Kitsch: Feeling Good about Ourselves While Evil Goes Unchecked

December 2011 found me in Munich. One evening I inched my way through the Christmas markets with their good humoured crowds, the gingerbread stars and Christmas trees, the locally carved wooden cribs, the Glühwein, the brass bands playing carols, the beautiful looking, but insipid, chocolate treats, the magnificent bells of the Cathedral summoning people to worship. I had walked out to Dachau in the afternoon, only a couple of miles outside the city, the camp in which Victor Frankl found himself, along with thousands of others, with its little church just outside the gates. It celebrated mass throughout the war without once protesting against what was happening a couple of hundred yards away. I found myself wondering whether there was an inner connection between the kitsch of the Christmas market and the fact that National Socialism began in Munich. Not, of course, a causal connection, but I wonder whether kitsch represents a kind of cultural dry rot which saps the ability to respond to injustice and evil. And not, of course, that kitsch was invented in Austria and southern Germany: the great ripe classic of kitsch is to be found in Germany, in Dresden, but it is not by a German. I refer to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (below), with its cutesy cherubs, its pagan Madonna, Aryan child, and the papal tiara giving the ideological game away in the corner.

Raphael painted this in 1513-14, and Luther could not have known about it, but that a reformation was essential is shown by this picture alone. It is instructive to compare this picture, regarded by the Gemäldegalerie as the jewel in its crown, with those of Raphael’s older contemporary, Leonardo. In the two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, both of which can be seen in the stunning exhibition in London, Leonardo manages to paint warmth, affection, love, and hope in the cosmic context which Raphael presumably also wanted to suggest, with his stagey clouds, without any hint of kitsch. It is instructive also to ask whether there is any suggestion of kitsch in the Hebrew bible or the Messianic writings – as far as I can see, there is none, nor can I think of any examples in the whole patristic period. I will not say that it begins with Raphael, but I suspect it is there or thereabouts.

In the celebrated discussion in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says two things about kitsch: first, that it represents ‘the absence of shit in the world’ – in other words, the refusal to be honest about pain and evil; second, that looking at kitsch two tears fall, one at the subject and the other which notes what a tender emotional being I am to be moved by this. Kitsch, we can say, is a particularly vicious version of emotivism. The Viennese architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser thought life without kitsch was unbearable, presumably on the grounds that ‘mankind cannot bear very much reality’. His context is a struggle against architectural modernism, and one can understand what he says if it is a protest against that particular tyranny, but we have to ask why there is no kitsch in the Christian Scriptures. It is not that the texts are shy of emotion: to the contrary. But throughout there is an insistence on seeing reality, seeing it steadily and seeing it whole. Kitsch ducks this insistence.

Judaism certainly knows kitsch (Chagall) but I wonder if Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism do. Is the flight from reality of kitsch characteristic of the People of the Book, in which reality is kept so squarely in view?  Kitsch is the Disney ‘Aw,shucks’ world which on the one hand makes every creature cute and lovable, funny and tear jerking, and on the other insists on a way of life which will destroy the planet and drops 4000 lb bombs on anyone who challenges its account of ‘freedom and democracy’. The emotional dishonesty of kitsch prevents us from facing our own fear and our own shadow. The account of the journey from Caesarea Philippi to Calvary in Mark’s gospel, by contrast, is a paradigm of what doing that involves, a journey without any false consolation.

Nothing is more remarkable, in the Messianic writings, than the fact that resurrection story never becomes simply a ‘happy ending’ but rather speaks of hope for God’s peace, justice and coming kingdom.  Christians are not called to be puritans, to deny laughter, tears and joy, but their Scriptures generate a structure of affect in which kitsch has no place. Kitsch, in fact, is one of Satan’s prime stratagems to undermine the gospel, to turn it from something which turns the world upside down to a cheap tinsel decoration which helps us feel ‘good about ourselves’ (one of the mantras of our contemporary culture) whilst allowing injustice to go unchecked. Hundertwasser may have been right that we will never have a world free of kitsch, but we could at least see to it that it does not become part of Christian DNA.

Tim Gorringe is Professor of Theology at the Universityof Exeter. His most recent books are on art (Earthly Visions: Yale 2011) and the built environment (The Common Good and the Global Emergency: CUP 2011). He is currently working on the Transition movement.

