Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Deal W. Hudson

1/7/2014 (2 years 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 (2 years 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'


Copyright 2015 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for April 2016
Universal:
Small Farmers: That small farmers may receive a just reward for their precious labor.
Evangelization: African Christians: That Christians in Africa may give witness to love and faith in Jesus Christ amid political-religious conflicts.



Comments


More U.S.

No Phony Truces in the Battle to Block Most Anti-Life, Liberal Court in a Generation

Image of The United States Supreme Court

By J. Kenneth Blackwell

While much of our attention is on the Presidential race, the looming battle over a Supreme Court nomination merits no less attention.  The battle lines are clear in this nomination and the future of the Court and our Constitutional principles are at ... continue reading


Fr Frank Pavone - Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis' Encouraging Roadmap for Families Watch

Image of Fr Frank Pavone, National Director, Priests for Life

By Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director, Priests for Life

Amoris Laetitia is a timely and loving exhortation for families towards genuine charity that begins within the nuclear family. It can be described as a new road-map for a culture that has taken a sad and tragic detour. The Joy of Love recognizes women's ... continue reading


Catherine of Siena: We Need Saints for this Missionary Age Watch

Image of Today, in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar, we commemorate one of the greatest women saints of Christian history, Catherine of Siena.  While praying at Peter's tomb, she experienced the great weight of the Church fall on her shoulders.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Father, raise up women like Catherine of Siena for this new missionary age of your Church. Women who are so in love with you, and so conformed to the Image of your Son, they can do for your Church in this hour, what she did in her own. Saints are a gift for the ... continue reading


Christian student shockingly dropped from master's program for practicing religious rights Watch

Image of Andrew Cash was discriminated against for practicing his religious rights (YouTube).

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Andrew Cash practiced his religious rights at Missouri State University - and was dismissed from the master's program in counseling as a result. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to the Catholic News Agency, Cash was referring same-sex couples to another ... continue reading


Not a newsflash, U.S. government authorized use of propaganda on American people...in 2013. Here's who to blame Watch

Image of Obama signed the amendment into law in 2013.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Does the news seem a little too pro-American to you? Does it seem reporters pull punches and that the real issues are ignored? Perhaps that's the result of a quiet change to the law that took place in 2013. A law banning the use of government propaganda on the American ... continue reading


The cost of incarceration: What can we do? Watch

Image of What can we do about overpopulated prisons and ex-cons' ability to find work (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)?

By Matt Hadro (CNA)

Experts from across the political spectrum are calling for criminal justice reform, as a new White House report shows the human and economic costs of the current justice system. Washington D.C. (CNA) - "This is a singular moment in one of the most challenging issues ... continue reading


Sickening portrayal of Jesus pinned to a dartboard presented as art in university library Watch

Image of

By Abigail James (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

An appalling portrayal of Jesus plastered to a dartboard was posted up as artwork inside the Art Library at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The "art piece," titled "Vitruvian Man," shows Jesus nailed to the dartboard ... continue reading


Which bathroom should you use? And why is this a question? Watch

Image of Figuring out which restroom to use isn't supposed to be a dilemma.

By Marshall Connolly (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

The American people are seemingly obsessed with public restrooms these days and precisely how people use the potty. The fear is being stoked by concerns that individuals who "self-identify" as the opposite sex, will take advantage of liberal policies and assault ... continue reading


Prayer Is the Path to Real Freedom Watch

Image of Prayer is the lifeline of a Christian

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Jesus said to his disciples: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. CHESAPEAKE, VA. ... continue reading


Why is Obama now sending 250 MORE troops to Syria? Watch

Image of U.S. President Barack Obama will be sending more troops to the Middle East.

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

U.S. President Barack Obama announced 250 more special operations forces are to be deployed to Syria within the next few weeks. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) -  Obama stated: "Just as I approved additional support for Iraqi forces against ISIL, I've decided to ... continue reading


All U.S. News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

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

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Acts 16:1-10
1 From there he went to Derbe, and then on to Lystra, where there was a ... Read More

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

Gospel, John 15:18-21
18 If the world hates you, you must realise that it hated me before it ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for April 30th, 2016 Image

St. Pius V, Pope
April 30: Pope from 1566-1572 and one of the foremost ... Read More