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The Kitsch Council

Back in 1994, my inquiry into the claims of the Catholic Church took a decisive turn. I transitioned from reading books in the safety of my own home to visiting actual parishes and signing up for RCIA.

At this point, I found myself bombarded with kitsch.

I didn’t know enough about the Mass itself to wince at half-baked innovations, but I did know enough about architecture to realize that these church buildings owed more to IHOP than to IHS.

My wife, a cradle Catholic, could tell stories about mime homilies and clown Masses. As a newly minted member of RCIA, I listened as our director told us, “I want you to sit in a circle and pass this crucifix around. As you receive it, contemplate what Christ has done for you.” Quietly, she crossed the room and hit PLAY on a boom box. To my astonishment, the crackle-voice crooning of Rod Stewart asked, “Have I told…you lately…that I love you?”

When the crucifix came to me, I stared and asked, “Why, Lord? Why?” Not only was this atmosphere alien to the Catholic Church I had encountered in Chesterton, Newman, and Knox, but it seemed that this phenomenon was unleashed precisely by the “post-conciliar Church.” Logically, this meant a reservoir of bad taste was in some sense already there in the pre-conciliar Church, percolating below the surface.

I found myself wondering whether, prior to Vatican II, thousands upon thousands of Catholics were silently praying, “Lord, send us a clown Mass. Just one clown Mass.”

Why did Vatican II become a massive excuse to indulge in bad taste?

The Origins of Modern Bad Taste

The next time you visit Hobby Lobby, take a left turn at the cash registers and make your way past the seasonal offerings. There, you will discover an entire shopping aisle positively festooned with crosses.

Constructed of wood and metal, these crosses possess the same weathered authenticity as driftwood or battered, rusted Coca-Cola signs. The Celtic crosses do not appear mass-produced. Although ten of them hang from a single, retail wall fixture, each looks as though it was carved from the stone of bygone Ireland. The wooden crosses, likewise, are stained, lined, distressed so that, although we know perfectly well some factory in China is knocking out a few thousand of them a day, each cross appears worn and ancient — as though it has, like the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, faced the crude swords of Hussite raiders and lived to tell the tale.

It may take a few minutes for the canny Catholic fan of Hobby Lobby to realize what is missing. Presently, however, and with a start, he will scan the entire aisle again, confirming that among the hundreds of crosses on display, not a single crucifix can be found.

Hobby Lobby is run by Protestant evangelicals. Apparently, evangelicals are attracted to mass-produced wood, stone, and metal crosses artificially distressed to convey a hard-won authenticity, the vibe of an “ancient faith.”

Hobby Lobby is here to help. But Hobby Lobby has a problem. The ancient faith was and is Catholic. The genuine, on-point, historically accurate expression of that faith is the crucifix. Yet Hobby Lobby cannot sell crucifixes to its market. Crucifixes are too Catholic.

The result is a faux distressed cross that simultaneously sentimentalizes and betrays authentic Tradition.

A woman’s velour blouse says “Classy Lady” in sequins. Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is lacquered to a flat cross-section of Cypress knee. Riding the coattails of a popular ad campaign, a Christian t-shirt asks, “Got Jesus?”

A thing can be cheesy. A thing can be tacky. A thing can be in poor taste. The German word “kitsch,” however, describes a specific cultural domino effect that terminates in the crosses aisle at Hobby Lobby.

This cultural transformation began when the working poor of the mid-1800s abandoned traditional craftsmanship in favor of factory work.

Prior to the advent of industrialization and mass production, many of these people were artisans. They might have gone to work each morning to fashion colored fragments and lead into the stained glass windows of the cathedral. Likewise, the statue of the Virgin that graced the mantle over their fireplace was handcrafted by a master artisan. This meant that the working poor possessed not only skill and nuance, but a direct connection to authentic Tradition through the practice of their art.

After the advent of mass production, these people became “an interchangeable part of an interchangeable machine making interchangeable parts.” The statue of the Virgin on the mantle was, with varying degrees of quality, mass-produced. The man on the assembly line whose job it was to paint on that statue a pair of thin black lines in lieu of eyebrows was probably not contemplating the Second Eve, was probably not hoping his artistry might somehow honor the Immaculata.

