Kitsch and Catholicism

I met a friend of mine named Kevin on the train from London to Cambridge about a year after becoming a Catholic. He was an Anglo Catholic of the sort who likes to collect fine china and drink lapsang souchong tea and roll his eyes. He said, (as they all do) “Yes, how interesting that you became a Roman Catholic. I think one day I shall take the step too.”

I leaned forward and said to Kevin in a conspiratorial way, “I should warn you that when I became a Catholic and had those hands laid on me a very strange and unexpected miracle took place!”

Kevin said, “Really! What happened?”

“At that moment all good taste I ever had disappeared instantly. So be warned. If you become a Catholic you will no longer care for your china collection or your pre-Raphaelite prints.”

Kevin was not amused. Which brings me to the question of the relationship of taste and Catholic iconography.

Producing a decent Catholic devotional image is more complicated than you think. The image–whether it is a painting or statue–has to look like a real person because a saint is a real person. This rules out abstract art. However, the person also has to look like a saint–in other words–a person who was supernaturally heroically holy. So how do you make it look like an ordinary person and an extraordinary person at the same time?

If you go too far towards the ordinary the picture just becomes mundane and the portrayal of the saint does not prompt devotion or inspire imitation or look like a person transformed by God’s grace. However, if you try to make the image ‘holy’ through some device–like making the image huge or overpowering the saint becomes too godlike and massive. If you try to give the saint a ‘holy’ expression you may well fail and end up making the saint look simpering or super pious or spooky.

When this becomes the criteria (and not just some Western European idea of ‘good taste’) then our judgment on religious iconography shifts. Now we are judging the work on whether it is approachable by the masses by being realistic and ordinary looking and whether, on the other hand, it inspires devotion and prayer. It is possible, for instance, to look at a religious painting or statue and admire it’s craftsmanship and skill and with an educated sense of ‘good taste’ see how fine it is, and yet never once desire to light a candle before the image and kneel down to pray.

If the criteria for sacred art is that it is accessible and ordinary while still communicating the numinous and the sacred, then one of the problems is that so much of our sacred art is in museums and not churches. I remember visiting Venice and seeing Bellini paintings in an art gallery in Florence, and then when I went to Venice and saw a similar painting still in the church that it was created for my experience of the artwork was increased a million times. In the gallery it was a dull museum piece. In the church it became an icon of devotion and love.

The experience of the art gallery for sacred art gets worse. So, for example, one may look at a huge number of fine paintings in museums and look at them as an ‘artistic tourist’ and admire the artwork, but never penetrate to it’s real purpose. Because there are so many exquisite works of art removed from their context and shoved into one big building we get art overload. We simply can’t appreciate that much beauty and reverence and skill in one afternoon. So after a few galleries we yawn and look for the ice cream stand. Even worse, we may visit an art gallery as some sort of degraded celebrity-home tour. “Ooh look! there’s a Rembrandt and there’s a Raphael!” So one even misses the artistic appreciation, focussing more on the nameplate than the painting itself.

If the criteria for sacred art is that it is accessible and yet still imparts the numinous, then our standards of ‘good taste’ are shifted. To appreciate the full range of Catholic art we need a paradigm shift. What Catholic art most successfully accomplishes this purpose? I think Eastern Orthodox icons do, and furthermore, they are descended from the first Christian forms of iconography. They look like ‘real’ people, but their stylized interpretation give them an otherworldly capacity. Along these lines, the art of the Siennese school–just before Giotto began to go more ‘realistic’ keeps the balance between realism and a stylized reflection of the holy. The Romanesque carvings of Ghiselbertius and the master of Autun and the carvings at Chartres, with their elongated forms and flowing, stylized robes and poses, also capture the balance between the realistic and the ‘holy’.

When this becomes the criteria, then there is also room for Catholic art that those with ‘good taste’ would sneer at. The simple hand carved folk art of Central America–where the artist captures the pain and passion of the Lord in what seems a crude form works. So does the vast majority of Catholic statuary bought out of a catalogue. Yes, it’s plaster or plastic and mass produced, but if the criteria is that it is recognizable and real and yet ‘holy’ and it inspires love and devotion, then it works.

Finally, the worst thing for sacred art is for an artist to want to be ‘original’. How boring is that?! When doing sacred art, as in doing liturgy, stay within the tradition. Continue and be faithful to the tradition and do your very best workmanship and guess what, you will be ‘original.’ I have a good example of this in my parish office. We had a plaster St Joseph. Mass produce and spray painted. He was bashed up with a hand missing and the head nearly fallen off. I sent it to Anja Zunkeler in California (who happens to be my sister in law). She repaired the statue and then hand painted it. She worked within the tradition and actually improved on the mass produced plaster statue and it looks better now than the day it came off the assembly line.

Of course, art and architecture which is well done and beautiful is to be preferred. Michaelangelo instead of Thomas Kincade, and there are real criteria for good art and architecture, but that is not today’s topic. Instead I am defending Catholic kitsch.

Finally, what is the role of kitsch? It’s pretty low down on the priorities, but there is also a role for the tacky, plastic devotional items one sees in souvenir stands. They are imitative. The plastic holy water bottle of the Virgin Mary reminds the viewer of more worthy images, and ultimately of the Blessed Virgin. The kitsch also has the advantage of being affordable for people who are often very poor, and if their devotion to God is improved and they love their plastic St Therese and pray more, isn’t that better than snobbishly sniffing and sneering at their ‘bad taste’? Furthermore, kitsch makes Catholicism a bit more fun. There’s a child like fun in having a post card of Jesus which changes into Mary when you move it. There’s a sense of not being quite so serious when you have a glow in the dark rosary and actually use it at night when you can’t sleep.

Here is my recommendation to all converts to Catholicism. Get a statue that you think is ‘absolutely awful’ and live with it. It will help you get Catholicism into your bones a bit more.

When my brother converted I bought him a little plug in Virgin Mary night light and said, “Now you’re really a Catholic.”

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