a gander.
Speaking of “Baby Jesus,” this “Dear Lord Baby Jesus” prayer scence from the movie Talladega Nights is a must see!
Jesus Loves You Snow Much!
If you don’t want to be outdone by the “Happy Birthday Jesus” crowd, then you also have to get your share of “Jesus Loves You Snow Much” stuff.
Not to be outdone in sheer cheesiness, you can also get a bunch of “Jingle for Jesus” wear, including a baseball cap, among other things:
The Cavalcade of Animal Nativities
The blog for “Generation – Young Canadian Anglicans” is hosting a humorous cavalcade of bad nativities this year (a number of which I already highlighted last year, like the mega-sized inflatable nativity, the troll nativity, and — one of my favourites — the belt buckle nativity).
They did manage to find a number of mind-numbing animal nativities, including dogs, owls, and chickens.
Canadians will be happy to know that there is a moose nativity, while Austrailians will think the koala nativity is just crickey!
They missed, however, the cat and the bear nativity sets:
Since we have a couple pet bunnies, I was disappointed not to find any bunny rabbit nativity sets.
These are all avalailble, by the way, from Our American Heritage. (HT to Bob Derrenbacker for the Young Canadian Anglican site)
Papal Tree Ornaments
My Catholic readers will be happy to know that you can purchase Papal tree ornaments featuring Pope John Paul II (HT Ship of Fools):
A suburban Los Angeles company offered to donate 4,000 of the foot-tall dolls, which quote Bible verses, for distribution to needy children this holiday season. The battery-powered Jesus is one of several dolls manufactured by one2believe, a division of the Valencia-based Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co., based on Biblical figures.
But the charity balked because of the dolls’ religious nature.
Toys are donated to kids based on financial need and “we don’t know anything about their background, their religious affiliations,” said Bill Grein, vice president of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, in Quantico, Va.
As a government entity, Marines “don’t profess one religion over another,” Grein said Tuesday. “We can’t take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family.”
Michael La Roe, director of business development for both companies, said the charity’s decision left him “surprised and disappointed.”
“The idea was for them to be three-dimensional teaching tools for kids,” La Roe said. “I believe as a churchgoing person, anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the Bible.”
This doll was featured in my previous post “Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch 7 – Jesus Kitsch” and has fully articulated limbs, including hands and fingers that can gasp and hold. This “Messenger of Faith” comes with hand-sewn cloth outfits and sandals and quotes over a minute of Bible verses (John 3:16; Mark 12:30-31; John 3:3, 15:5, 20:29 — listen for yourself).
To top it all off, this Jesus looks kind of buff! While Talmida thinks the doll looks like George Michael, I think he looks more like country star Billy Ray Cyrus.
This won’t be a full edition of Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch, but when I saw this sweet pantheon of Chocolate Deities, I just had to post it (for other editions of Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch see here).
I thought about a number of different smart remarks when I first saw these: “I wonder if this is what George Harrison meant by ‘my sweet lord’?” or “Taking up your cross has never been so tasty.”
Here is the website’s descriptions of these divine delicacies:
Hand Made Gourmet Chocolates that celebrate the gods and goddesses of love and luxury, joy and happiness, compassion, peace and serenity, healing, and fertility of the body and imagination. We honor those deities who long for sweet offerings and embrace the notion that chocolate has powers to transport and inspire beyond mere consumables. All chocolates are made to order on the day you order them to ensure their freshness.
I especially liked these product endorsements: “These Chocolates are a godsend! They are artistic, meaningful AND delicious!” or “Many people worship the Buddha. Many people worship chocolate. Now you can do both at the same time.”
Here are a few of the delectable deities, starting with the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Not sure if these are Kosher, but my Jewish readers may enjoy muching on a Chocolate Star of David:
For Christians, there are crosses and sacred hearts, but sadly, no crucifixes:
Moving to the eastern religions, you find a whole panoply of pleasing gods, including Buddha, Krishna, and symbols like the Yin/Yang:
There are many more Chocolate Deities available, including gods from native religion and other ancient gods and goddesses — take a look for yourself.
I wouldn’t think that religious jokes and puppets mix, but I have been proved wrong by those over at Beliefnet.com, who have daily jokes told by puppets (which you can view via video). And not just any puppets — these are puppets from different religious backgrounds with all the appropriate (stereotypical) garb. The Jewish Rabbi is wearing a yarmulke and a tallit, the Catholic nun is in full habit, the Muslim Iman comes complete with a kufi hat, and the Hindu guru has wild hair. The puppet troupe is called the Jovialites and you can even help name each of the characters.
I haven’t posted in my “Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch” series for a while, so when I saw the first item below I knew I just had to put together a special “Jesus Kitsch” issue!
This post is part of an on-going series on Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch. Perhaps the best place to start is with my fourth post that discusses some of the different academic perspectives of exactly what is “kitsch.” Other posts include:
The category of “Jesus kitsch” is enormous. There is probably more Christian merchandise focusing on the person of Jesus Christ than anything else. Like all kitsch, what one considers kitsch is a matter of perspective (one person’s art is another person’s kitsch), though I think that many would agree that most of what I highlight below is rather “kitschy.”
