Catherine Madsen

Kitsch and Liturgy

by Catherine Madsen



Civilizations die in the measure that they have become conscious of themselves. They realize, they lose heart, the propulsion of the unconscious motive is no longer there. Desperately they begin to copy themselves in the mirror. It is no use.


— Lawrence Durrell


And ye brought that which was torn, and the lame, and the sick; thus ye brought an offering: should I accept this of your hand?


—Malachi 1:13


Prayer in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


There is a peculiar and inconsolable trauma in seeing a fully evolved liturgical language—even a language one could not believe in—replaced almost overnight, not by the language one could believe in but by a thinner version of itself with a much reduced vocabulary. The vacuity of new liturgical writing in English seems to be its hallmark, its purpose, so pervasive that even denominational boundaries are helpless to hold it back. One need not miss the authoritarian style, the masculine focus, or the pompous delivery of old liturgy to miss its moral intensity, its heightened emotional register, its fusion of sound and sense. One need not endorse rigid traditionalism to feel that the new liturgies have excised something crucial and introduced something counterfeit.

            There is no reason why the use of a modern vernacular—the lessening of a linguistic demand—should entail the lessening of an emotional demand. Even where the modern vernacular called old beliefs into question, the new liturgies might have incorporated the incisive and liberating words of the enemies of belief—William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Elias Canetti—to put worship to the test and see if it could survive. For the most part they tried nothing of the kind. They surrendered from the outset to shallow and patronizing forms of piety, as if that were the point of modernity. One might suspect that the writers simply did not care for emotional demands.

            In my lifetime I have watched this surrender in three traditions. The Latin Mass evaporated from my mostly Catholic neighborhood on the East Side of Detroit when I was fourteen or so (leaving my agnostic Protestant family the only ones who still listened to it, on records of the monks of Solesmes), while pious teenagers learned to sing:


            Sons of God, hear his holy Word,

            Gather ’round the table of the Lord,

            Eat His body, drink His blood,

            And we’ll sing a song of love,

            Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!


A few years later the Episcopal Church rose to the challenge of the nuclear age by revising the subordinate clauses out of its prayer book, a move which did not inspire confidence in young doubters like me. When I came seriously to religion in my late thirties it was to Judaism, whose much greater moral authority had ripped me out of every form of ease and simplicity, indicted me every which way as an enemy and a bad risk, and disclosed layer by layer its inexhaustible texts and remarkable music; but when—trembling with fear of unworthiness—I first set foot in a synagogue, I discovered that Jewish Renewal had gotten there first:


            And then, and then, both men and women will be gentle,

            And then, and then, both women and men will be strong,

                 And then all will be

                 So varied, rich and free,

            And everywhere will be called Eden once again.


            To learn this jingle at the same time that I learned its stringent original, the Alenu —to encounter an upbeat alternative to the intransigent and tragic assertion that God has made us unlike the nations, has given us a fate unlike theirs—was barely conceivable. And then, and then all the children will be above average, I muttered, grinding my teeth. What gear had slipped in the minds of the people who wrote this stuff? Did they really think it could substitute for the old prayers? I had not understood how the Catholics could trade mystery for folksiness, or Episcopalians prefer flat declarative statements of faith to subtle Reformation psychology; how had the Jewish people gone from Sinai—from Yavneh—from the clouds over Poland—to this infantile sloganeering?

            There are innumerable other examples, both Jewish and Christian (no doubt the reader can supply his or her own); there are distinctions to be drawn between revisions imposed from above and effusions that bubble up from below. But stylistically there is relatively little difference between what religious professionals and lay liturgists are doing, and the boundaries between categories are rather fluid. More or less by general consent—dissenting voices are assumed to belong to the right wing of religion—the liturgical vernacular of the last few decades has evolved into a smooth, nonthreatening imitation of religious language, with no power to make the soul or to break the heart.

            People in the demographic profiles for whom these efforts are intended—modern skeptical people, young people, feminists, sexual outlaws—are supposed to greet this vernacular with relief. We are supposed to find it fresh and creative; it is supposed to make us “comfortable” at worship; it is supposed to compensate for centuries of oppression. If we find it galling and dispiriting we are dismissed as mere ingrates. But it is dispiriting; it is exhausting. The direct emotions of ardor and terror and inarticulate joy —the real stuff of religion—are all quite off limits; not only are they never invoked at full strength, they are scarcely alluded to in recognizable form. One has to keep holding back, pretending that prayer is not a bodily instinct, pretending that we come to religion with our problems already solved rather than out of a desperate urge to confront them. The new liturgical English (Hebrew, baruch Hashem, remains relatively intact) assures us relentlessly that what we are doing is “meaningful,” while never allowing a powerful meaning to surface.

