A Profound Weakness- Betty Spackman interview
Interview with Betty Spackman by Verge, Trinity Western University, Langley B.C., Canada,
about her book A Profound Weakness. Christians and Kitsch, Piquant – Carlisle, 2005.
Q: What brought you to this topic and got you interested enough to write about it?
A: I discuss this at length in the introduction of the book but let me list a few of the motivations here. I saw how clichés were choking the life out of the Gospel. I wanted to be an artist of quality and as a Christian saw such shabby expressions of the Christian faith that showed none of the wonder and excitement I knew about God. I am an artist. The Protestant Church was rejecting artists but was embracing kitsch. Many of my colleagues who wanted to be artists of quality felt they had to make choices between being artists or being a part of a church community. Some chose to hide in the Church away from the world of art and some chose to hide in the world of art away from the Church. It was a long, weary battle.
Later, having resolved many of the issues for myself I spent 15 years as a professional artist also teaching in Christian universities. I saw so many young artists going through similar struggles. I could not just ignore or condemn what I had left behind. I had to make sense of it for my students. There were a lot of questions to be asked. The book is a collection of those questions as well as some of my discoveries over the last 30 years of my life. My hope is that because I have wrestled with these questions, others will be able to go ahead with something new.
Q: The word "kitsch" is often used as a synonym for "bad art." Is that what it is? Is it only negative?
A: Definitions are extremely problematic. The several ways that kitsch has been defined over the years have determined the way we look at it. I actually try to deconstruct these definitions. The word itself comes from a German word that means to make something in a shabby way and therefore determines the attitude we automatically have towards it. I am not as interested in definitions as I am in the relationship between what we call kitsch and what we call culture. The presence of so much visual material that is the commercial reproduction, and trivialization of something meaningful, be it the Eiffel tower or the cross of Christ, is what interests me. Why is it there and how do people use it? Going over again and again whether or not it is bad art is a never ending circle that goes nowhere and only reinforces an elitist arrogance.
I try to discover what is beyond just the comparative issues of good art/bad art or good taste/bad taste. These binary paradigms are not enough. Meaning in kitsch and all art is dependent on historic, cultural, religious, political, gender and age contexts, to name only a few. There are of course both positive and negative causes and effects of these objects and images. In this book which is simply an image journal of my own personal journey of discovery I barely touch on these things but try to ask enough questions to generate a discussion past the obvious.
As Christians we are much too prone to look at the world in black and white. If kitsch is good or bad, if art is good or bad, are not the questions we should be asking. We should be asking questions like; does this artistic expression demonstrate honesty and a real search for truth? How does it reflect the time and place in which it is situated. Who buys it? Why do they buy it? Who makes it? Why do they make it? Does it express both passion and compassion towards others? Does it bring change in people or lifestyles? Does it make us think and see in new ways? Does it reinforce old ways of thinking? Is it propaganda? Why?
We can also ask spiritual questions. Does the physical world give us clues to the spiritual? Is there power in an object or an image? Can material and meaning be separated? And what does it mean in Hebrews 11:3 that “what we see was not made out of things that are visible”? When we limit ourselves to arrogantly stand in judgement of what is “good” or not good, we have a very narrow vision indeed. I might not like what I see, but I cannot walk away without understanding why I do not like it. Having approached kitsch in this way I was no less intellectually critical but I found myself being more merciful. I even realized that kitsch has played an important role as a street art that sustains the fragmented faith of generations of Christians who have not been allowed to make art or have it in their Churches. The dashboard of the car which becomes an altar with a bobble head Jesus and a glow in the dark cross is not necessarily to be laughed at. The reason it is there is just too complex.
Q: Why has kitsch been ignored by the scholarly community (aside from brief comments on how bad it is), while it appears in the homes of most people and is often their only interaction with art?
A: It is true that almost all the writing (that I am aware of) that addresses the topic of kitsch speaks of it only in the negative. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, Yale University Press, 1995, by Colleen McDannell, that deals in a very scholarly way specifically with images of faith is an exception, as is Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman, ed David Morgan, Yale University Press, 1996 which is about the images of Christ in the works of Warner Sallman. And, Susan Stewart’s excellent work, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke University Press, 1993 is a book that I find the most helpful in putting kitsch into a cultural context and taking it away from an analysis based solely on taste and various hierarchies of definition in the fine art world.
