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The Age of Glowing Artifice: Against Catholic Kitsch

(Image Source)
(Image Source)

With the release of another predictably vapid World Youth Day “hymn”, the time may be ripe to once again address the problem of “kitsch” in the Catholic Church. The age of glowing artifice has successfully blinded even some of the most faithful, and it’s high time that somebody shot the elephant in the room (poaching laws be damned.)

Kitsch, as an affront to the Magisterium and a mass stupefying phenomenon, acts as a direct impediment to the New Evangelization. It has the power – like the worst of popular culture – to flatten our sensibilities to authentic beauty, downplay sacred tradition, and get non-believers to roll their eyes “knowingly” at what they rightfully perceive as a tasteless aping of their own shining pop icons.

Yet to those fortunate enough not to spend their waking hours thinking about aesthetics and their relationship to theology (or in some cases, losing sleep over it), the question naturally arises: “what exactly is kitsch?” Almost omnipresent in Church life, it is that framed rug wall hanging of the Last Supper, the neon bright saint statue, the “hardcore” Catholic rappers, or a Marian film where the saccharine dialogue reminds one more of an idealized rural Kansas than that of grimy ancient Palestine. It can also come in less obvious forms, like that awful EWTN rendition of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy which sounds like a musical derivative of an awkward high school dance as opposed to a recitation of one of the manliest prayers in the Church.

Kitsch is sentiment over substance; pandering over courageous authenticity.

In a very real sense, kitsch represents a massive crisis not only of Christian taste, but Christian confidence. In Roger Scrutton’s short, sublime, and supremely useful Beauty: A Very Short Introduction,” the aesthetic philosopher writes that:

“Kitsch is a mould that settles over the entire works of a living culture, when people prefer the sensuous trappings of belief to the thing truly believed in. …kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture. The Disneyfication of art is simply one aspect of the Disneyfication of fatih – and both involve a profanation of our highest values. Kitsch, the case of Disney remind us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes…” (p. 159. Emphasis from this author.)

We can line up this brutal overview next to the powerful words of Cardinal Ratzinger, who spoke of great artistic works as a partner to red martyrdom, acting as the chief witnesses of the faith. In speaking of hearing a concert of Bach with a Lutheran friend, he spoke of how clearly the work evinced a sense of the eternal truths upon which it was based. The advent of such great works may be rare, but they are all (knowingly or unknowingly) based on the same foundation which leads a person to die for their faith. In fact given the supreme mastery and truth-certainness of some artworks, there would doubtless be found countless secular thinkers who would sooner die than see one of them damaged or profaned. At the very least, even if a great work is met with uneducated or unfeeling indifference, it will not meet with the telling eye-roll so often inspired by religious kitsch.

Part of this “spiritual disease” arises from a misunderstanding of quality. Christians are apt to think that if they merely produce a “Christian work” of some sort that its Christian-centeredness somehow makes it sufficient. This is the root of so many tragically bad attempts to present some of the most endearing and enduring stories of our tradition, straight down to the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a first maxim to avoid making kitsch or bad Christian art in general, we must commit to the idea that just putting the name of Christ into something sub-par does not automatically bestow it with quality. A powerful recent example may be found in film: the reason a rare Christian work such as Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” was so successful (and actually did bring about mass conversions) – as opposed to countless other homespun efforts which wallow in justified anonymity – is because the director (despite his personal faults) understood that quality had to precede the Gospel message, in much the same way a parent will lovingly make their newborn’s bed before they lay them in it. The filmmaker brought the full force of his craft to the central story of history, and brought with him artists of the highest caliber to bring it to life. Whether or not you quibble with the violence of the film, the final result is a moving icon through which truth speaks – nay, screams in heavenly exultation – to all who behold it. Nor does artistic vision or license interfere with meaning at any point. Only such selfless (and informed) devotion can explain why a film intentionally blacklisted with the full force of Hollywood’s elite machine nonetheless became one of the greatest success stories in cinematic history.

Nor need this be an isolated phenomenon: if we embrace “quality first” as a mantra, and necessarily with it the accompanying fact that Christian art is not a matter for untrained amateurs, we can repeat such successes again and again. We need merely excise the presence of pink wax Padre Pio figures and their equivalents, and embrace the hard but beautifully pregnant possibility of our magisterial legacy.