            Perhaps it’s no wonder that people so intensely aware of the strong element of social control in traditional religion are so frankly controlling in their own liturgies. They have political points to advance and longstanding social patterns to break. But to use liturgy for secondary goals of this kind is to undermine its central function: the rectification of our relation with the universe in the presence of other people. Nothing is rectified—nothing is even enacted—in the new prayers; they are static, self-satisfied, an uncomprehending parroting of old forms of love and fear with all the love and fear taken out.

            Often the new prayers invoke emotions outright at points where the old prayers would have encoded them in God-language; but each emotion is seized upon and displayed—generally before it can be felt—with a kind of allrightnik complacency that militates against privacy or reflection. This mood recalls nothing so much as Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:


                        Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says:       How nice to see children running on the grass!

                        The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind,    by children running on the grass!

                        It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.


            Contemporary liturgy is awash in the second tear. Jewish Renewal is only one recent offender, and its way was prepared by earlier generations. (In most Christian denominations there is an unbroken tradition of liturgical kitsch reaching well back into the nineteenth century.) The Reform Selichot reading quoted by President Clinton in his disgrace—“Now is the time of turning,” which plays on sweetly irrelevant images of leaves turning color and animals turning in migration before ever getting to the moral turning of teshuvah—is one instance that achieved unexpected fame. Mordecai Kaplan, an early exponent of the abstraction of “meaning” from the supernatural language of prayer, wrote reams in this vein, and one example still in use in The New Machzor (1978) may serve to illustrate how badly the method can falsify the emotions. The prayer (cosigned by Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein) is a long introduction to the traditional Yizkor prayers; this is perhaps one-third of it:


Eternal God, we have come to sanctify our fleeting lives by linking them with Yours, O Life of all the ages. In You generations past, present, and future are united in one bond of life.

            At this sacred hour, we are aware of those souls through whom we have come to know of Your grace and love. All the wisdom, beauty, and affection that have enriched our lives are the garnered fruits of our communion with others. [Here follow several paragraphs commemorating the dead in a rosy light— “beloved parents who watched over us,” “a wife or a husband with whom we were truly united,” “brothers and sisters…in the youthful adventure of discovering life’s possibilities.”]

            Some of us call to mind children, entrusted to our care all too briefly, taken from us before they reached the years of maturity and fulfillment, to whom we gave our loving care and from whom we received a trust that enriched our lives.

            All of us recall beloved relatives and friends whose affection and dedication enhanced our lives, and whose visible presence will never return to cheer, encourage or support us.


            Though the prayer does attempt to face directly and conscientiously the greatest griefs of our lives, its language is transparently intended to crank up our emotions—as if we might not remember how shock and desolation feel, when we have come to the synagogue precisely to say Yizkor. The funeral-parlor atmosphere of euphemism and hush, the hothouse overgrowth of predictable adjectives (“fleeting lives,” “garnered fruits”), the whitewashed sweetness of the family relationships, are meant to provide a sense of elevation without recalling actual experience. “At this sacred hour, we are aware” is a stage direction, as the leader of a guided meditation might say “become aware that you are bathed in pure light.” These manipulations break down irreparably at the suggestion that the love of our dead—even our dead children—“enriched” or “enhanced” our lives. I had never particularly noticed the prayer, except as a tissue of clichés, until one family in our congregation suffered greatly when their little son developed seizures, another family’s son was badly injured in a sledding accident, and a third family’s adult son needed a liver transplant. Mercifully, all three survived and recovered well. But the next time the prayer was read, I could not imagine it said in those parents’ voices. Had they been faced with that loss, the prayer’s languid optimism, its complacent emotional greed, its sense of feeding on one’s experience for spiritual uplift, would have been impossible to them. Even to imagine it was an insult to their integrity.

            The prayer becomes intolerable next to the real experience. It aims to provoke the second tear, perhaps even to provoke it without having to deal with the first: to skip over the true emotion and get to the false one. How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children lying in their coffins! No doubt religious professionals do generalize emotion, from seeing so much of it; they even have to keep a safe distance from their congregants’ emotions, in order to keep doing their work. There are also mourners who expect so little from ritual that they will not feel insulted by saccharine consolations. But they deserve better than the language of emotion used in cold blood.

