Art or Propaganda?

Faith, according to scripture, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Images of faith, then, are a kind of oxymoron that has been a conundrum to the church for centuries. What happens when the substance of things seen attempts to express the “substance of things hoped for”? Why is it that so much of the imagery used to express Christian faith can be considered “kitsch”? Why is such profound meaning visualized in such feeble ways?

Most writings on the subject, and most dictionaries, define kitsch as any form of popular art or entertainment that is a sentimental, cheaply made trivialization of something else. It is seen as a kind of pseudo-art that borrows from original ideas or copies them directly. I am not convinced that the “original” is as sacred (or even as real) a thing as most of these accounts imply; nevertheless, reproduction—the means by which kitsch objects proliferate—is the antithesis of the creation of an original, which we have generally come to accept as a criterion of fine art and crucial to the notion of the artist as genius and author of the unique.

I see kitsch, as defined by art theory and my own experience, to be both a frivolous and a dangerous thing—a plastic flower with razor-sharp edges or a Kewpie-doll-shaped grenade—which I handle with much care. However, I have also found that some of the most unassuming, unpretentious artifacts that are disregarded by the official domains of fine art and religion have profound influence on some people, going to the very core of their deepest beliefs and most personal passions. For this reason, these so-called artistically weak objects, these culturally poor works of art, demand my attention, begging questions about the relationships between consumerism and desire, art and faith, accessibility and elitism. How do I, as a professional artist and a Christian, reconcile (or not) the continuing consumption of things my aesthetic taste and my personal faith reject at so many levels? What power do these images have? Are they just harmless cultural curios or are they insidious spiritual toxins that can, as C.S. Lewis says, poison the heart?

Betty Spackman is an artist based in British Columbia, Canada. Excerpted from A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, by Betty Spackman. Copyright 2005. Piquant Editions Ltd.

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