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)?
Enjoy the last days before Lent. If you intend to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, you may be interested to know the backstory of one of the nominated documentaries, Cavedigger. A few months ago, I read about the documentary’s subject, Ra Paulette the cave sculptor, in “How a modern caveman could win an Academy Award.” It is worth your time to visit just to see the incredible work that the man does. From the article:
The caves are not enormous; mostly, their square footage would be comparable to rooms or perhaps small houses. His ambitions for them are outsize, though, as he describes in a new documentary shortlisted for an Academy Award, “CaveDigger,” directed by Jeffrey Karoff:
“These caves are designed as transcendent spaces. The fact that the cave is underground and you feel the earth around you yet the sun is pouring in: Those are the juxtapositions of the two metaphors of our life, the inside, the within, and the without. it’s a perceptual trick that brings out deep, expansive emotionality.”
And when he says “transcendent,” he isn’t just being flowery. “I want to subject mercilessly a person to the aesthetic in a way that stimulates a deep emotionality to the point where it becomes a transformative tool. That’s a big goal, but I’m ready for it.”
He doesn’t do it for glory, and he certainly doesn’t do it for money: When he’s been paid at all for his work, he’s generally earned perhaps $15 or $20 an hour.
“I don’t put any energy into being a success in the world,” he says. “My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me.”
He has taken a few commissions, not all of which have gone well.
“Ra’s not your typical person, which is what I like about him,” says his close friend, ex-girlfriend and onetime patron, Liz Riedel. “He doesn’t do things for himself, he does things for art. He does things for other people”—meaning the viewer of his art, not necessarily the person paying for it.
Riedel and her husband, Shel Neymark, commissioned a piece from him that was supposed to take two months and cost $2,000. They knew what they were getting into, though: They privately doubled his estimate, figuring that Paulette being Paulette, he’d take four months and $4,000.
It took two years—during which Riedel learned that she had cancer. She underwent grueling treatments. The couple asked Paulette many times to stop, and even believed once or twice that they’d convinced him. Still he refused to leave the project.
“When he has a shovel in his hand, he’s like a coke addict with piles of coke. He just loves to keep going and going,” Neymark said.
They admit, though: The work he produced for them was transcendent.
Paulette’s story reminds me of one of my first lessons in college, though I did not learn it at the time. In a freshman American political philosophy course, the professor (one of many Straussians in my formation) explained the liberal commercial republican ideal of bourgeois self reliance and then asked about the people who do not fit well into such a regime—like artists. I considered myself a libertarian at the time, and I reckoned that such a man would just live in poverty if not starve. I didn’t give it much more thought than a Social Darwinian sigh and a nonchalant tant pis pour lui. If our hypothetical man wanted to flourish, he would have to play the game like everyone else. Over time, though, I came to realize that a society impoverishes itself by not furnishing niches for human diversity in disposition and talent. Of course, the breadth that a regime can allow depends on its strength; a civilization under constant threat of martial annihilation necessarily focuses on making its people soldiers rather than artists. Yet, it is the less for it. Sparta is a fact to behold, but its excellence came at great costs. Regimes—and their lawgivers—must weigh such benefits and costs in trying to maximize the excellence of their people. A nation of shopkeepers has its value, but it offers a very narrow path for human fulfillment.