Our culture has a large appetite for art that evades the risks of craftsmanship. We hunger for art that allows us the false comfort of a space beyond discernment, beyond a reality of competing interpretations. Such dreams manifest themselves as kitsch.(1) With kitsch, all answers are given in advance of any questions. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera famously put it, kitsch is characterized by “an inability to admit that shit exists.”(2) It is that sentimental fiction in which art allows us to forget and do away with our bodies.
Theology holds a special interest in the material world. We believe it to be given and entered into by God. For this reason, Christians must recognize that our taste for kitsch runs parallel to a belief in the disposability of materials. If we believe that God creates out of nothing, then we must understand the idea of waste, of kitsch, as a human perversion of creation. Even the vast amount of religious kitsch we take for granted is a symptom of contemporary Christianity’s tendency towards Gnosticism.
Andres Serrano’s much-debated 1987 photograph, “Piss Christ” (the image of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine), provoked outrage from Christians of all stripes, not least because Serrano had been granted funding for his artwork by the American government. Nothing about this image of Christ on the cross appears wrong or upsetting. It is only when we hear the title that we become uncomfortable. That this piece of religious kitsch from a gift shop could provoke such hostile reactions means that, whether he knew it or not, Serrano was making a profound theological claim. We tend to turn religious symbols into kitsch. The problem with our reaction is not that we are offended; rather, our error is that we are not offended enough, and our offense is not directed at the right target. There is indeed something monstrous and fundamentally horrible about Christ’s death; something that conservatives evade and liberals idealize. In the crucifixion we begin to see that “this monster is of our own making,” for to look at ourselves in Christ’s suffering and live “is to confess that the power by which we have brought the world to such a sorry pass . . . is but the reflex of frailty.”(3) Serrano’s work rescues the scandal of Christ’s humanity from a culture that prefers to keep religion separate from the threat of everyday life.
1 Thomas Kinkade, whose website boasts him to be “the most collected artist in America” is an easy target. Yet Kinkade’s work is a fine example of kitsch as sheer craft: the product of an artist who has transcended the “resistance in the material” and become a master of bucolic scenery: commodifiable images of cottages with glowing windows sterile gardens.
2 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 236.
3 Terry Eagleton, “Tragedy and Revolution.” Theology and the Political: The New Debate. Eds. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 16.