Good art opens the mind and emotions. It stretches one’s perspective, questions one’s beliefs, agitates apathy, and invites one to explore the mysterious. It can be, I believe, a manifestation of the sacred. Religious kitsch, on the other hand, with its general goal of preaching, is without ambiguity, without questions, without mystery. It closes the mind, confronting or comforting the viewer with prescribed answers. Yet kitsch, as this manifestation of power and politics, is not only found in the Christian bookstores. It is also in the fine art world where propagandizing any cause is the aim. It may be more sophisticated and harder to recognize, but it has the same goals and results. It confirms and comforts ‘believers’ and discredits the ‘unbelievers’ with a deliberate piety.
I began my relationship with Christian kitsch in the 70s, a time when H. R. Rookmaaker had become a validating voice to the Protestant community of artists, and when artists of faith were beginning to pursue excellence in their work as professionals. At the time, mediocre, badly made commercial images used for worship and for witness had become the common visual language of Protestant Evangelicals. Artists of faith working in the secular arena not only had to unlearn these slogans and clichés, they had to learn contemporary visual languages that their Christian communities did not understand or accept. Some fought this battle by simply rejecting all the mediocre art in the church and mocking those who did not. Franky Schaeffer’s timely but angry books, Sham Pearls for Real Swine, and Addicted to Mediocrity, were ammunition for the war being waged. The problem was, that in throwing away the old language, we were in danger of throwing away the people who spoke it, people who had no other means to express themselves. For some artists, the separation was necessary for personal survival and integrity while, sadly, many who remained were silenced for not sticking to what was perceived as “Christian art”. And so, as in any battle, there were wounds, some of which have never healed. But after 30 years, I was tired of talking about kitsch and mistakenly thought, when Piquant Editions asked me to write a book about it, that it would help put the problem to rest, at least for me. That was 7 years ago and as this symposium suggests the discussion is not over, and the issues are still relevant.
The artist and the teacher in me were in conflict throughout the writing and illustrating of A Profound Weakness (Piquant 2005). As an artist, I wanted to play with the images I collected, defrocking and mocking them by the very act of alteration. Although I did make composites for some of the illustrations to make specific points, the artist succumbed to the teacher and let the most horrific and wonderful of my kitsch collection be themselves. I had to face them directly and listen to what they had to say. And they had a lot to say. What started out to be a 60 page commentary became a 500 page book.
It was time for a deeper understanding of culture and for a new attitude to the complexities of faith that was, however badly, attempting to make the invisible visible. I knew I had to examine this material with grace and discernment, not judgment; even though I had not read one other book about kitsch that spun it in a positive light. And I was, in the end, completely unable to be one sided. I still could not tolerate the lazy arrogance of making sloppy, unthinking art and putting God’s name on it, nor could I defend propaganda and the damage it had done to the world’s view of Christ. I was, however, forced to look at people’s need for creating visual expressions of their faith and the extremely difficult task of doing that well. I had to look behind the night light Jesus and consider the love and the fear, as well as the greed and ignorance, that produced it.
Paradoxically, the simplistic nature of kitsch both conceals and reveals the vestiges of wonder, the underlying mysteries of faith, through the most garish of guises and a disturbing exhibitionism. In a way, kitsch represents a closet desire for spiritual reality, and the creative longing to manifest mystery. In this sense it is a kind of faith in drag.
One must be very careful not to dismiss anyone’s desire to know and express the truth, even if, or perhaps especially if, it is not done in an approved language. The bigger problem is after all, the commodification of faith and the commercial exploitation of people’s sincere need to say and to see what they believe. Faith says we shouldn’t need to see but perhaps more than ever we are in a generation of doubting Thomases. However Jesus did not shun Thomas’s desire for visual aids. He bared his chest and opened His hands. He exposed His wounds and offered the possibility that they be handled. I’m sure that moment was as awkward as it was beautiful; sentimental and profound at the same time. I long for this humility and generosity of spirit and pray for us all as artists that this kindness be manifest in the art we put on the street, sell in the store or hang in the gallery, and that we might be able to invite whoever might want to, or need to, poke their fingers at it.
 A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Piquant 2005), p. 13.