Last year, I started to hear recommendations to read the newly translated into English novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus («Лавр»). Then, I read Rod Dreher’s discussion of it in The American Conservative: “People Need Other Things To Live By.” I recommend the article, which includes an interview with the author. I am currently in the middle of the book, but I won’t spoil it for you. Наслаждайтесь.
As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:
Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.
We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.
Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.
I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
Last spring, I read an interesting article about the Inklings in The Chronicle of Higher Education that may interest you: “Oxford’s Influential Inklings.” Philip and Carol Zaleski explore this famous bunch of dons and contrasts them to the Bloomsbury Group. It is a fascinating read.
The Inklings feature significantly in my intellectual and spiritual formation. I have made two Inkling-focused pilgrimages to Oxford (those stones on Beren and Lúthien’s grave—yeah, those are from me; they surely outlasted the flowers that I bought at the petrol station for the Lewis brothers’ tomb), and I delight to learn more about these veritable gifts to us English-speaking people living in the twilight of our civilization.