Kitsch, Pornography and Other Evils

You can always count on a monastic to stir things up.  Recently at a professional development seminar, I heard a Dominican sister speak about liberal arts education: the “free arts,” by their more ancient name, are so called because their concern is with attaining knowledge for the betterment of the whole person and, through it, freedom for society as a whole.  By contrast, the “servile arts” create a utilitarian product that serves a purpose and, often, a person.  As one who attended a liberal arts high school and now teaches in one, I wholeheartedly support this approach, which is under attack at the moment by a depressed economy and a secular population that believes practical / monetary value to be the highest good.

As an example, Sister took us through a brief history of visual art, starting with the Classical and Renaissance Periods and continuing through the Impressionists and modern times.  In what has been called (by someone whose name I didn’t write down, of course) the “schizophrenic fragmentation of narrative,” modern forms of art have now imploded: in the absence of an expression of truth and a respect for the history of the discipline, we’re left with the empty shell of a thing — form but no substance.  Duchamp’s toilet bowl.  Mondrian’s blocks of color.  Pollock’s drips and splatters.

Consider the praise chorus, a shallow repetition of three chords and some non-rhyming phrases that, more often than not, center more on the worshipper than the Worshipped.  There’s nothing wrong with it, really, but without the benefit of the history of sacred music, it becomes a substitute that younger generations will begin to mistake for the real thing.  And it’s not.  Real worship is at once painful and enlightening.

Ultimately, Sister argued, we come to the most empty and dangerous forms of “art.”  One is pornography: a glorification of the sexual dimension of the human body without reference to soul or society.  The other is kitsch: garden gnomes, Barbie and Thomas Kinkade.  These, too, present a reality that is devoid of any substance, having been stripped of sacred values.  They’re “pretty” if you look only at the colors and designs, but they are not good, and they are certainly not liberating.

Not what I was expecting to hear from a lecture on the liberal arts.  But I think she’s right on the money.  And I’ll endorse the Thomas Kinkade Defamation League any chance I get.