Idealistic talk aside, how can we do this pragmatically? One way to avoid kitsch and similar aesthetic pitfalls is to label as suspect any talk about “finding the kids where they are,” or “trying something new and fresh.” Such suggestions most often come from those with no real acquaintance with the Church’s aesthetic magisterium, let alone those possessing the intellectual orientation (or humility) to ask advice of somebody who possesses the requisite knowledge and skill (as countless parish “refurbishing” projects can attest to).  For every such conversation taking place about “relevance”, somewhere a group of teenagers is kneeling before the Eucharist and learning to sing the Te Deum, proving false the notions of those who would pander down to them.

We should listen to what they have to say.

Certainly, somewhere there is a grandmother whose home is a shrine to kitsch, and who loves her Lord, would die for Him, and is most certainly paving the way to heaven for the rest of us with her ceaseless prayers. Yet such examples – let alone any individual “liking” of bad religious art and Catholic kitsch – is an insufficient argument for the mass production of it or for its general consumption. And it is certainly in the modern means of “mass production” where kitsch has found its surest friend, even though such things are rendered even more unnecessary by the nearly instant availability of quality in the information age.

At its worst, kitsch has a “preaching to the choir” effect which can hobble the efficient transmission of truth. If we are to “run the race to win,” then it makes no sense to purposefully trip straight out of the gate. Where kitsch takes center stage, the world is right to look on in bemusement, wondering what has possibly gotten into our poor “religiously addled” heads. That is because in the world, even the worst tripe is polished and presented with gleaming perfection. The devil burnishes his messages with care, while those who serve God have grown far too careless with their distribution of the antidote.

Or, in other words, the “shining city on a hill” is not a place made out of neon lights where “We are One Body” plays on repeat. Nor can the presence of good intent make these figurative neon lights shine any brighter.

Imagine now a World Youth Day where instead of some pop-derivatives, a million Catholic youth fell to their knees and lovingly chanted the traditional Chaplet of Divine Mercy, after which they would sing and recite the traditional prayers of the Church during Mass. Imagine that metaphorical Te Deum writ large, from millions of souls at once, as a powerful counter-witness to the soul-flattening culture we are all surrounded with.

It would be at this point that eyes would cease to roll, and more souls begin to take notice of the sublime and eternal truth.

71 thoughts on “The Age of Glowing Artifice: Against Catholic Kitsch”

  1. Mark, it’s not that simple.

    In a “here comes everyone” Church, you will always have kitsch, because most people have no taste. If they did, they’d walk out at the first strains of “All are welcome”. I feel uncomfortable telling people what kind of art they should like; it’s the sort of intellectual snobbery that has infected and motivates the Left in their attempts to improve people’s lives whether they want them improved or not. And kitsch can be fun. I absolutely LOVE “Bring flow’rs of the fairest”. It has no business being sung at Mass, but with an old upright piano, some friends, and whiskey…

    Now, the CHURCH has no business peddling kitsch. The best way of avoiding this is to avoid unnecessary art. Why do we need a World Youth Day Hymn? Don’t we have enough hymns to sing? I recently encountered a non-Catholic who was trying to write the words of an Introit for his church. Hey, we got introits; if you don’t like one setting of the given words, there’s always another. But here too, I have my doubts about whether the Church can mandate taste, or, if it can, whether the cure might be worse than the disease. There’s recently been discussion of whether the USCCB should exercise the imprimateur for new music specified in the GIRM. As composers, do we want the bishops micromanaging our music? (approval of poems for heresy might be a different question).

    • I don’t disagree with you, Jeffrey. I’m just pointing to the “thing that should not be,” as opposed to saying: “like this, don’t like that.” As you yourself say here, there is more than enough quality to go around to prevent any aesthetic fascism from occurring. Furthermore we are bearing the fruits of an aesthetic “anything goes” Church culture precisely because too many are afraid to appear “snobbish” in their taste pronouncements, when they could be advocating for an objective standard outside of the purview of their own artistic egos. (That, and every difficult idea will be meet with name calling and misunderstanding. So be it.) In other words, why would a Catholic musician spend precious years (and dollars, frankly) in their artistic and spiritual formation (all in pursuit of this specialization) only to be afraid of sharing the fruits of what they have learned?

      • I don’t disagree here, Mark. The Church should not be in the business of supporting kitsch. I just think that kitsch, like the poor, we will always have with us, and there’s probably more to be gained in promoting fine art than in denigrating poor art. I’ve heard there are perfectly tasteful services within the Anglican Ordinariate.