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4 Comments

  • Danny says:

    Thanks Tim, this is a very stimulating post. Several points I would like to press you on. First, I was wondering if you could say more about why Raphael’s painting is kitsch in comparison to Leonardo’s. Surely clouds in and of themselves aren’t kitsch and why are two chubby babies as angels more kitsch than a beautiful young woman as an angel? Why is the one successful at conveying warmth, affection, love and hope and the other a failure?

    This leads to my second point. Isn’t kitsch to some extent unavoidable? That is, can’t any work of art be enjoyed in a kitsch way (the two tears), including the Bible? You left out some of the other things that Kundera says about kitsch being an ‘integral part of the human condition’ and how Sabina finds out how to recognize kitsch as such and then it instantly become non-kitsch so that she can just enjoy the beauty of the song. Shouldn’t the emphasis be on changing how we perceive kitsch (so it becomes non-kitsch) rather than on trying to criticize the works themselves?

    It seems to me that Buddhism and Hinduism are full of kitsch, but the comparison with Islam is especially interesting. Islam is the most iconoclastic of all faiths and doesn’t tolerate any representational works of art, let alone kitsch. I wonder though if this helps or hinders them facing reality. There is something to be said for having lots of kitsch around–it makes ‘reality’ stand out in comparison.

    Just some ramblings. Thanks again for a very thought provoking post!

  • jfutral says:

    In the posts thus far I kind of feel like I am listening to either the judge trying to describe pornography or Derrida telling us what his philosophy is _not_ as his way of telling people what it is.

    No offense intended here, just an observation. Save for Ms. Spackman’s initial post and to some degree Mr. Dixon’s, I sense this intimation of intellectual elitism or superiority creeping into the discussion. At this point I feel like Roger Scruton will be the next poster telling us that only classical forms of art are beautiful and worthy of being called art (Raphael’s example not-withstanding).

    Are we railing against dishonesty? Then let’s rail against dishonesty. Are we railing against bad theology? Then let’s rail against bad theology. Are we railing against bad or immature art? Then rail against bad or immature art. Are we railing against human emotion over intellect or intellect over emotion? Then do so.

    Even if one believes Kitsch is the embodiment of all those traits, railing against Kitsch is actually starting to strike me as a bit kitschy on its own, as if we are combating something, but can’t really clearly define that something. Are we opposed to the creation of kitsch? Are we opposed to the creators of kitsch? Or are we opposed to the people who find comfort or solace in what we would define as kitsch? Or are we really opposed to what we perceive as a lack of intellectual rigor that seems to be promoted through kitsch? And why is that, in and of itself, a bad thing?

    Joe

  • Dave says:

    Applause, my friend, on an excellent post and an excellent analysis. I fear you may have used the term “puritan” a bit loosely, but your thesis resonates with the Western world. Thank you for this.

  • Cynthia Haven says:

    I sense somehow the roots of kitsch are in your first paragraph: the facile link between Munich masses and Dachau. Munich was Hitler’s fun place-to-be, and Hitler was no friend to Christianity, let alone Catholicism. I doubt it was a very safe place for the Church, and I don’t know that a group protest would have been anything more than a group suicide. I’d like to know what might have been going on beneath the surface of outward compliance. A lot of fear, at the very least, I expect. These are questions; I have no answers.

    This comment isn’t meant to exonerate anyone or anything – but I do wish to point out the easiness of retrospective conscience. It is (or easily becomes) a faux emotion. And faux emotion is one step away from faux art – as you observe with the Raphael (though I think you’re a bit hard on the painting).

    Perhaps Hitler liked Munich because of its Bavarian kitsch – for isn’t the whole Aryan shtick its own genre of kitsch? It was a psychological match, leading to all the grand Aryan architecture of Munich, dating back to the 30s.

    Hinduism and Buddhism are awash with their own brand of kitsch. You might try a quick trip to India or Nepal to find out. All those plump Ganeshes and complacent buddhas, for a start! Even Japan, the home of zen, eventually gave rise to Hello Kitty and cheesy porn.

    As an earlier commenter pointed out, Islam’s prohibitions on representational art spared them some of the obvious evidence of kitsch, but I seem to remember some Saddam-era images that fit the ticket. Don’t their political leaders wrap themselves in a certain amount of kitschiness for mass consumption? Aren’t the lubricious promises of reward in the afterlife, used to recruit terrorists, a kind of kitsch, too?

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