            What Kaplan and his inheritors, and their Christian counterparts, have made clear is that we cannot walk into services expecting to find the language of emotion we are conversant with elsewhere—Lear’s Thou must be patient, we came crying hither, David’s My son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom, would to God I had died for thee. There are very occasional exceptions—Lear actually does turn up in the Harlow machzor, in a poem by Anthony Hecht—but they are not enough to salvage the general tone. Except when they are translating directly from older sources, modern liturgists seem overwhelmingly intent on inducing self-satisfaction.

            They may not realize how close self-satisfaction is to self-contempt. Those who accept kitsch as worship must internalize the sense of being mere sheep in need of a green pasture. Those who resist it must constantly fight outright shame. The worst humiliation of contemporary religious life is the abjectness of needing God and a community badly enough even to sit through this. 


Safer Torah


Tomás Kulka, in an attempt to pin down a workable definition of kitsch in Kitsch and Art (1996), says something that applies as usefully to liturgy as to painting. A kitsch painting’s reason for being, he says, is its subject matter: the big-eyed child, the cute kitten, the sunset with palm trees. The style of the painting is not particularly important, except that it must not interfere with the subject matter, whose purpose is to trigger a strong and unreflective emotional response. The unreflectiveness is the point: kitsch does not expand one’s definition of beauty but satisfies an established definition. It does not shake the beholder’s certainties but fulfills an existing expectation. It delivers a reliable emotional charge and does not incite the mind to thought. Kitsch never says anything for the first time, only for the tenth.

            The subject matter of a prayer, too, is its only reason for being: a prayer is for something, a petition or a thanksgiving or a memorial. When prayer is reflective—I suspect this finally means when it has some element of contingency or makes some active demand on us—it always speaks as if for the first time, as in certain lines from the Psalms: “Out of the depths I cry unto you,” “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” As soon as the reflectiveness is removed, only subject matter is left: “We are loved by an unending love” (without having worked for it, even in spite of ourselves, as in Rami Shapiro’s alternative Ahavat olam in the Kol Haneshamah prayer book). For people unaccustomed to reflectiveness—and how much in our culture accustoms us to it?—subject matter can be enough, and may even be reassuring: Kulka observes that people use kitsch to convince themselves they are normal. “Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding in the right kind of way.” To be able to produce a dependable stock response is a minor victory, a bulwark against the fear of the unexpected. In this light, the heavy concentration of kitsch in liberal liturgies begins to make sense: when so many congregants are uncertain why they should be there at all, a heavily explanatory and lightly emotional mode provides a strong sense of established definitions.

            At one level, kitsch intends nothing less than to restore the soul—to supply abundantly, and in an accessible shorthand, a reminder of what we love. This is surely why children, animals, landscapes, Jesus, the American flag, and the smile supply so much of the subject matter of kitsch in the wider culture: these images give instant access to a world of feeling that is suppressed by our daily work. They bring out our protective instincts, or our sense of being protected; they remind us of all that cannot be bought and sold. At the same time, this shorthand is the most easily packaged thing in the world; it will stop us in our tracks in the aisle at Wal-Mart and remind us of what we love, and charge us $5.99 for it. Try to package My son Absalom, would to God I had died for thee.

            The restorative effects of kitsch depend, of course, on the viewer’s not probing too deeply: the Christian cannot be thinking about the compromising uses of the image of Jesus, the lover of children cannot be thinking about access to health insurance, the lover of landscape cannot be thinking about climate change. As soon as such complications are introduced, we need another order of thinking: we see that whatever restores our souls is fragile, the things that we love can perish, and we need more than our protective instincts to defend and maintain them. We need policy, judgment, resourceful imagination, bullheaded stamina. Similarly, a prayer that walls off a space where contingency does not threaten is very easily threatened by the simplest realities. The least breath of doubt can shatter its mood. A durable language of prayer must meet the difficulty of the task with an answering difficulty; it must defend the perishable with a strength that attempts the imperishable. Prayer that attempts less—prayer that falsifies the emotions, or plugs in a political shorthand, or otherwise stands between us and our full energies—is a sketch, a simulation, even a pornography, of worship.

            I mean this quite literally. Pornography, after all, is all subject matter and no reflection: a stylized, schematic representation of sex that offers everything but the problematic essentials, the body and the consent of a person we know. Kitsch liturgy also offers everything but the problematic essentials, the dependence of everything in our lives on our undependable good acts, and the uncanniness and danger of facing a God who knows us. There is a certain sort of docile porn watcher who humbly waits to be shown the definition and practice of sex—the curious underwear, the terminology, the positions—in the belief that he or she has no other way to find out. There are congregants who wait just as humbly to be shown the nature of worship. Both cede to authorities a knowledge that their own minds and bodies could give them more quickly, more kindly, and in more detail; both shrink from a knowledge that must be arrived at in one’s own person and at the cost of one’s whole future.

