THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE of America was up in arms in 2002 about an exhibition in Napa, California, which included the “caganer”, a traditional Catalan figurine who is placed squatting in the corner of the Christmas crib, trousers around his ankles.
Perhaps predictably, the Catholic League was offended by the presence of a defecating peasant in the holy stable. What it didn’t appreciate, however, is that the Christmas story is supposed to be offensive, and that the caganer is a reminder of the theological revolution that scandalized sophisticated opinion of the first few centuries of the Christian era: that God became human, that the sacred was no longer to be protected from the profane.
In his great masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Czech novelist Milan Kundera develops an innovative moral vocabulary around the notion of kitsch. Kitsch, he argues, isn’t primarily about bad taste or the vulgarities of popular devotional images: kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit”. Kitsch is that vision of the world in which nothing unwholesome or indecent is allowed to come into view. It’s the aesthetics of wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Kitsch excludes shit in order to paint a picture of perfection, a world of purity and moral decency.
THE PROBLEM WITH KITSCH is not readily apparent because (by definition) the treatment of what is considered unwholesome takes place off stage. Think of those Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, healthy children skiing down the Bavarian Alps. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course there is. For this is a world that has been purified, where everything nasty or troubling has been eliminated. The logical conclusion of kitsch, argues Kundera, is the ghetto and the concentration camp – the means by which totalitarian regimes dispose of their shit, variously construed.
Opening the infamous exhibition of degenerate art in the summer of 1937, Hitler gave notice that “from now on in we will wage a war of purification against the last elements of putrefaction in our culture”. Kitsch turns out to be motivation to cleanse the world of pollution. It is the aesthetics of ethnic cleansing.
Kundera himself thinks theology to be the ultimate source of kitsch. He recounts how as a child an aimless thought experiment led him from God having a mouth to God having intestines – the implications of which struck the young Kundera as sacrilegious. This instant and visceral reaction against the association of the divine with the messiness of the human helps us appreciate something of the hostility of many early thinkers to the idea of the incarnation. God and the messiness of the world must be kept at the maximum possible distance. But what then of God become human? What of the word become flesh?
Even many who felt the attraction of the Christian story believed this was going too far. Convoluted ways were sought to mitigate the offence. Christ was not really human or Christ was not really divine. Others created a firewall between the sacred and the profane within the person of Jesus himself. For the second century Gnostic, Valentinius, Jesus “ate and drank but did not defecate”.
The Jesus of Valentinius is thus the kitsch Jesus. And it’s this same kitsch Jesus of sentimental benevolence that features in countless Christmas cards and community carol services. The baby in the manger now presides over a celebration of feel-good bonhomie that makes the true meaning of Christmas almost impossible to articulate. Boozed-up partygoers and proud grandparents demand the unreality of “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie”. Elsewhere Kundera writes of kitsch as “the need to gaze into the mirror and be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection”. And it’s this gratifying reflection that many want to see when they gaze into the Christmas crib. Christmas has become unbearably self-satisfied.
THE CAGANER IS A REMINDER of another Jesus and another story. From the perspective of official Christian doctrine, the story of Christmas is a full-scale attack upon the notion of kitsch. Valentinius’s theology is declared heretical precisely because it denies the full reality of the incarnation. For Valentinius, Jesus only seemed human. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see”, as the equally heretical carol puts it. Orthodoxy turns out to be vastly more radical, not because it provides a way of squaring the circle of a God-man, but because it refuses to separate the divine from material reality. God is born in a stable. The divine is re-imagined, not as existing in some pristine isolation, but among the shittiness of the world.
The temptation to disassociate the divine from material reality marks the beginnings of kitsch. For, once unhitched from the divine, the complexity of the world can be too easily by-passed and ignored. The orthodox formulation of the incarnation allows no way of avoiding politics, food, sex or money. Nor, as the Christian story of God goes on to make horribly clear, does it offer a way of avoiding suffering and death.
The problem isn’t that Christmas has become too materialistic – but rather that it isn’t materialistic enough. Kitsch Christmas is another way of uncoupling the divine from the material, thus spiritualizing God into incapacity. I am not being a killjoy attacking the kitsch version of Christmas. Three years ago, my wife gave birth to a baby boy. The labour ward was no place to be coy about the human body and all its functions. The talcum-powdered unreality of kitsch childbirth cannot compare with the exhaustion, pain and joy of the real thing.
But perhaps the most important corruption of Christmas kitsch is how it shapes our understanding of peace. This is the season where the word “peace” is ubiquitous. Written out in fancy calligraphy everywhere, “peace and good will to all” is the subscript of the season. It’s the peace of the sleeping child, peace as in “peace and quiet”, peace as a certain sort of mood. But this is not what they need in Bethlehem today. They need peace as in people not killing each other.
This sort of peace requires a stubborn engagement with the brute facts of oppression and violence – which is the very reality that the kitsch peace of Christmas wants to take us on holiday away from. How ironic: we don’t want the shittiness of the world pushed at us during this season of peace. This, then, is the debilitating consequence of kitsch. Kitsch peace is the unspoken desire that war takes place out of sight and mind – it’s the absolute denial of shit. Political leaders who are preparing for yet more fighting will be happy to oblige. Christmas has become a cultural danger to us all, not just a danger to orthodox Christianity.
Rev. Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. This article was first published on Ship of Fools in 2002.