[This is a guest blog by one of our graduate students at San Jose State, Phillip Elliot.]
The overall goal of this project will be to explore a question in regards to kitsch and religious art, namely “is religious art kitsch?” I will begin by defining what ‘kitsch’ is. Once the definition is constructed I will pull examples from different religious institutions beginning with the small over- produced items such as prayer candles, tiny Buddha sculptures, and symbolic jewelry and end with larger objects such as mosques, churches, synagogues and temples (including the artwork within and the architecture throughout).I will then claim that religion is a lens for aesthetic experiences, which furthers artwork such as temples, paintings, and small mass-produced art works, and that all having the ability to become kitsch through this lens. I will be exploring this topic through a filter of what Tom Leddy has called “aesthetic atheism.”
Kitsch is a term commonly used to describe cheap (often more in relation to the creator or typical purchaser of the work than the actual price tag) works of art. I will define kitsch as something far more. A descriptive definition of kitsch will also be normative. Kitsch is mass-produced art set to impress the viewer emotionally. Kitsch in itself is a valuable mode of art that communicates to a massive amount of people and should be regarded as acceptable for this reason. Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell can be described as kitsch artists. That their art portrays an almost dream state while actively selling the viewer a way of life characterized by nostalgic feeling defines them as such. Monet painted beautiful settings of flowers and landscapes but is considered a great master painter while Rockwell is described by his detractors as a common kitsch illustrator. I argue that the mastery of Kinkade and Rockwell should not be cheapened by a name that has a negative connotation, that name being kitsch.
One of the main factors when discussing kitsch is the sentimentality of the art work. Kitsch is a term so loaded with meaning that at times it may be hard to untangle it from great works of art. Great works of art may evoke a sentimental feeling, and this causes confusion when trying to pinpoint which sentimental feelings make artwork kitsch. If we see kitsch art as merely art that holds a nostalgic sentiment for the viewer of the object, we are not defining it fully. Defending kitsch as art falls outside the scope of this project. Defining the uses and the meaning of kitsch is a firm basis from which to start. Kitsch is described by Robert Solomon as follows: “whatever the cause or the context, it is sentimentality of kitsch that makes kitsch, kitsch and sentimentality that makes kitsch morally suspect if not immoral” (Solomon 341). Although Solomon does not consider it immoral, it is easy to see from an atheist point of view how a cheap sentimental feeling evoked by an artwork can be so considered. For example, a painting of Jesus holding hands with children hung in a nursery school could be considered indoctrination. The derogatory form of kitsch is brought through such seemingly placid sentimental emotions
Now that I have established in what regard I am addressing kitsch, I will say why I think it not detrimental to say that an art object is kitsch. It is easy to point at a Kinkade or Rockwell and claim that that art is kitsch. For example, Rockwell often depicted boy scouts. These paintings were manufactured and used as magazine covers for Boy’s Life, a monthly magazine for the Boy Scouts of America. This widespread use of images of wholesome-looking young people doing things like running with a dog through a small town sold the American way of life. Rockwell’s work is considered kitsch because of the nostalgic sense you feel when seeing his pictures. But, most would agree that even if these works are properly seen as kitsch they are still valuable as works of art. The interesting question for an atheist is how does this differ from mass-produced paintings of Jesus Christ, or statuettes of Buddha? Do these produce the same valuable nostalgic sentiments that a Rockwell painting delivers? Are they kitsch in the same sense.
The negative use of “kitsch” is what Solomon refers to when he says that “Kitsch and sentimentality provoke excessive or immature expressions of emotion.” (Solomon 318) He goes on: “It is true that kitsch is calculated to evoke our emotions, especially those emotions that are best expressed by the limp vocabulary that seems embarrassingly restricted to such adjectives as ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’ or that even more humiliating, drawn out downward intoned ‘Aaaah’ that seems inappropriate even in Stuckeys” (Solomon 342) [Stuckey’s is a mainly Eastern U.S. convenience store chain that sells novelty items along with food].