          • Exactly.

            “Thus, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street: A Rainy Day is not kitsch, but umbrellas sold at the Art Institute of Chicago decorated with the painting’s reproduction are definitive kitsch”

            And so real masterpieces can be turned in to kitsch. “Van Goth? I love him! i have a Stary Night coffee cup. The Sistine Chapel? That’s my wall paper!….etc, etc.

    • BWAAA HAA! Well said! If good taste is a prerequisite to salvation all those wet eyed grandmas are wasting a lot of time on the devine mercy chaplet.
      There is actually a strange beauty in the humble supplications of the aestheticaly ignorant.

      • I’m still not following how the Divine Mercy Chaplet is even remotely “kitsch.” As to the aesthetically ignorant, I agree with you (my article says as much.) That doesn’t mean that we should take their individual ignorance and mass-reproduce it in glorious plastic.

        • Kitsch has a history and has been subject to classic criticism, such as Greenberg’s and Scruton’s. Given the apparent disagreement here about what is an instance of kitsch, perhaps one should heed Steve Skojec’s for a definition of kitsch (for the purpose of the article) as well as examples both of kitsch and also of works of art and piety that some take for kitsch but are not.

          • I’m about as hesitant to “define” kitsch as I am to “define” good art too specifically, because it risks becoming to strict a guideline and therefore potentially erroneous. One of the great things about art is that it can hold pride of intellectual place in the academy, while resisting the academy’s attempts to define it and box it in.

          • I think no definition of kitsch can be a strict guideline, because people can agree on the definition and disagree on the application. Scruton sees kitsch in: Georgia O’Keeffe, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, the Pre-Raphaelites, Princess Diana, the Novus Ordo Mass, and much else. To these he has “the ‘yuk!’ feeling that is our spontaneous tribute to kitsch in all its forms.”

            But I said before that “I know it when I ‘yuk’ it” is not good criticism, because others like what I yuck and not all I yuck is kitsch. Criticism means accounting for one’s yuckings.

            This is better:

            Kitsch is pretense. But not all pretense is kitsch. Something else is needed to create the sense of intrusion—the un-wanted hand on the knee. Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel [my emphasis].

            This better definition is also not a strict guideline, because people can disagree about what is faked and accepted because it is fake. But with this definition, people can go beyond “yuck” and “not-yuck” when discussing whether George O’Keefe is kitsch. I can already see that a religious object can be kitsch to one person and not kitsch to another equally devout.

        • I agree with you completely Mark. I just wanted to make some points:

          1) As stated elsewhere, if religious ‘kitsch’ is created intentionally or with the intent of irony, it is a sin akin to sacrilege.

          2) Unintentional ‘kitsch’ is often ‘cheap’ because it is associated with the poor. Not just the economically poor, but the spiritually and aesthetically poor.

          3) There is often a child-like humble sincerity in what some call ‘kitsch’ that is an antidote to the pretense of fine art.

          Beauty is often seductive in the worst way. While Handel’s Messiah may be glorious it doesn’t take away from a couple of hillbillies picking on banjos singing ‘Hallelujah to the Lamb’. People may look down their noses and sniff at the hillbillies, but what is worse is that they will strip Handel of all it’s significance and present it in concert as a secular alternative to Mass.

          • One thought: Those “hillbillies” certainly wouldn’t qualify as kitsch: every great composer would acknowledge the greatness of authentic folk art, which I think is about as far from kitsch as can be. There is something in the mass-production, thoughtlessness, and plasticization of a once beautiful thing that (at least from my perspective) seems to be at the root of kitsch.

          • You’re right. My comment had more to do with the danger of beauty being profaned than kitsch. Kitsch is almost profane by definition.

            Folk art runs the danger of profaning the sacred when it takes old gospel hymns and uses them to make popular songs. “Turn, turn, turn” by the Byrds comes to mind but there are a gazillion others. But high ‘art’ (and Church) society doesn’t care too much about common culture and so they look down their noses at such examples.

            The real tragedy is when high culture gets its hands on a really great piece of religious art. Greedy for the glorious but so steeped in vanity that they think that the religous aspect of art can be safely ignored, they desecrate the most holy works of art to fit their own vainglory. Literally ‘desecrate’.

            But your excellent article was more about how the Church should eschew tacky art and especially ‘kistch’ to which I can only reply: amen.