However, the general trend in addressing this material has been the ‘slamming and damning’ approach or as your question suggests, the ignoring of it as inconsequential. This was also my attitude for many years as I struggled with my faith and my desire to make good art. The cheaply made, poor representation of Christianity I saw promoted in so many trivialized clichés prompted me to join the battle against kitsch. This was the same time that Franky Schaeffer wrote his necessarily angry books directed toward the Christian community, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, Crossway Books, 1981 and his later book, Sham Pearls for Real Swine. We needed to make a stand against the mediocre and engage in a fight for excellence. (I talk about this time extensively in the intro to the book as “The Kitsch Bitch Choruses”)
Now the time has come to bring some balance. There are Christians making excellent work inside and outside the Church. But what we call kitsch is still thriving. People still use it for the most profound moments in their lives. It is still the teddy bears and plastic flowers and heart shaped candles that mark places like Ground O in NYC after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is still the reproductions not the originals of fine art and religious icons that most people are able to afford in their homes. It is still the cliché Christmas cards that sell the most and express the sentiments (and sentimentality) of millions of people in our Western culture.
I do not consider myself a true scholar. I am an artist. I often say that I wish that others had taken time to address the issues I raise in my book so I could have been in the studio working instead. However, it was a very good exercise for me and I learned a lot from doing it.
As a teacher of art I found it was a necessary book to do knowing the visual illiteracy of the Protestant community in particular where I work. Part of my role as an artist is to challenge assumed standards by helping people see in new ways and provoke critical thinking through visual language. My hope is that art historians, critics, theologians and sociologists will follow up on the questions I have raised. There is so much to learn – so much that is PROFOUND in the WEAKNESS of these expressions we call ‘kitsch’ which seem to represent the sincere hearts, not only the sentimental ‘hearts and flowers’ of our western culture. If scholars would be more involved with popular culture, and artists more active in the public space, there might not be such a gap in understanding of the arts in general.
Q: Christians obviously don't have a monopoly on all things kitsch, so what is unique about Christian kitsch?
A: Perhaps there is nothing unique about Christian kitsch in relation to all kitsch and how kitsch functions. However, the fact that it is used so extensively to express faith should be of great interest (and concern) to Christians.
Many artists have used religious kitsch in their work to denigrate not only kitsch but Christianity. They realize the connection is very strong between faith and these seemly shallow expressions of it. And so they should. These poor representative of our faith have often been all we have given the world (each other, and God) as Protestant believers in the last century. Sunday schools are full of materials that could be easily rated as kitsch while the sanctuary is void of anything that resembles art. Weddings and funerals and births, as well as Easter and Christmas, the two most sacred events of the Christian calendar are all celebrated with a plethora of religious kitsch items. Evangelism thrives on it and in the name of evangelism the Christian music and commercial art industries have produced some of the most pathetic and embarrassing examples of “Christian Art”.
If we do not understand what we are doing and how what we are doing is affecting the image of God in the world then we should indeed be made fun of by the world which instead of seeing God in this ‘flotsam and jetsam’ sees a sentimental, non thinking, and ineffective Christian community. It has been our laziness and our fear that have kept us from intellectually and spiritually engaging and transforming culture through the arts. Our children have asked for bread and we have given them stones. This should be incentive enough take kitsch seriously.
Q: You are an artist as well as a scholar. In what way does a mindfulness of kitsch affect your approach to art-making?
A: Perhaps only that I am less arrogant than I was ten years ago. Although I do not let go of my ever increasing desire for excellence in my work and critical engagement with my contemporaries in the field of art, I am less quick to be dismissive of things I don’t like. I will never embrace shabby work, especially done in the name of God, when it would have been possible for something better to have been done. However I am more eager, more compassionate, more willing, to embrace the desires and the work of those who want to express their faith (or fantasy) and do not have the means – through education or resources. I know too well that some of the most costly, most refined, most skilful art is often what Hans Rookmaaker used to call ”beautiful meaninglessness” ( the Emperor’s new clothes syndrome).
Which is better, after all, an empty vessel of gold or a full vessel of clay? Both are lacking. Ideally there should be richness in both form and content. For the Christian, for the artist, this means a constant dying to self, a submission to the material as well as the Creator - not imposing meaning through propagandistic messaging but finding truth in the inward parts in order to speak it, or rather show it, honestly through your work.
Q: Kitsch is made to reach a large audience and not be challenging. Your book is very challenging, but what audience is it for?
A: There are three groups of people I hope this book speaks to.The first are students of art who are struggling with issues of faith in their own life or simply asking questions about art and culture. The second group is the Christian parents of these students and members of the Church who have grown up either thinking the arts are evil or only to be used for evangelism. The third group is for artists and cultural critics in general – anyone interested in kitsch as a cultural phenomena. It is for all of us who love to hate it and find ourselves hating the fact that we love it.