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By Deal W. Hudson

1/13/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

I am very anxious to respond to the opposing arguments about Catholic kitsch that appear in the comments.

But as St. Paul writes, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child" (1 Cor 11:13.) The reader may think this too harsh, but I would ask why the religious images that helped us learn our faith as a child should not give way to different images as we grow older, just as comic books and TV cartoons give way to more challenging media. 

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.

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.

Highlights

By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

1/13/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: Catholic Kitsch, catholic art, culture, religious art, piety, popular piety, Church and culture, Deal W. Hudson


WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - I want to thank all the Catholic Online readers who took the time to leave comments about my article "On Catholic Kitsch" (1/7/14).  I always learn something from such impassioned replies, even if I don't agree with all of them.

If I have made a serious mistake in judgment about these Catholic representations of the saints and God's love, I ask for your prayers that I will realize it fully.

Let's leave aside the "shame on you" comments and the like. I hope readers know that personal rebukes only provoke a smile. After my sixty-four years on this earth, my skin has thickened to the extent it rejects - though not all the time - the invective hurled my way. This includes, by the way, accusations of being "snooty," "elitist," "mean-spirited," "intellectual," "cynical," "patronizing," etc. I'm sure my interlocutors, upon reflection, know that ad hominem arguments - against the man, not the argument - do not settle differences of opinion.

But I am very anxious to respond to the opposing arguments about Catholic kitsch that appear in the comments. 

The most repeated argument is about the "expense" of non-kitschy, Catholic art (Mary@42, Linda, V. Smith). A better argument would be about the ease of availability.  Why? Because good Catholic art is available and often inexpensive - it's just harder to find because Catholic retailers normally don't go to the trouble of making it available to the public. If kitsch sells, "sells like hot cakes" as Atilla The Possum put it, then why take the risk of offering what is untested. I agree that Catholic kitsch is usually inexpensive, but I'm not suggesting that Catholics should be buying expensive paintings, statues, and rosaries, although many Catholics do allot their resources in this direction. (If readers would like a list of websites where good Catholic art can be found at reasonable prices, I would be glad to supply it.)

Another repeated argument was about the pedagogical and catechetical value of Catholic kitsch to children (Carrie B.) With this, I would heartily agree. In fact, I think that is the primary value of Catholic kitsch. I was introduced to the classics of Western literature as a child by reading the Classics Illustrated comic books.  I don't read them anymore, but I did go to the trouble of finding out-of-print copies for my two children. It's natural to have a warm, sentimental association with experiences from childhood, especially those that deeply directed you towards adulthood.

But as St. Paul writes, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child" (1 Cor 11:13.) The reader may think this too harsh, but I would ask why the religious images that helped us learn our faith as a child should not give way to different images as we grow older, just as comic books and TV cartoons give way to more challenging media. 

Since when did the beauty of great Catholic art, such as that filling the Vatican Museum, require a special "intellectual ability" to understand what is "complex" as Carrie B. argues? No doubt the intricacies of Michaelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel can occupy our eyes for many hours, but who has looked at that painting, whether in a book or in the chapel itself, and not immediately felt its majesty. I can't think of a single instance of classic, Catholic art that requires any special training or brainpower to appreciate. After giving your attention to those images, your immediate delight will deepen into a stronger spiritual awareness.

Atilla The Possum makes an ingenious argument in defense of Catholic kitsch, namely, that articles of kitsch for "generations of Roman Catholics. . . have been and still are given pride of place above the fireplace, above our beds, on our window sills, on top of the TV, or the mantel. . . "  Atilla goes on to argue that such kitsch is "no different" from the "posed family photos" where "our relatives and friends struck those poses and grinned like Cheshire cats (or not)." Atilla describes those photographs as "significant moments in our lives and. . . [that] would make those memories come flooding back."

I agree with Atilla's comparison: Catholic kitsch is made powerful by its association not by the beauty of its artistic worth. We love it because it reminds us of something we hold dear.  Atilla, thus, has made the point I was trying to make. But Atilla goes further.

Atilla discusses a 2013 photograph taken in the Philippines after an "awful, devastating natural disaster." Atilla describes the photo as capturing "something pretty breathtaking and encouraging to people of all faiths and none." The photo itself was of "a group of people of various ages who were holding in their hands statues, pictures, and items depicting the Child of Prague, Our Lady, The Sacred Heart, various saints, crucifixes, and rosaries processing to safety in the midst of destruction, mayhem, confusion, danger."

Who would not be moved by such an image? I certainly am.

What moves me is not the collection of Catholic kitsch - though crosses and rosaries are not kitsch - but the intrepid faith of a people who have been through complete devastation and still give God His glory. Remove any of the kitsch from the photo, and it remains just as moving.

I will reread the responses again, and the responses to this, in the hope we can come to some smidgen of agreement as I gleaned from what was said by Trinibagion, I understand this article in the sense that we all have to make a judgment about how we display our holy images. This is true. . . . we ought to be careful about our images, our words spoken/written, how we look/dress etc... what we communicate about God.

I'm looking forward to continuing this discussion.  Thank you!

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.

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