Thus began a process by which the Tradition was sentimentalized in and through kitsch — that is, mass-produced objects that, according to Clement Greenberg, depend upon “the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends.” That end is not to create something worthy of the Tradition. The goal of kitsch is to create objects that borrow just enough gravitas from the Tradition to seem authentic while, in fact, specious “good feelings” are placed front and center.

In other words, the cheesy, the tacky, the “in poor taste” spring into life when form falls absurdly short of content. Kitsch happens when consumers are trained actually to prefer a sentimentalized form over authentic content.

This, it seems to me, is a clue to how a reservoir of bad taste could come to exist in the laity. After all, people shop far more often than they pray.

The children of the aristocrat and of the factory owner might, by virtue of Daddy’s wealth, possess the leisure time to learn the violin, to master Latin, to be tutored in art history, to attend an opera. The children of the factory worker, who no longer made contact with the Tradition through skilled craftsmanship, simply collapsed in exhaustion after a hard day’s work. There was little room in their lives, much less in their minds, for the pursuit of higher things. What did they come to appreciate, then, if not the immediate, the sentimental, the comforting?

Standing athwart this cultural domino effect was the Mass itself. Its ancient rubrics called the faithful to an authentic encounter with Christ in and through the Tradition. This comforted those “who are weary and burdened” but did not shrink from challenging them to “take up your cross and follow Me.”

Unfortunately, the logical next step in kitsch’s ability to “take advantage [of authentic tradition] for its own ends” would change all this.

“I Will Cling to the Old, Artificially Distressed Cross…”

Our evangelical Hobby Lobby customer has tripped and fallen into a kind of psychodrama.

Her local downtown district is fortunate enough to feature a Gothic Revival Catholic church built in 1892. When she happens to drive past the imposing structure, she experiences a strange discomfort. If it were put into words, this discordant feeling might say, “My culture could never produce that. Even though I believe that my culture is authentically Christian, and even though I think Catholics are way off, I have to admit: my culture could never produce something that beautiful.”

With the “Why is that?” of this sign of contradiction heavy in her thoughts, she attends worship at her suburban megachurch. She exits through the gift shop awash in superficiality. Something feels wrong. Again and again, her mind is drawn back to that gorgeous, austere edifice of Gothic sensibility.

This is the nagging of what Francis Schaeffer termed “cognitive dissonance.” It heralds a gap between one’s worldview and the world as it truly is. As such, it calls our evangelical to a pilgrimage — outside her cultural bubble and into a set of questions she is simply not supposed to ask.

Her soul is being held over an open flame. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “our God is a consuming fire.”

In the meantime, she visits her local Hobby Lobby. There, she encounters the crosses aisle. A wave of relief washes over her. The Celtic rood, the battered wooden cross — this is what she needs! The cognitive dissonance blinks out of existence.

Not only do these faux-distressed callbacks to ancient tradition provide gravitas minus actual content. Something even more pernicious is at work: the ritual of shopping, encountering, and purchasing mimics actual engagement. The painful pilgrimage that lay before the evangelical has been replaced with an artificial substitute. When she hangs that not-quite-a-crucifix-but-close-enough-for-now on the living room wall, she feels she has given a truthful reply to the urging of the Holy Spirit.

According to Vincent Miller, author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, this is a misdirection that associates manufactured “commodities with needs, desires, and values.” The result: We come to “think of consumption as a way of enacting profound values and fulfilling serious desires.”

Over decades of mass production and with the introduction of mass marketing, the almost naïve sentimentalizing effect of kitsch has transmogrified into commodification. Commodified objects “appear on the scene, as if descended from heaven, cloaked in an aura of self-evident value, saying nothing about how, where, and by whom they were produced.” This is why a modern car commercial does not merely list the reasons why this car is better made, is more gas-efficient, is more reliable than the competitor’s car. Instead, the goal is to convince you, “This car will change your life.”

As such, commodification reignites the strange engines of ancient fetishism. Just as a golden calf, with its sentimentalized associations with the gods of Egypt, could be looked to by the Israelites as a preferred option, as an idol that would provide as Yahweh provides yet without the demands of Yahweh, the modern, commodified object, trading upon its vibe of authenticity, promises to change your life while avoiding genuine engagement with the Tradition.