Aesthetic Atheism is a relatively new view on atheism. Originally defined by Thomas Leddy, aesthetic atheism does not rely on lack of evidence in the belief that there is no God, although that is a major tenet of atheism: an aesthetic atheism is a positive function focusing on the possibility of self-transcendence without positing any gods. As Leddy states in his blog Aesthetics Today, “Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God (based on the failure of proofs of God's existence and also based on the ways in which religious belief leads to various distortions, as Nietzsche saw) but at the same time affirms experiences of transcendence” (Leddy, Aesthetics Today 2013) That is to say that atheists can attain a feeling of the sublime or, dare I say, of the spiritual, without giving alms to the “spirit”. Whether through a Zen-like understanding of their surroundings, or by being moved to tears by a painting of Christ, an aesthetic atheist can be spiritual. It is not necessary to believe in religion to have a “spiritual” feeling or response to any object. Nor is it required that objects that generate these feelings be religious art objects. This leads us into what Kant called “aesthetic ideas.” Leddy also discusses this topic in a different blog post, stating: “The existence of experiences of pure beauty itself is training however for something higher, which is the development of what Kant calls aesthetic ideas…"Aesthetic ideas" are products of the imagination at even a higher level in which the artist genius creates his/her own world, a world which follows its own rules.” (Leddy, 2014). Perhaps religious art can give rise to aesthetic ideas in this sense. This would be contrary to the intent of the artist, although it is also hard to say to what extent many religious artists of the past accepted religious orthodoxy. Let us at least consider the possibility that the intent of the artist was not to infect the viewer with sentimental emotions but rather to present an idealized world. If so, the audience that allows such great works to become kitsch (in the sense that it is treated as such) misses the best intentions of such artists. The intent of the artist may not be, for example, to infect the viewer with overtly sentimental emotions. Although the Medieval artists’ world in which they created their work (one in which God’s existence is not questioned) may be lost today, and hence widely misinterpreted, such works of art can still become both kitsch (in the positive sense) and valuable in the eyes of nonreligious individuals.
The Religious Lens:
Those who believe in a higher power are ultimately using a lens to filter their perceptions of objects. For example, if a Christian sees a remarkable act such as a car flipping over and everyone inside escaping injury, he or she could happily exclaim “T’was a miracle, this was God’s work!” However a non-believer can say, with the same certainty, that this act was one of chance and that the makers of the vehicle should be thanked for designing such a safe car. When individuals view the world they use their belief systems to categorize and associate the objects around them through their perception. When viewing art, these lenses of belief are no different. However, when viewing religious art, it seems simple to say that an atheist may have no emotional response to its religious content. Yet it is far too easy to accuse the atheist of this insensitivity. The atheist may of course view religious art as something other than kitsch in the positive sense, for example a painting by Rembrandt of a biblical scene as high art. That is not to say that they cannot also see the most ornate religious artifacts as being kitsch and value them exactly as they might a Rockwell.
Sentimentality of religious art is what makes certain pieces of art kitsch for an atheist. However this same maneuver can be followed by the religious. Those disposed to a certain faith can, and often will, view works of other faiths and religions as kitsch. For example an ardent Christian may view statuettes of Buddha in a friend’s home as eastern kitsch. The Buddhist, however, may view the small statues as strong symbols of their faith rather than as a work of poorly made art as examples of kitsch. Similarly, their Christian friend’s crucifix, hanging over their dining room, may be seen by them as a cheaply made carving, in other words, kitschy in a negative sense, or in a positive way, as like a Rockwell.
Since all experiences are viewed through some perceptual lens there can be different degrees of lensing that occur within most individuals For example, if an individual has a weak belief in a higher power he or she might find religious art such as prayer candles found
at a pharmacy as pretty tacky and kitschy, whereas Michelangelo’s painting of God touching man in the Sistine chapel might be extremely moving in that its religious content is. However, an atheist could consider that same painting as negative kitsch due to its sentimental value for Christians.
Religious Art, is it Kitsch?
Religious art ranges from monstrous architectural wonders to tacky jewelry and kitschy everyday fads; from cathedrals, temples, and mosques, to Star of David necklaces, small crucifixes, and Buddha statuettes. These objects and buildings can be viewed from the atheist perspective as nothing more than kitsch, yet there is a resolution for the atheist’s dilemma to be found in viewing these symbolic objects as having meaning for someone else. Using the loose definition of kitsch discussed earlier, from the atheist perspective it would seem that all art that gives nostalgic, sentimental, or “warm and fuzzy” feelings would be considered kitsch. Depending on the person of faith’s description of the previously mentioned works of art, from the atheist perspective, all could be considered kitsch. This statement implies that religious views themselves are the cause of these objects being kitsch, and it is also understandable for those who have religion to believe that there feelings towards the object allow for religious experience, but not kitsch.
