Homeless Jesus. The Aesthetics of Kitsch.

Several weeks ago my wife and I had the pleasure of attending a wedding at Holy Cross Cathedral in Vancouver. After the ceremony, as we were exiting the foyer, along with others in attendance, we were confronted by an almost life size bronze statue of a person, covered in a blanket, lying on a bronze park bench. His bodily features were hidden except for two feet, each with a lacerated wound, protruding beyond the lower edge of the blanket. The statue, known as Homeless Jesus by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was placed on a narrow landing, directly in front to the main doors, several steps below the cathedral entrance and several steps leading up from the sidewalk below.

‘Homeless Jesus’ is a cast bronze sculpture depicting a man covered in a blanket sleeping on a park bench, each of his feet showing evidence of a deep gash. It is one of several such statues that have been placed at various locations throughout the world, usually near a church or cathedral. Its placement has been rejected at locations such as St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York and the London’s Westminster borough. It was installed in front of Holy Rosary cathedral in 2017.

The controversial statue is also available in various sizes including the convenient resin stone cast table top model at 5 x 9 ¾ inches and the handy travel size model also resin stone cast at 2 ¼ x 4 ¾ inches, each is adorned with a realistic bronze finish.

According to the staff at Holy Rosary Cathedral, the cathedral has been under siege by panhandlers and police have been called to an incident at least once a day, on a weekly basis. “We have people coming in here and they’re in another world and they’re either doped up or drunk up or else they’re in some psychological impairment.” said Father Dion. The situation has become so bad that women who enter the cathedral are in the habit of tightly holding onto their purses during mass.

In 2008 Darcy Jones 43, a crack addict and homeless person of some 20 years, attacked 81 year old parishioner Dr. Peter Collins, inside the cathedral foyer, after the two men were seen leaving together. Dr. Collins had been giving Jones $5 a day for several days. As the elderly man reached for his wallet to give Jones money, Jones pushed Dr. Collins to the ground, grabbed his wallet, removed $40, gave the wallet back to Dr. Collins as he lay on the ground and absconded down the street.The incident was recorded on video by one of the cathedral’s security cameras.

In 2013 Schmalz’s statue of Jesus entitled ‘Whatsoever You Do’, was stolen from outside the Church of Stephen-in-the-Fields in downtown Toronto and later returned with a ‘sorry’ note. Perhaps the thief had an epiphany when he realized that the statue was not made of bronze but resin and consequently did not have any value on the scrap metal market.
The resin sculpture was going to be converted to bronze once the artist and the church raised enough money.

The problem I have with Schmalz’s statue is that is a poser, akin to washing your hands with gloves on. It is desperately pretending to be something that it is not, it is kitsch: as Roger Scruton has observed ‘expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all’.

As Scruton has also noted, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation. “Kitsch,” he wrote, “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!” Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, “Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.”

Schmalz corrupts moral truth to deceive the viewer into thinking that he feels fake feelings of pity, righteous indignation and schmaltz, feelings I would more correctly describe as the triumvirate or the holy trinity of schmaltz (pun intended). Some viewers may be conned into feeling sorrow and compassion caused by the sufferings and misfortunes of others, (There but for the Grace of God, go I.) while others may be conned into feeling anger at the plight of the homeless without feelings of guilt, while others may be duped into feelings of exaggerated sentimentalism.

What makes ‘Homeless Jesus’ especially troublesome is that it intentionally inveigles the viewer by conflating Christian imagery with the demi monde of popular culture to venerate bupkis. It is a placebo, a bland simulacrum worthy only of contempt.