A 2019 Pew Research survey discovered that “nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’” This means, if the survey is correct, “just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’”

It seems Catholics by and large are treating the Eucharist as a commodified object — capable of transforming their lives minus the demanding content of authentic Tradition.

Is it possible that they are also lining up to receive Communion — in numbers far greater than those who, prior to Vatican II, actually believed in the Real Presence — because “receiving the Eucharist” is part of an artificial, alternative pilgrimage quite at odds with the original content of the Faith?

Less Orandi, Less Credendi

At the beginning of this essay, I was perplexed by a strange spectacle: a significant number of Catholics trained up in the “lex orandi, lex credendi” of the Latin Tridentine Mass readily adapted to — even welcomed with a sigh of relief — the IHOP architecture and Rod Steward–led contemplation of post-conciliar Catholic culture.

In my experience, this quickly led to another strange spectacle: bad taste went hand in hand with bad theology. The person who favored mime homilies might well say, “I don’t find the concept of Original Sin particularly helpful.” The priest who offered a clown Mass might express his doubts about the Nicene Creed.

If a person welcomed a departure from the devotions, the architecture, even the liturgy of past tradition, he probably did this because outside the sanctuary, he was trained to prefer a sentimentalized form over authentic content. The Tridentine Mass did not cater to this. Nor did Gothic architecture, or the rosary, or Gregorian chant. These elements of Catholic culture did not borrow from the gravitas of authentic Tradition. They did not mine the Tradition for “discreet elements of exchange” that could be “disciplined for market.” Their weightiness, their import was a direct expression of that Tradition. As such, they did not provide an escape from the call to take up one’s cross and follow. Engaging with them was not winsome and adaptable in the same way that shopping for commodities — which also promised to change one’s life — was winsome and adaptable.

The “grand reopening” of the Church heralded by the Second Vatican Council, not to mention the sign on the door that read “Under New Management,” changed all this.

In precisely the same way that the crucifix is “disciplined for market” so that a faux-distressed cross appears at the end of an assembly line, elements of organic Catholic tradition were sanded smooth by the Council as though their authentic connection with the Tradition was an obstacle to ecumenism. In precise correlation with that faux-distressed cross, the Sacrifice of the Mass was de-emphasized in the New Mass. It’s as though the ostensible Imagineers of Vatican II heeded Pope John XXIII’s call — to ignore “the prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster” and to express “the authentic doctrine … through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought” — and bent themselves to the “pastoral” task of creating a Catholic version of the Hobby Lobby crosses aisle. It’s as though they did this thinking a Catholic Hobby Lobby crosses aisle would provide the evangelical Protestant a winsome and adaptable avenue to authentic Tradition. The evangelical who hung a faux-distressed cross on her living room wall beside a copy of the Desiderata would move on to read Duns Scotus. They did not realize that the target audience of their ecumenical efforts comprised not theologians, but consumers. In the Protestant evangelical’s world, religious practice and consumerism have converged. “Elements of the Christian tradition,” Miller writes, “are often appropriated or employed in ways that work counter to their interior logic.” This takes place because “the underlying structures and practices of consumer culture transform the function of Christian symbols and practices.”

If you give consumer culture an inch, it swallows you whole. The elements of Tradition you hoped to Imagineer into something more appealing to modern man become “an interchangeable part of an interchangeable machine making interchangeable parts.” This leads not only your ecumenical target audience, but the faithful under your care as well “to develop their own religious synthesis.” Why? Because the elements of Tradition are abstracted from their original orthodoxy to better accommodate human desire. And “consumer desire is … not really about attachment to things, but about the joy of desiring itself[.] … It is the joy of endless seeking and pursuit.”

We know the pastoral project of the Council was guided, on the one hand, by cagey, deliberate revolutionaries who hoped for a decided break with Tradition and, on the other hand, by more faithful souls who felt that their personal affinity for modern philosophy and modern biblical exegesis could be enculturated for the lasting benefit of the Church.

What the latter group failed to consider was the influence of consumer culture detailed in this essay.

But that’s not all. They also failed to recognize a strange parallel between consumer culture and Modernism. Kitsch and commodification are not “the synthesis of all heresies” condemned by Pope Pius X. They constitute an entirely different highway system of cultural influences. It just so happens, however, that if you overlay that highway system over a map of Modernism’s own trucking lanes, there is a near perfect correlation.

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