Throughout the life of this blog, you'll probably see a few more posts dedicated to the Christological views of music legend Johnny Cash. However, given that today is Christmas, I thought it only right to devote a post to the marriage of our culture and the advents of Christ. You're probably wondering "Why the picture of Brad Pitt?" Well, it has to do with Cash's song The Man Comes Around (linked above), and Pitt's latest movie Killing Them Softly (which the picture is from).
A few weeks ago I set out to scratch the itch that film marketers created in my movie-goer's mind; I went to see Pitt's grim gangster movie, Killing Them Softly. Before I say much more, I want to affirm how much I love going out to the movies, and that I might just be one of the few people you know that gladly smiles while paying the astronomical prices. I can't say it any more simply: I love the experience! Along that note, I tend to have a higher tolerance for movies than some might prefer for themselves, given that Tarantino and the Cohens are some of my favorite film directors and writers. Nevertheless, despite my tolerable cinematic stomach, and passion for movie-outings, Killing Them Softly ranked as being the second movie that I've walked out on - ever!
I know that some of you might be thinking, "Is that really a fair way to respond to narrative - leave before it's concluded?" I would respond with, "Only if the piece of art/story is kitsch."
Ahhh... the elusive white-whale of a definition: what is kitsch? We've all heard it mentioned here or there, whether conscious of it or not. It is one of the most widely used aesthetic terms that people ironically have a hard time defining. A few definitions claim that kitsch
manages to be enormously popular by appealing to some sentiment or association. Kitsch does provoke a response... but the response is one-dimensional. * Or, "Kitsch... provoke[s] excessive or immature expressions of emotion, ** and yet another says, "Kitsch is a beautiful lie; it prettifies and falsifies the world, often by embracing, implicitly, a cause or an ideology that requires cheap emotion and an unqualified... acceptance of reality, a categorical “agreement with being." ***
What these definitions have in common is that they touch on the fact that kitsch is more or less the one-trick-pony, intending to evoke one specific reaction. Kind of a shotgun approach at drawing something out from the viewer. A kitschy piece of art can often seem to lack subtly, and come across heavy handedly, patronizing the viewer like it's their 1st grade teacher, having to hold their hands through a day's lessons. This is exactly what I felt from Killing Them Softly.
My main frustration, however, came from the "theme song" choice used for introducing Brad Pitt's character, Jackie Cogan - Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around. My annoyance was in how such a profound song of God's justice could be attached to such a vain and dismal portrayal of human "equity". The movie was far from carrying any artistic subtlety, causing it to feel more like a high school goth's nihilistic journal. It only had one tone the entire way through. No break. No change. Just a one-trick-pony intending to evoke one specific reaction from me.
However, due to the tie-in of the Gospel song, this film has compelled me to contemplate whether or not there is a kitschiness in the Gospel. Listening to this song, there is not much shifting in tone, either, and am left almost in the same place as a the kitsch observer - recognizing there to be one emphatic message being conveyed by the artist. Is it fair to like one "kitschy" piece, while rejecting another?
Yes. Art is a means of not just expression, but communication. Apart from other things, it does communicate the artist's expressions. However, given that each piece (e.g. poem, song, painting, sculpture, etc.) conveys, there is by necessity of its existence a receiver to view it. There then will be inevitable inferences the viewer creates about the piece's message. Also, art begs a division be made between form and content. So, I think it's possible to reject one form (Killing Them Softly) while accepting another (The Man Comes Around). Reason being: content.
Pitt's crime drama does not offer the same content that Cash's Gospel song did. The former's hope, if any, was in that man is wicked, and all will be equally judged. The latter's preached that man is wicked, but that God is gracious. Again, they are both kitschy, but according to the third definition given, we are given "a beautiful lie," only we think it's a lie. Many flock to the nihilism of melodrama solely because it's "truth." Ironically, it is backwards; blinded, many of us long to remain in the lie we are see, claiming it as our home.
Cash's song is often not believed by the world, claiming it to be a "prettifying" and "falsifying" of what's real, and that Cash and all like him are "embracing... a cause or an ideology that requires... an acceptance of reality" contrary to the real. In other words, they think we're idiots because we long for the happy ending, and seem obtuse about the world's "actual" state.
But, that is what Christmas offers us. It didn't package together all viable evidence to justify God's existence. It didn't formulate the most logically valid argument to sway all sinful naiveté. Those things are offered in time to the Christian. But, Christ's first advent was the painfully unpopular birth of a seemingly boring baby. It was through this that He made His declaration - that He is our hero who is destined to behead Death. We mocked him because of the absurdity, or "illogicality" of this. Our world does not have room for such a hero, and its pains have seared this "truth" deep into our blinded minds. However, our sight is wrong. He is the Hero. There is hope. There will be only good!
So, is it wrong for me to dismiss some kitschy pieces of art and not others? Kitsch will always be a bane for the aesthetician to work into their overall art-appreciation. However, taking into account these few definitions, the "hope" shown (or not shown) in the bleak Killing Them Softly, and the Gospel presented in the cliche, twangy country musical stylings of Johnny Cash, I want to affirm that there are some artistic vehicles whose one-trick "reactions," which they're "intending to evoke," are good, and worth contemplating. Though, some simply are not.
During this time of loud, vibrant decorations, repeated stories of mangers and a baby, and stereos playing the beloved Rat Pack, (in other words, a bunch of kitschy fun), take time to contemplate and enjoy the obviously anti-cultural, anti-worldly story of the Man who will come back around. Merry Christmas!
* Gene Edwards Veith, Jr. - State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe
** Robert Solomon - “Kitsch” in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts
*** Frank Burch Brown - Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life