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October 26, 2005

An Apology for Bad Taste: why the garish, the kitsch, and the sentimental have their place in religious imagery

Posted by Roger Homan

Professor Roger Homan - the author of the forthcoming The Art of the Sublime: Principles in Christian Art & Architecture - defends bad taste in religious art.

There was once a television programme called Stars on Sunday. Beneath chandeliers and alongside sumptuous flower arrangements, celebrities in evening dress read the Bible and sang favourite sacred songs like The Holy City and The old rugged Cross. It was likened by one critic to a re-enactment of the Crucifixion with Danny La Rue in the part of Mary Magdalen and the massed bands of the Scottish armed guards playing Will he no come back again?

In the visual culture of religion, bad taste abounds. It may be found around shrines, places of pilgrimage and in cathedral shops. Much of it is intended for private consumption. It dwells upon themes that have become unfashionable such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus, anatomically drawn. Of the opportunity at Lisieux to purchase a facsimile of St Teresa's whip, not all pilgrims these days avail themselves. At Florence there are posters of rosy-cheeked putti and in Rome one can buy an umbrella the interior of which replicates the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It is variously sentimental, exaggerated and unctuous. It is characterized by Tillich as "dishonest saccharine prettiness". And yet I would suggest that it is more devout and desirable than the stripped-down respectability of official ecclesiastic taste.

Bad taste is allied to other less valued and marginal tendencies in religious art including the low brow, kitsch, tack and pastiche. These descriptions betray judgements that emanate from the art establishment. While generally in tune with popular piety, the authors of bad taste operate with various constraints and motives. The economy of scale and the margin of profit come to bear on the production of souvenirs and the trappings of devotion for retail to the pilgrim faithful. Sometimes low brow images may connect more effectively with the spirituality of the faithful than would the sophisticated art of the élite or the subdued propriety of the hierarchy.

Of course, bad taste is not confined to the religious domain. The lurid decorations of the fairground and the seaside or the melodrama of the pantomime lack the subtlety and refinement that would qualify them for high status. But because they have no comparative models they are established as independent genres. Jesus Christ Superstar is not approached with the expectations appropriate for Handel's Messiah. The fate of the low brow in religious art, however, is to be set against the high brow.

The arbiters of taste apply not the criterion of spiritual or devotional function but canons developed in secular settings, in galleries and learned discourse. There has prevailed a kind of cultural snobbery in which "art" has been operated as an exclusive category and those who consider themselves to know better have looked with disdain upon those who do not. Their voices can be heard from time to time when the Prince of Wales expresses a view on architecture.

The distinction between good and bad has been somewhat weakened by the introduction of the more inclusive concept of "visual culture" and by scholarly works such as David Morgan's Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998) and Frank Burch Brown's Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste (Oxford University Press, 2000).

The city of Granada offers the extremes of high and low. The little church of San Gregorio in the Arab quarter is used to being overshadowed by the supreme accomplishment of the nearby Alhambra and the highest Spanish baroque of the chapel of La Cartuja, the Carthusian monastery. San Gregorio is very much a local church in contrast to the civic dignity of the cathedral and Royal Chapel. In none of those grander places do we find the plastic carnations that attend the images of San Gregorio and typify the manner in which the users of this church adorn it. However naïve are its decorations, its art is vibrant and serves its people.

The disapproval of religious art that is emotive, unrefined, sentimental, excessive or garish coincides with economic considerations to make a fashion of the lowest common factor. The monosyllable of the Dalek succeeds the elegance of Cranmer's petitions, the clipart Cross suffices where the finest skills of metalworkers and embroiderers were once deployed and the soothing comforts that befit the crematorium chapel displace the Gothic place of prayer; as Betjeman observed when asked to find merit in the modern church interior, "it's easier to dust".

My plea for the survival of bad taste, however, is uttered not merely on the basis of its vitality but in view of the manner that succeeds it. This emerges in the form of catalogue art which is in the vanguard of declining standards. Vestments and furnishings are devoid of detail, let alone distinction. The fashion is sanctified as simplicity. Like liturgical language, the visual vocabulary of worship is reduced to the basics. The effect – and possibly the intention - of diminishing the colours and textures of worship is to transfer the spotlight from its formal and ritual aspects to the charisma of the officiant. What we see in the catalogues of church suppliers is not bad taste – oh, that it were – but an elimination of the visual experience of Christian faith.

We see it too in churchyards, once rich in verbal and visual vocabulary and now regulated by committees. The brochures of funeral directors illustrate an extensive variety of possibilities. Granite, widely disallowed in the churchyard, is acclaimed in the catalogue Memorials of Distinction as "truly the Rock of Ages". Hearts etched into black granite evoke Valentine cards. Other designs borrow Christian images and sentiments:

Daffodils set in a panel. The first flower of spring, symbolising new life... A sculptured angel guards the words of love inscribed on the book… Rays of light sweep down to the cross and finely etched Alexander roses… A cross, the chief symbol of Christianity, with delicately carved roses entwining the stem.
But if one wants creative sculpture and epitaph, one must repose in the municipal cemetery. Church House publishes The Churchyards Handbook and diocesan guidelines take their cue from it in regulating minimal inscriptions and the plainest "good" taste. Christian symbolism and funereal art have been surrendered.

The danger in the Church's endorsement of a high and secular view of art is the disengagement of those many of its faithful for whom "lower" forms are the essence of devotion. It is a costly sacrifice that is difficult to square with the rhetoric of "mission".

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

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I hate to disagree with a specialist, but I'm simply unconvinced by the assertion, made twice, that bad religious art has "vitality" or "vibrancy". These characterizations seem to me both to be false and to sidestep the problem presented by it.

And I don't think it will do either to present kitsch as an alternative to the "sophisticated art of the élite or the subdued propriety of the hierarchy". Both of those phrases seem intended to take any alternative down a peg or two. They also (perhaps unintentionally) hide the fact that there might be (or have been) religious art that is not kitsch but is neither the exclusive preserve of an elite nor subdued.

Professor Scruton provides a plausible explanation of why we recoil from sentimentality in art: "Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel," he says.

It seems to me that he is quite right there, and this is why I say there is a problem here than can't be sidestepped. This isn't purely a matter of art or of taste. It's a matter of pushing false emotional attitudes at one and offering "complicity".

Scruton also suggests that "... kitsch is a modern invention" and thinks it cannot be found before the Enlightenment. If he is right, there is something very interesting going on here.

Posted by: Reader at October 26, 2005 04:19 PM

somewhere, pointing out the liguistic connection between amatuer and lover, chesterton writes that nobody loves art so much as a bad painter, for the expert may be in love with his own talent while the bad Sunday painter has no such excuse.

Posted by: s masty at October 26, 2005 04:26 PM
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