Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Deal W. Hudson

1/7/2014 (8 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Perhaps you have to be a cradle Catholic to appreciate it, to associate it with your childhood in some way, your parents' or grandparents' home, your first parish or school. But sentimental association does not make a poorly made image into a valuable work of art,

As someone who has thousands of Catholic "friends" on Facebook, I'm reminded almost daily of the fondness many ardent Catholics have for images of Christ and Mary, and other religious subjects, that fall under the species of art called kitsch. In fact, it's my observation that most of the art in America considered Catholic is kitsch. Thus, I know I am treading on thin ice by speaking critically of images that millions of Catholics hold dear. 

Highlights

By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

1/7/2014 (8 months ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: culture, faith and culture, Deal W. Hudson, Kitsch, Catholic Kitsch, art, Catholic art, faith and culture, Deal W. Hudson


WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - As someone who has thousands of Catholic "friends" on Facebook, I'm reminded almost daily of the fondness many ardent Catholics have for images of Christ and Mary, and other religious subjects, that fall under the species of art called kitsch. In fact, it's my observation that most of the art in America considered Catholic is kitsch. Thus, I know I am treading on thin ice by speaking critically of images that millions of Catholics hold dear. 

It's quite possible, however, that someone reading this may not know that the term kitsch implies criticism, a judgement about an image's value as a work of art.  The German word kitsch came into English usage a century ago to describe inexpensive, mass-produced art work marked by sentimentality, high emotion, lack of reflection, and self-congratulation. Look at the art posted by Catholics on Facebook and other Internet blogs. Look at the art hanging in most Catholic parishes, rectories, chanceries, schools, colleges, and hospitals - almost all of it qualifies as kitsch.

Perhaps you have to be a cradle Catholic to appreciate it, to associate it with your childhood in some way, your parents' or grandparents' home, your first parish or school.  But sentimental association does not make a poorly made image into a valuable work of art, especially art that is intended to glorify God or inspire its viewer to prayer and holiness. Am I the only one left cold, and turned off, by these images?  Am I the only one who wonders why Catholics are so moved by these images they would go to the trouble of displaying them publicly?

I'm not talking about those who post digital copies of the master painters of the sacred such as Giotto, Raphael, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Mantegna, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Van Eyck, Velasquez, the Pre-Raphaelite John Collinson, or Rouault. I'm talking about images of Christ and Mary that anyone familiar with Catholicism can almost predict will be hanging in a parish narthex, a pastor's office, a chancery reception area, or the home of a pious Catholic. Why?  Because these images are seen so often that you expect them to be displayed as a kind of symbolic guarantor of being genuinely Catholic.
 
The Czech writer Milan Kundera calls self-congratulation, the most important aspect of kitsch, as the "second tear": "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch, kitsch."

Catholics are particularly sensitive to symbols and are particularly prone to sentimentality regarding the Church. One follows naturally from belonging to a faith that worships liturgically and has long relied on paintings, statues, and stained glass to instruct the faithful in the basic narrative of Scripture and the saints of the Church.  The other from a Church in the US that has been shaped and infused by generation after generation of immigrants from the UK, Europe, South America, Central America, and Mexico - all living in ethnic communities for several generations before dispersing into the larger culture. A shared bond holding those communities together was familiar sacred images that provoked immediate emotional recognition. In fact, the Catholic kitsch in this country can be subdivided by ethnic legacy. 

What's wrong with Catholic kitsch? Nothing would be wrong with it, per se, if it wasn't treated as genuine art, worthy of our admiration, worthy of adorning church walls, worthy of the art to be displayed as representing the Catholic faith. The German writer and Catholic convert, Herman Broch, considered kitsch as a form of deception. When kitsch supplies instant comfort, it denies the complexity of what is being represented: Broch calls it a "counterfeit image" allowing someone to see only what they want to see. Kitsch obscures reality.

Broch went so far as to compare the difference between art and kitsch to the distinction between good and evil: "The Anti-Christ looks like Christ, acts and speaks like Christ, but is all the same Lucifer." Or to put it another way: Catholic kitsch may look like Christ and his Mother Mary, but it's much less than either. Why? Because kitsch supplies an easy, feel-good experience in place of what genuine, sacred art provides - a challenge, eliciting a deeper understanding, a sense of awe at the mystery of what can't be known in this lifetime.  Catholic kitsch presents its figures as easily digested, non-threatening, and makes no demand on the mind or the imagination. Kitsch glorifies the superficial and treats sentimentality as holy awe. 

I'm not suggesting that all Catholic kitsch be taken down from the walls and destroyed.  Rather, I hope Catholics will recognize it as kitsch and stop giving it the respect it doesn't deserve.

Summary:
1.    Kitsch is inexpensive, mass-produced art work marked by sentimentality, high emotion, lack of reflection, and self-congratulation.
2.    Catholic kitsch is the most common form of sacred art found in Catholic homes and Catholic institutions across America.
3.    Kitsch reaffirms superficiality and sentimentality, retarding the deeper insights into our faith that are elicited by the master works of sacred art.

Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
-----
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for September 2014
Mentally disabled:
That the mentally disabled may receive the love and help they need for a dignified life.
Service to the poor: That Christians, inspired by the Word of God, may serve the poor and suffering.



Comments


More U.S.

Father Frank Pavone: 16433 Children Buried in One Grave Watch

Image of Fr. Pavone prays at the graveside of the children

By Fr. Frank Pavone

For many years, this mass grave had no marker or headstone, just as the children have no names. But now there is a stone, and we are going to name the babies. Supporters of abortion do not want people to see mass graves in our midst. It's too disturbing a ... continue reading


'We'll send them to hell!' Texas sheriff declares war on Islamic State Watch

Image of Texas sheriff Gary Painter reveals that he believes the Islamic State has already infiltrated the U.S. through the porous southern border.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Law enforcement agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border have received alerts to be on the lookout for terrorists from Islamic State attempting to cross into the United States, a sheriff from the region has said. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Midland County ... continue reading


And you thought you had bad traffic! Tropical storm strands thousands in Nevada Watch

Image of Heavy rain washed out numerous portions of Nevada's critical I-15, leaving many drivers stranded or forced to take roundabout backways.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

In what may be the area's worst storm in decades, a 2-mile-long stretch of highway in Moapa Nevada was destroyed by four inches of rain that occurred in just an hour, part of the end of Tropical Storm Norbert. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The rain caused ... continue reading


What do you do when a man takes off with millions in sunken treasure? Watch

Image of Gold coins recovered from the SS Central America.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

For the past two years, U.S. marshals have been on the hunt for Tommy Thompson, the man who made the greatest lost treasure discovery in American history back in 1988. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Thompson has been on the run as a fugitive after he skipped a ... continue reading


Wore out his welcome: Obama advocates withdrawing their support Watch

Image of A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll has yielded some most striking findings. The degree to which the president's approval has slipped among key parts of the Obama coalition, such as women, youth and Latino voters who put in him back in charge two years ago.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

U.S. President Barack Obama's support has been rapidly dwindling stateside. The president, in particular has alienated women voters, especially those who re-elected him in 2012. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "He's been faced with a lot of challenges, and ... continue reading


Values Voters: What We Can Learn from Ted Cruz Being Booed at the In Defense of Christians Conference Watch

Image of Senator Ted Cruz from Texas was the keynote speaker at what was billed as a Gala Solidarity Dinner. Sadly, it certainly did not demonstrate solidarity between Christians. A small group in the assembly, rudely and loudly, reacted negatively to some of the words Senator Cruz spoke as he expressed his convictions concerning the persecution taking place in this land which is properly holy, precisely because of its role in God's loving plan of salvation for the whole human race.

By Deacon Keith A Fournier

The events of Wednesday, September 10, 2014, at the Inaugural In Defense of Christians Gala make abundantly clear that there is a serious and urgent need for values voters to meet and discuss the crisis in the Mideast and ways in which we can work together to ... continue reading


Democrats and Republicans stand together against the Islamic State at inaugural Christian summit Watch

Image of The Islamic State has continued to murder and persecute Christians in every region they have conquered, displacing millions.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

California representative Anna Eshoo (D.) spoke at a special summit called In Defense of Christians (IDC) on September 10, commenting on the continuing persecution and slaughter of Christians at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East, specifically by ... continue reading


War? Congress and administration agree on conflict, argue over who declares it Watch

Image of President Obama's speech on September 10 outlined continued conflict against the Islamic State, and so far responses among Congress and within party lines have been mixed.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

During a live address to the nation on September 10, President Obama promised to destroy the Islamic State, functionally declaring war without the support or approval of Congress. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - This might be for the best, as a majority of ... continue reading


COMES TO LIGHT: Yahoo was threatened in 2008 with $250,000 daily fine if it didn't cooperate with NSA Watch

Image of Recently released documents, roughly 1,500 pages worth, outline a secret - and unsuccessful legal battle by Yahoo to resist the government's demands.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Would you capitulate if the United States government threatened to hit you with a quarter-of-a-million dollar DAILY fine if you didn't cooperate with them? Internet search engine Yahoo buckled to pressure back in 2008, and the dreaded National Security Agency ... continue reading


72-hour abortion wait period enacted in Missouri Watch

Image of Crowds gathered for rallies both in support and opposition of the legislation. Abortion rights activists wore purple shirts while abortion foes wore red. Both sides pointed to the personal experiences of women who had abortions.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Overriding a veto of legislation, Missouri lawmakers enacted a new law that requires women to wait 72 hours after consulting with a doctor before having an abortion. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The vote by Missouri's Republican-led legislature overrules ... continue reading


All U.S. News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31
12 For as with the human body which is a unity ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 100:1-2, 3, 4, 5
1 [Psalm For thanksgiving] Acclaim Yahweh, all the ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 7:11-17
11 It happened that soon afterwards he went to a town ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 16th, 2014 Image

St. Cornelius
September 16: Cornelius whose feast day is September 16th. A Roman priest, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter