Is Religious Kitsch Offensive? The Answer Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Child buddha garden statues. Photo by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay/Creative Commons

Shopping at Walmart a few years ago, David Morgan saw a statuette of Santa Claus praying on one knee before a cross and knew he had to have it.

Morgan, a professor and religious studies chair at Duke University who studies religion, culture and media, was amused by the pious Santa Claus, whose costume derives from Thomas Nast’s 1860s Harper’s Weekly cartoons and Coca-Cola ads starting in the 1930s.

He doesn’t think the statue mocks Christianity. Instead, he thinks it pokes fun at the ways capitalism reshapes the sacred.

But the people who buy the statue probably don’t care.

“I imagine some Christians even admire it as a way of ‘putting Christ back in Christmas,’” he said.

Still, the line between well-intentioned kitsch and bad taste is blurry.

An “Adoring Santa” statue features Santa
kneeling at a manger scene. Photo via
Autom.com

Amazon removed dozens of items, including bathmats with Quranic script, from its digital shelves earlier this year after criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And for at least several years, controversial activist Rajan Zed has complained about Amazon’s hawking of toilet seat covers with Hindu imagery.

Part of the challenge, said S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and author of “Blasphemy: Art That Offends,” is that both kitsch and offense are necessarily in the eye of the beholder.

“Toilet seat covers with the name of Allah, or a swimsuit with the goddess Lakshmi on it, or a Jesus statue made out of cheese will offend people,” he said. “People have the right to be offended.”

When Plate was researching hundreds of provocative artworks — such as Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix immersed in urine — he found that many of the artists intended to provoke. Serrano’s piece, he said, is a great example of art’s capacity to generate conversations about the value of art and of religious objects.

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Source: Religion News Service