            That some people consistently prefer kitsch to art, and false emotion to true emotion—and pornography to their lovers—is comprehensible: there are no surprises. The essentials of sex are terrifying: close contact with the solid, strong-smelling body of a lover who never quite ceases to be a stranger; each body’s mysterious responses (or lack of response) and the indelible stains of its past; misplaced attention, bad timing, habits that grow into sorrows and inhibitions. The essentials of worship are no less terrifying: close contact between one’s own solid, strong-smelling body and the intangible bodiless; the steep moral demands that bodies make on the bodiless, and the bodiless on them; the confusion of presence and absence in speaking to God, and our own propensity to be absent from the people who need us (sometimes when we think we are most present). That people can want to keep praying—alone or in groups—only means that they accept the full terms of the relationship, like lovers who keep making love in spite of the sorrows: this belongs to them, this is their territory, they refuse to be evicted from it. They acknowledge that trust and accord can never be quite free of caution and uncertainty; that some knowledge can be had only slowly, tentatively, and in dire emotional pain; that fear and trembling is a permanent, or at least a recurrent, condition of the experience.

            Opinions will vary on whether a pornography of worship is dangerous, as they vary on the dangers of sexual pornography. But it is worth noting that Americans tend to see kitsch as merely a problem of taste, whereas Europeans see it as a political problem. The willingness to be satisfied with a schema, the insensibility to anything but one’s own satisfaction, the simple conviction that there is a right way which somebody else can show you, is as bad a preparation for religious or national life as it is for marriage. People who are strongly attached to kitsch will fight fiercely to preserve it as their only aesthetic form; they have, they claim, the right to their simplicity, the right to be protected from anxieties and ambiguities, the right not to know. Ethics recapitulates aesthetics: if we want a comforting simplicity that badly, we will get it at the expense of anyone who unsettles us.


Spiritual Sobriety and the Iconic Face


Liturgy, like kitsch, is an emblematic form. It displays certain images—visual or verbal—as keys to the justice and mercy it wants to induce in us. Unlike kitsch, it has historically been willing to display images that unsettle us as part of the inductive process. For peoples of the book who have come to mistrust language—who no longer believe, perhaps, that justice and mercy can be brought into being through words—a visual parallel may provide some illumination. If we can see the difference between kitsch and icon, we may be able to transfer that difference back to the verbal realm.

            In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, the icon of a saint is considered a window to the soul of the man or woman it pictures. It is not a portrait—not, in the ordinary sense and especially not in the idolatrous sense, an “image”—but a schematic rendering of the kind of look with which a profound consciousness regards you. In a sense it is a schema that points beyond schema, as if kitsch were to recognize its own limitations and become aware: as if the big-eyed child were to look out at you from the painting not with a cute, pouty reproach but with expectant attention and utter emotional seriousness. The icon painter renounces realism as mere histrionics, and aims for a stylized severity. The deliberately flat surface of the picture must become spiritually transparent, to reveal the real demand of an imagined face.

            The Russian priest and philosopher Pavel Florensky, in his 1922 treatise Iconostasis, insists on the icon’s immediacy, its transforming power: “Because an icon makes the light of an illumined person appear to us, it is an energy…the icon possesses cognitive meaning.” The icon “remembers its prototype”; it reassembles the consciousness of the saint for those who come after. It possesses “power to remind.” The believer—even the nonbeliever, as secular art historians and buyers of art books know—is arrested, reoriented, compelled by the icon’s look. Icon painters make a distinction between the litzo and the lik, which Florensky’s translators render as the “face” and the “countenance” or “holy face”; the litzo may reveal nothing, but the lik returns us, without refuge or recourse, to holy imperatives. Louise Bogan makes the same distinction in her poem “St. Christopher”:


            This is the look we do not see

            In manners or in mimicry.


The holy face reveals an achieved profundity of consciousness. The look must be won. It cannot be feigned; it cannot be approximated; try to turn it into kitsch and it will simply escape you. Let it appear on your face in response to the icon’s face, and you may begin to grow into it.

            Kitsch has power to remind, but it reminds us of less; a profound consciousness is simply invisible to it. As a schematic rendering, kitsch is one step below the face; it presents the lichina or mask, “the absolute opposite of countenance.” It is a form of concealment. We may feel soothed by kitsch, safely restored to a protective or protected role; we will never feel intelligently regarded.

