Wounded for Our Visual Transgressions…

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.[1]

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.

Betty Spackman, MFA, is a multi media installation artist and painter whose work often centers on cultural objects and the stories connected to them. She is the author of A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Piquant, 2005). She is currently touring a 3000 sq. ft. installation, FOUND WANTING, a Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude.”  This project is built around a large collection of animal bones and addresses among other things issues of sustainability and animal/human relations.

[1] A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Piquant 2005), p. 13.


  • Mark Chambers says:

    What a way to start the week! Thank you for these words.

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    Thanks, Betty, for the challenge not to allow our critique to become elitist and therefore isolating of those seeking to express their Christian faith. I appreciate that one person’s ‘kitsch’ could be significant for someone else. I’m reminded of David Morgan’s ‘Visual Faith’ to that end. In light of this, I had a question. You note that we ‘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.’ And that perhaps we have a need for the kitsch and sentimental because of our doubts. However, do you think that there should be evidence in the church of people moving beyond kitsch as spiritual maturity grows? If so, does the artist working within the church have any part to play in this movement?

  • betty spackman says:

    I think there should be evidence everywhere – not just in the church. The danger is to try and make the church a place of art education. The church is not an art gallery as Calvin Seerveld once said. It is a place of restoration for the people of God. Good art will certainly aid in the nurture and care of the body of Christ but artists need to be careful not to prescribe and demand too much, or try to force feed. The art in the church will naturally change as people’s understanding of visual language grows through seeing more good art. Instead of worrying about making the members of your church accept better art in the church, take them out to see good art – everywhere – until the desire grows in them to have stronger expressions. And be, as artists within church communities, contributors to that community – not just with your art, but in any way you are called upon. Love your neighbor. At some point they will ask to ‘see your etchings’ and want to hang them on their walls.

  • betty spackman says:

    PS Sara
    In thinking further about your question:
    “…do you think that there should be evidence in the church of people moving beyond kitsch as spiritual maturity grows?…”
    I just wanted to say that I know very mature Christians and extremely intelligent and accomplished university professors who have what I would consider ‘kitsch’ on their walls. Spiritual or even intellectual maturity doesn’t necessarily automatically mean being well versed in visual language. However, I think a mature faith is one that recognizes and discerns issues and needs regarding cultural communication. At that point my hope is that artists will be called upon to assist in performing that task/ministry for and in the church.

  • jfutral says:

    As I understand it, one of the freedoms Modernity brought to art was the idea that the artist does not dictate what the viewer experiences from the work. Part of the issue of representationalism, according to some modern artists, was that the work did not need the viewer. Representational art (as a friend once put it) “lectured” to the viewer what it was about and what was to be seen. Not just in form, but also in interpretation.

    In that, I think, has been where many Christian artists of the twentieth and maybe even into the twenty first century flounder, not just in the art community but culture at large. Too many Christian artists, as I think you intimate if not explicate, are concerned with un-confusingly communicating a specific message of certainty, no matter how well crafted, at the expense of the art.

    But such work can still transcend the explicit either directly by the artist’s touch or by association. Amazing Grace becomes more than a theological song sung in churches on Sunday morning. It becomes laden with emotion as memories of where else it has been experienced are surfaced when it is heard.

    Even in an age where there are people of self-proclaimed power (I know, I’ve met them) who feel they can say “It isn’t art until *I* say it is art”, what the viewer/appreciator brings to the work is as important, if not more, than the work itself.

    The only difference I can think of between kitsch and good art is that kitsch was not created nor does it try to be more than it is. Good art more often is created with intent to be more than it is. However, this transcendence can be (must be?) bestowed by the viewer so that even a work of kitsch can rise above its humble intentions.

    Who needs to mature? The person who finds meaning in a piece of kitsch? Or the person who thinks that person needs to “mature”?

    Just some thoughts,

  • betty spackman says:

    Yes, attempts to ‘tell’ the truth inevitably end poorly. Message driven art is seldom deep enough ground for even the most imaginative viewer to bring much meaning to, and yet, the poorest of visual aids can sometimes open the deepest places of the heart when the Holy Spirit uses them to speak to someone. The artist, however, dare not take credit for that.

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