“Jesus Welcomes You” Coat Hanger
I usually would save the most outrageous piece of kitsch for the last, but this time I can’t help but start with it! I don’t think that there is anything that beats the “Jesus Welcomes You” Coat Hanger for its “kitschiness” (is that a word?). I’m not sure what I would think if I actually went somewhere and had to hang my coat up on the spikes through Jesus’ hand — even the available colours scream “kitsch!” (Of course, the nails should probably be through the wrist to be authentic!)
This is the work of artist Oscar Perez, and as such highlights the fuzzy boundary between art and kitsch. He notes that “this coat hanger can hang two items, a coat or jacket from the fingers and a hat or a light jacket from the nine inch nail.” The coat hangers are available for purchase, though they cost $200 USD each or $500 for the set — somthing else that highlights their status as art. The artist has plans for matching right hand coat hangers as well as a crown of thorns hat rack!
“By His Stripes We Are Healed…”
Next time your kid gets a scratch, forget about putting a Dora or Spiderman bandage on it! Instead, you can put a Jesus Adhesive Bandage on it and let the Lord heal the boo-boo.
These bandages are courtesy of Archie McPhee, the maker of many other Jesus novelties (see below) as well as nifty “bacon bandages.”
G.I. Joe, Move Over…
G.I. Joe is nothing compared to this Jesus Action Figure! This Lord of all action figures stands 5 inches tall and has poseable arms and wheels in the base for smooth gliding action.
“Everyone has a different take on Jesus. Muslims saw him as a prophet; Buddhists say he was enlightened; Hindus consider him an avatar (the incarnation of a deity in human form) while Christians hail him as the Son of God. But, wherever your theological compass points, you will agree that this is the coolest action figure since G.I. Joe.” Once again, this comes from none other than Archie McPhee.
You Talking to Me? While poseable arms are OK, if you really want your child to know the love of God, you really need to get him or her a Talking Jesus Doll. With this “Messenger of Faith,” your children can learn important Bible stories and Scripture in a fun, entertaining way!
This doll is a foot tall and has fully articulated limbs, including hands and fingers that can gasp and hold. It comes with hand-sewn cloth outfits and sandals and quotes over a minute of Bible verses (John 3:16; Mark 12:30-31; John 3:3, 15:5, 20:29 — listen for yourself). To top it all off, this Jesus looks kind of buff!
This one recites the ten commandments (the Protestant version, of course!) in a very, very, deep voice that sounds more like the stern God of the Old Testament than the loving Son of God! Listen for yourself.
On the Road Again
According to the Bible, Jesus is with us until the end of the age. With this Dashboard Jesus you get a tangible reminder of His presence while you drive.
This dashboard Jesus will keep you company for your long drives, courtesy of Archie McPhee!
Jesus: The FreshMaker Strange odour in your car? Forget those pine tree scented air fresheners. Let this Jesus Air Freshener cleanse your car with “the sweet scent of ‘Purification!’” (Hmmm… what exactly does “purification” smell like? Lysol?)
Each freshener measures about 4 inches and comes with a string for hanging from your rear view mirror. And you guessed it — it is available from Archie McPhee!
Jesus is no Pan-theist! Don’t feel left out when everyone else is seeing images of Jesus — just create your own loaf of Jesus bread with this Jesus Pan. You can worship at every meal with this durable steel Jesus pan. And don’t worry about anointing it — your holy hotcakes will drop off this no-fuss, no-stick pan.
Order two today! (HT Edmund Ho) Check Out This Jesus!
These Son of God Checks are just divine! (But spelled incorrectly — it should be “cheques” as us civilized Canadians spell it!)
Just think how you could witness the love of God every time you bounce a cheque!
Jesus is My Coach
No Greco-roman wrestling for Jesus — he plays the same sports your kids play! Your favorite young sports enthusiast will enjoy receiving one of these statues, which feature Jesus playing a popular sport with the children He loves! Choose from Jesus playing many sports including hockey, baseball basketball, and more. The statues stand about 6 inches tall and are available from CatholicSupply.com.
My favourite is the basketball Jesus, since it looks as it Jesus is teasing the kids by not giving them the ball! And why don’t the kids have hockey helmets on? Oh, I see, they must be following Jesus’ bad example of not wearing a hockey helmet! (If you ever wondered how Jesus may have played with others as a child, check out here).
Every wanted to dress Jesus up in a coconut bra and grass skirt? Ballet outfit? A dress? (If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you really do need help!). What you need, then, is a Magnetic Jesus Fridge Magnet set. There are over thirty different articles of clothing to choose from. Mix and match hundreds of different combinations.
You can also get a special Christmas Edition as well as a “Final Justice” edition where you can crucify notorious villains all by yourself.
Got Any Smokes?
How would you like to be butting out your cigarette on Jesus’ face with “Jesus hates it when you smoke” printed just below his portrait? If you want to quit smoking or know someone who may need some divine encouragement, check out this Jesus Ashtray.
Well, that’s about it for this special “Jesus Kitsch” edition of Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch. Hope you enjoyed it!