Provocation: “A Defense of Christian Kitsch” by Paul Griffiths

“Sacred Heart,” from
“Sacred Heart,” from

From “A Defense of Christian Kitsch” by Paul Griffiths

The term kitsch is usually intended as an insult. To call a painting or a musical composition or a piece of decorative art “kitschy” suggests that it’s crude, cheap, unsophisticated, unoriginal, mass-produced, and above all sentimental. It’s Norman Rockwell’s urchins, Soviet-era statues of heroic workers, angels and kittens (especially together), velvet Elvises, flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark, and Kylie Minogue. And, it’s the crucified coat hanger and the Sacred Heart you can see on this page.

Such things lack, above all else, nuance. They leave no doubt about how you should respond to them, and they don’t invite varied interpretations. You sigh with warm sadness at the sight of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, or a tear comes to your eye at the thought of hanging your coat on his crucified hands (you’ll probably need to be Catholic for the first and Protestant for the second). You’ll also likely feel, at least for a moment, pleased that you’re the kind of person able to respond in that way.

Kitsch is, by this account, trash; and you, to the extent that you like it, are trashy. You ought to be ashamed of yourself and go to some art appreciation classes at once.

So runs the anti-kitsch argument. It’s usually a finely tuned instrument of class hatred. Those who offer it are typically people who know what kitsch is, don’t like it, and want to educate others out of liking it. They’re rarely far from contempt for kitsch-lovers.

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I think that perhaps Griffiths sets up a bit of a straw man here, but his point is provocative and worth considering.

The point of push back that I would offer is this, if godliness is another way of saying Christian virtue, then surely cultivated emotional responses that are connected to reasonable evaluative judgements (see David Carr, “Literature and the Arts in Emotional Education”) are part of what it means to be moving toward maturity. In this case, it seems obvious that kitsch fails because it moves the emotions irrationally. To put it very crudely, we cry when we ought not to, but leave other more pressing issues uncried for.

That said, his point about artistic sophistication sometimes being a form of class hatred is, I think, exactly right.

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