Betty Spackman, a theist artist, discusses at great length the usefulness of religious kitsch (Christian) and its effect on the purchaser. She writes, “there are a lot of evangelicals involved in creating crafts that are meant as either ‘witnessing tools’ or personal devotional aids. Despite their (usually) amateur quality these handmade, homemade articles have a great deal of impact on people. Someone has invested time and energy, and so no matter what their quality they are imbued with a certain authenticity and value because they have a known ‘author.’” (Spackman 411) This “certain authenticity and value” can be viewed as what Solomon described earlier as kitsch deceiving our emotional reactions to art work. Christian kitsch Spackman believes is quite necessary and in fact deeply enriching for the Christian who purchases the object. However, if we consider Solomon’s final description of kitsch in which “Kitsch is art (whether or not it is good art) that is deliberately designed to so move us, by presenting a well selected and perhaps much edited version of some particularly and predictably moving aspect of our shared experience, including, plausibly enough, innocent scenes of small children and our favorite pets playing and religious and other sacred icons.” (Solomon 345) Spackman’s position is somewhat shaky. Kitsch may cheapen the effect of these religious articles, not for the purchaser, but for the non-believer. It may become clear that kitsch and sentimentality manipulates our emotions, forcing the individual to have a cheesy, aaaah moment (Solomon 343).
So, is religious art kitsch? Well surely, prayer candles may be viewed as kitsch but it is certainly a functioning tool for the Christian. Similarly, the Star of David pendant strapped around one’s neck may be viewed as kitsch from an atheist perspective but for the individual who adorns their body with this jewelry it is more of a reminder to “hold faith.” So where does the separation of kitsch and functional tools of faith happen when viewing these art objects? The difference is the perspective of the viewer, as relativistic as this sounds: the religious art object is only kitsch when in relation to the viewer of the art object as something that gives a deeply sentimental emotion. Religious kitsch such as the “buddy Christ” statuettes, which is an almost comic-bookesque representation of Jesus Christ holding two thumbs up and an impressive wink, may be considered kitsch in the sense that it is mass produced and supposed to evoke some religious comedic relief to the viewer, whereas the Star of David pendant may be seen as kitsch by non-Jewish peoples.
In this essay I have defined kitsch as a type of art object that plays off of emotional sentiments. These sentiments are supposed to give the individual a sense of deeper meaning, comfort, emotional catharsis, and also a warm and fuzzy feeling. Given that most if not all religious art is meant to give the viewer some sort of spiritual emotion, it is safe to say that for the atheist all religious art can be considered kitsch. When an atheist views a statue of “Buddy Christ” the object is meant to be a humorous attempt at religious kitsch as opposed to a small figurine of Buddha which is meant as a sort of spiritual reminder. The intended meanings are completely different. However, that does not make the categorical claim that these are both works of kitsch any less true. On the flipside, it is almost too simple to state that atheists would consider all works of religious art as kitsch. As argued by Leddy, it is possible for an atheist to feel a spiritually moving emotion while viewing any art object, without belief in a spirit or higher being. That said, when a religious art object is viewed by an atheist and the atheist feels a deep emotional response to the work, it is possible that that particular art work is not kitsch but rather an art object that can move an atheist past the sentimental objective of the art object. In short, the religious context of an art object does not necessarily categorize a work of art as kitsch; it is only when that object is viewed through the religious lens that it may become kitsch to some. For example, the Sistine Chapel has vast murals of religious art from one of the most impressive, talented, ingenious artists of all time. Rarely would we hear the utterance “this is kitsch” in the presence of such monumental religious art, although for some atheists the mere having a religious subject matter would make these great works of art kitsch if the intention of these paintings is to move an individual into a kitsch like emotional state, full of manipulative sentiments. Not all religious art is kitsch in the eyes of the atheist, and on the same token not all religious art is considered meaningful to the religious.
ebay.uk. n.d. http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/BUDDY-CHRIST-DOGMA-STATUE-JAY-AND-SILENT-BOB-VIEW-ASKEW-KEVIN-SMITH-STATUETTE-/281134413569.
Heidicries.com. n.d. http://www.heidicries.com/ProductList.php?id=351.
Leddy, Tom. Aesthetics Today. march 2014. 26 march 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2014/03/kant-and-imagination-and-aesthetic.html.
—. Aesthetics Today. October 2013. 26 March 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2013/10/aesthetic-atheism.html.
Solomon, Robert. "Kitsch." Goldblatt, David and Lee Brown. Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts. Boston: Pearson, 2011. 342-345.
Spackman, Betty. "Reconsidering "Kitsch." Material Religion (2005): 405-416.
www.flickr.com. n.d. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenx5/3672823120/.
 Thomas Leddy, Aesthetics Today —. Aesthetics Today. October 2013. 26 March 2014 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/2013/10/aesthetic-atheism.html
 I use the word spiritual in sense that is non-religious. Spirituality as it is used here is referring to an extra empirical sensation, though it may be caused by sense experience. It is not being used, in any fashion alluding to extraterrestrial or supernatural levels of elation or faith.