        • Re: The Devine Mercy. My parish has a painting of the Devine Mercy so bad (giant puppy dog eyed Jesus) that it would make St. Faustina weep. But that’s kind of the point. St. Faustina did weep when she saw the paintings commissioned for the Devine Mercy because they could not capture the beauty of Christ in her visions. Despite our best efforts, our art can only take us so far, and it’s not far enough.

    • ‘because most people have no taste. If they did, they’d walk out at the first strains of “All are welcome”.’

      And this is why we still have Church’s with no High Altars, no communion rails, Sanctuaries that are more like stages, worship in the vernacular, the latin mass still not made available to everyone. It’s why we still have priests who instead of preaching the truth, tell the people what they want to hear. They say “we are being pastoral.”

      Well you know what, if those people walk out, it actually proves Mark’s point. That what we are being given is superficial pandering to the whims of the people and the celebrants. It tells us that the worship service is not giving God what he demands as right worship. It tells us that Mass is more about conforming God to the people rather than the people conforming to God, like it should be.

      And as long as priests (and bishops) don’t stand up and stop using “that’s not pastoral” as an excuse, the Church will continue crumbling to the ground as these fads pass away and people either fall away or find their way to a place where they can experience traditional Catholicism.

  2. But I love Catholic kitsch! My glow-in-the-dark rosaries, my glow-in-the-dark light switch thingamajig…all things glow-in-the-dark.

  3. Thank you for the excellent essay Dr. Nowakowski. Scruton’s point that, “kitsch begins in
    doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture”, certainly underscores the doctrinal crisis in the Church which has spawned the legions of felt banners, banal tables, and plaster statues that now haunt our sanctuaries. And much as I agree with Scruton, I would submit that the relationship between doctrine and art (or praxis) is more concomitant than linear. While X may certainly lead to Y, Y may just as readily leads to X.
    The reason for this is because just as a given doctrinal formulation bears particular artistic and liturgical fruits, so too a given work of art or liturgy makes precise doctrinal statements about the world; thus, the relationship is dependent and reciprocal.

    I think this approach better supports your point about the importance of taking Tantum Ergo Sacramentum as an anthem (chanted while kneeling and during Benediction) verses the latest
    pop-cultural parody. If we suggest a merely linear relationship (and I don’t think Scruton would), some might argue that fine art and proper liturgy won’t make much difference until we get our doctrine straight. I agree that by themselves they’re not enough; faith comes from hearing, and therefore doctrine must be proclaimed; but to the extent that liturgy and art are themselves
    statements of doctrine, I share your enthusiasm for marshaling all their power to awaken those truths which have been long forgotten and deliberately suppressed. There’s a reason the high altars were so systematically destroyed; iconoclasm is one of the Devil’s most successful means of obscuring the Divine.

  4. Kitsch is the annidote for those in our culture today that are tempted to the idol of ‘art’. Although it’s painfull to the more sophisticated pallets in the pews, the failure to elevate liturgy to ‘art’ keeps us more refined pleasure seekers from losing our fucus on the real beauty of the mass which is as boring as bread to the senses.

    • Is the inverse of a good or great thing any kind of “antidote” at all? Especially when our enemy responds with such resplendent glitz? Beauty, my friend, is an echo of our God, and whether or not one realizes the source of the greatest art, it is always a Christian experience to “lose our focus” in it. So the “antidote” is not kitsch, but good liturgy, which uses great art in a proper and focused way. Is there sometimes a danger? Certainly, as with any other expression of faith. But it is miniscule when compared with the church-emptying dangers of the alternative discussed above.

      • Well said. People no longer recognize the transcendental quality of truly great art. They think it’s just a form of entertainment. But part of the mystery of the Mass is that the Eucharist presents Christ in a form that is the farthest thing from ‘art’, good or bad. How weird is it to stare at an ornate golden monstrance and know that you are meant to ignore it and stare at the plain white circle within.

  5. The real beauty of ‘kitsch’ is that it can’t be faked. Any attempt to exploit bad taste, or even strive for ‘less than the best’ for the glory of God would be a sin. While scoffers scoff and aesthetes whine, the devout recognize our weakness and marvel that we are not consumed like Aaron’s sons (Lev 10:1-2) for such feeble attempts at worship.