            There are bad icons, icons that fail to remind. Florensky does not call them kitsch—though to Western observers certain late, realistic icons look something like it—but he has no use for them: “If [the] goal is not reached—if neither the steadily empathetic gaze nor the swiftly intuitive glance evokes in the viewer the reality of the other world (as the pungent sense of seaweed in the air evokes in us the still faraway ocean), then nothing can be said of that icon except that it has failed to enter into the works of spiritual culture and that its value is therefore either merely material or (at best) archaeological.” Kitsch gives us the sight of the ocean without the smell; the eyes without the demand.

            What is remarkable about icon painting is that it uses a generic and highly formal visual style to trigger reliably a strong and reflective emotional response: it attempts to make reproducible, inescapable, the answering emotions of awe, humility, self-correction, beseeching, and the profound sense of being seen. It does this by reproducing the look that sees. It is the converse of mechanical reproduction: as methodical as the style is, it depends fundamentally on stillness, expectancy, the belief in a real encounter. If kitsch never says anything for the first time, only for the tenth, the icon always says it for the first time: each time it demands that we “forget not what our eyes have seen, and that it not stray from our hearts all the days of our lives” (Deut. 4:9).

            Judaism, as a tradition that mistrusts not only images but the very seeing of the eye—and which has bitter memories of, and live anxieties about, Russian Orthodoxy—may have no use for the tradition of icon painting. But the demand of the iconic face is the demand that Levinas speaks of, the imperative not to kill: it reminds us that all is contingent upon our own acts. “The manifestation of the face is already discourse,” says Levinas in Totality and Infinity; “The eyes break through the mask—the language of the eyes, impossible to dissemble.” We do not need a visual reproduction of the “holy face” if we insist on regarding living faces as holy. But if we refuse the visual reminder—the image of the image of God—we must instead be able to hear the kind of language with which a profound consciousness regards us. Liturgy in which spiritual sobriety cannot appear is not an energy, it does not possess cognitive meaning. It does not remember its prototype, who spoke and the world became.

            I have heard it suggested that the real Jewish liturgists of our time will turn out to be Yehuda Amichai and Leonard Cohen. Certainly the rough edges of disillusion and irony in their work serve the same function as the severe looks of icons. Severity is a kitsch-repellent: it does not permit the second tear. Cohen writes:

When I have not rage or sorrow, and you depart from me, then I am most afraid. When the belly is full, and the mind has its sayings, then I fear for my soul; I rush to you as a child at night breaks into its parents’ room. Do not forget me in my satisfaction. When the heart grins at itself, the world is destroyed….Overthrow this even terror with a sweet remembrance: when I was with you, when my soul delighted you, when I was what you wanted. (Book of Mercy)


Kitsch might mention the sweet remembrance—it would certainly mention the child—but it could not mention the terror; it could not mistrust the impulse toward satisfaction. “And what about God?” asks Amichai, employing a barely translatable liturgical pun. “Once we sang Ein keloheinu, there is none like our God. Now we sing Ein eloheinu, there is no our-God.” A lesser poet might have turned the next line—“But we sing. We still sing”—into a ringing affirmation, the sort of thing that blurb-writers call a triumph of the human spirit. Amichai makes it any number of things: defiance, chagrin, bewilderment, liberation. We sing through historical compulsion, because we were chosen to; because we choose to; because. The unresolved meaning is impossible to kitsch liturgy, which must present one identifiable meaning; it signals the simultaneous presence and absence of transcendence, which kitsch cannot handle. But that is what we must handle; it is what Jews (and except for three years of their history, even Christians) have always been required to handle, in the form of an invisible God. The makers of modern liturgy, in refusing this paradox, have misunderstood their task and their opportunity.

            Liturgical language is only an intellectual question because it is first a physical and emotional question. It is not a matter of aesthetic one-upmanship but of moral adequacy. It matters politically because the religious left is needlessly crippling itself in its struggle against the religious right: the face and voice of moral reflectiveness should be its home territory. It matters privately because people sacrifice their emotional responsiveness daily, simply in order to make a living; if religion does not restore that responsiveness at its full strength, religion is wasting our time. Liturgy is not a crowd control method for nervous rabbis, priests and ministers who fear the strength of their congregants’ feelings; it is not a soapbox for theologians; it is not a holding pattern in which the congregants circle, bored and resigned, until they can come back to earth. It is the rope on which God suspends the earth over the void. Swinging on its end we are held in the simultaneous state of absolute attention and absolute rest that constitutes adoration. Without it the people perish.


Tikkun, March/April 2001


© Catherine Madsen 2001