    • Can you provide an example of someone striving for the best who instead winds of producing kitsch? By my view the two would be mutually exclusive. Kitch as I see it hasn’t set out to make anything great; rather just mass produced simulacre; and it is hard to imagine how such junk is not aimed at exploiting bad taste. My best attempt at drawing is just awful, but its not kitch. Kitch isn’t just talentless art; it’s talentless art that has been slapped on a plastic lunchbox, keychain, whatever, and marketed as something cool like a JP II bobblehead.

      • Kitsch at its worst is sacrilege, a failure to treat the things of God with the sober seriousness they deserve. It starts with a warm and fuzzy sentimental doctrine that says God’s my pal and nothing could ever go wrong so I’m just going to wing it and come up some ‘art’ to honor his holy name. So far the intention is not the problem, it’s the execution. So you create something that is obviously cheap, free, easy, with absolutely no dedication, hard work, or sacrifice on your part. Along comes a third party and takes a sober minded glance at your work and thinks, “That looks like kitsch because it smacks of cheap grace and mushy sentimentality.” In a word there is nothing serious about it when God should always be treated with all seriousness.

        Now the real sin is when some snarky hipster embraces kitsch with the full knowledge of what it is. He is in effect mocking God by laughing at the art that presumes to glorify Him. Like if I was a lapsed Catholic that thought it would be cool to display a JPII bobblehead to show what a joke the Church is and how I’m so far beyond having any reverence for it.

  6. I also want to chime in as a fan of Catholic kitsch. During my conversion into the Church, I was in a Catholic bookstore and was deeply touched by the truly catholic spectrum of tastes and devotions on display. I’m a bookish former Presbyterian, so I’m naturally unmoved by the baroque sentimentality of a lot of Roman Catholic piety of the past few centuries. Yet in that bookstore I was profoundly, almost mystically, moved by the huge range of means by which the Church draws the lost and sustains the saved. What’s actually worse is when piety and theology become so flawless, professional, and culturally provincial that the Catholic thing starts to resemble a gigantic American Evangelicals media convention. Let’s not forget that a common objection to devotion to the Sacred Heart is that it’s womanly, sentimental, in a word, kitschy.

    Nonetheless, I grant the author the qualified thesis that kitsch should not have pride of place when traditional riches are wasting away on the proverbial shelf.

    • Hello: I’m not sure that “American Evangelicals media convention” and “flawless” (or “Catholic thing”) can go together. Such conventions seem more to me a hallmark of kitsch more than anything else ( as are Catholic attempts to imitate them.) Hold the new thing up to the light of our tradition: does it fit? Is it worthy? Is the craft of equal measure to the spiritual intent, or at least on an approach to such a balance? This is a way towards a quality that all Catholics – not just the touchy aesthetes – can understand and benefit spiritually from.

  7. I’ve been reading through the comments today, and I find myself wondering: how do you all define kitsch?

    I’ve spent a good bit of time in churches across Mexico and Europe that you could easily label as “gaudy,” but it isn’t kitsch. It’s just the best they could do with the skills they had available, and in many cases, the common people, especially of long ago, loved bright colors and not particularly refined art.

    I wrote a piece a while back about the San Xavier del Bac mission in Tucson, AZ. If you look at some of the pictures I took, you can see what I mean:

    I wouldn’t classify this as kitsch. Some of the stuff in this gallery, though? Yeah:

    Neon. Fluorescent. Cheap plastic. Holographic. And yes, glow-in-the-dark. (I love GITD stuff, but religious items? Odd.)

    And I would also include ugly stained glass, felt banners, and most of the church music that was standard fare when I was growing up in the 1980s. (Even as a second grader, I loathed that sister brought a boom box to first communion practice and tried to make us sing “City of God.” What a horrible piece of music!)

    • Paul, some would say the same of the faith itself, claim that sainthood is some flattening state, when in reality sainthood is comprised of astounding and powerful individuals unified in Christ. If Christ is Beauty himself, then to reject cheapness and seek aesthetic quality will certainly not lead to a homogenization of worship. Don’t take my word for it: just look at the huge variety of expression in the historical Church.

  8. I love your article, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who winces every time I see gaudy, tacky, religious art… or worse, entire catalogues full of gaudy, tacky, religious art. Honestly, I do think you’re laying in on a bit thick, especially with that Scruton quote; I can imagine Oscar Wilde having written a character who describes bad art as a disease. You have a valid point, though, and I agree that the way to bring people into the church isn’t to begin churning out catchy, but ultimately forgettable, crap.


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