Since my people seemed to enjoy my "Conservative Art" post, I thought I'd try another one.
Heather has been making fun of me for the last week or so because I had never heard of Thomas Kinkade; and I call myself a Southerner! Reader Scardanelli had written about Mr. Kinkade in the above-mentioned post:
And if you're looking for reactionary art (both politically and stylistically), you can't beat Thomas Kinkade, "The Painter of Light (TM)." He's a born-again Christian, a published novelist, and the only artist listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
We were in an art store the other day, getting Christmas presents, and we happened upon some of his paintings. This one, called "Sunrise," particularly struck me:
Because I said, "hey, I've seen that before!" And, unfortunately, as I do sometimes, I did some research. And I had seen it before, in a college art class. Only at that time, it was by a 19th century German painter, Caspar David Friedrich:
And it was called "The Cross in the Mountain."
Now, I'm a musician, not an art critic. And my general view of all art forms isn't based on any specific criteria. Good art can be good for many different reasons and on many different levels. It can be pretty, ugly, pleasant, unpleasant, and an infinity of other things; and none of this necessarily effects whether it's good or bad. So I don't think I have a specific set of requirements that what I call "good art" is supposed to meet, and for most people it must contain some sort of subjectivity.
But enough caveats, I want to draw a line. Surely, an artist's general project, i.e., the totality of what he's trying to do, in making a work or set of works has to count for something. Thomas Kinkade's website has "Sunrise" filed under the "Inspirational" category. This category also includes paintings called "America's Pride" (an American flag) and "Heading Home" (an American soldier walking). The paintings in the "inpirational" category don't seem to have a lot in common, apart from a certain conventionalized pleasantness. If you are a person who is going to be inspired by a picture of a cottage in the woods, you don't have to look at it for very long to be inspired.
Caspar David Friedrich, on the other hand, didn't have a website (and wasn't represented on the NY Stock Exchange, like Kinkade is), but any cursory examination of his works reveals that crosses (usually crucifixes) in natural settings is something that he returned to over and over. As in "Morning in the Riesengebirge," "Cross on the Baltic," and the most interesting, "The Cross and Cathedral in the Mountains." The last of these is particuarly worth looking at:
What do both this painting and the other Friedrich painting, "The Cross in the Mountain," have in common? In both, a comparison between the shape of the crucifix (and in the latter, the shape of the cathedral) and its juxtaposition in the landscape is suggestive of something. In the first one, there are three trees close the crucifix, but the cruficix is slightly higher. The crucifix is the same color as the trees; one remembers that the cross was made of wood. An analogue is suggested between the natural and the spiritual. Christianity is portrayed as an outgrowth of nature. Or, as Kristina van Prooyen has it:
The attempt to use the genre of landscape for an altarpiece was a daring endeavour. The painting features a carved figure of Christ hanging on a with the amber glow of a setting sun and the barrenmountainside wilderness of northern Germany in the background. Friedrich simultaneously articulated the beauty of landscape and the feeling of absolute dependence, or the awareness of infinite deity in the finite world, by positioning the Christian Redeemer as suspended between the closeness of the earth and vastness of the sky. The cross stands at the brink of the evening horizon, which signifies the disappearance of God from the lives of the modern world during the Enlightenment, yet the burgeoning of evergreens near the cross also indicates that a new religion is emerging.
Of course, in the second painting, this comparison is even more obvious -- even the tapering shape of the cathedral is the same as the shape of the two trees next to it, as if to suggest that cathedral architecture is imitative of "natural" forms. As Colin Eisler puts it, more eloquently than I could:
Protestantism, conveyed by the vehicle of the visual arts, tended to see Nature more as pagan Mother than God's Work, too close to pantheism for comfort (or a free ride). Friedrich presents an exception. His anti-Classical emphasis upon experience, its reception and communication, stressed the personal, the "I in the eye," the mind, the heart, and the hand. Heinrich von Kleist wrote how a Friedrich landscape, one "with nothing but a frame as foreground," made him feel as if his "eyelids had been cut away." So radical a perception of the image shows Friedrich's art as a shocking breakthrough, bordering upon an expressionistic confrontation, facing infinity.[...]
For all his Gothic references, often taken from the ruined Cistercian abbey near the artist's Porneranian home, Friedrich's images emerge from a mystical Now, from a poetic communion with the divinity of God's works. just as Rodin wrote When the Cathedrals Were White, so might Friedrich have written When the Cathedrals Were Nature.
Now, you don't even have to buy into my over-simplified interpretation of what Friedrich is doing to get the point. Friedrich is engaged in a real artistic project. The two cross painting I've referred to have a visceral beauty that can be appreciated without digging any "deeper," but once you dig deeper, there's a lot going on.
I don't think that can be said for the Kinkade painting. It's one-dimensional. There's not much going on below the surface of the painting; the colors are nice, I guess, but the kind of precious realism that it evinces doesn't leave anything to the imagination. I've been looking for some kind of online commentary about it, but I can find hardly anything. Kinkade himself has a pithy statement:
As we approach the year 2000, I feel compelled as an artist to celebrate not the passing of the old millennium but the beginning of the new millennium.To me the new millennium represents a pivotal point in human-history—a chance to change the world for the better.
Whatever that means. And a press release about a sculpture based on the painting has this:
The sculpture uses high-tech craftsmanship and materials to depict the lone cross on a rugged mountaintop, which is symbolic both of the Christian faith and of hope in general.
"We created a brand--a faith and family brand--around a painter," Ken Raasch recalls with pride. "The Kinkade brand stands for faith as a foundation for life. He creates a world, and that world makes people feel a certain way. So we saw it as a great opportunity to create products around those worlds--collectible products, books, calendars, home décor items--furniture likely to be found in Thomas Kinkade's world."
Earlier in the same article, dryly:
Whether Kinkade feels any conflict between the Christian values of marriage and family he espouses in each of the 40 inspirational books he has authored and the vast corporate structure devoted to hustling his work, he doesn't say.
To bring together the strands: Thomas Kinkade, who has met with George W. Bush and apparently prays for him, is not a "conservative artist" because of his political connections or his Christianity, but because he reinforces a strain in modern conservatism that brings out the worst in its adherents. His art is a paltry and more easily digestible weak misreading of basic tropes that have been around for a long time. It is done with the intention of not requiring thought, and perhaps enforcing a lack thereof:
"He really is an accomplished painter," Raasch asserts. "He can out-Monet Monet, but he's chosen to make paintings that people can relate to."
Which is a euphemism for, as Larry Kudlow might have it, art that doesn't make you think. It is the art of the very worst of the know-nothingism that is inherent in the modern republican party. Bush was a strong leader, and nevermind that he doesn't know any of those fancy numbers or have a command of basic facts. Bush attacked the terrorists, and just because there were no WMD and they aren't really the terrorists that attacked us doesn't matter. Similarly, I know what I like and I like what I know, and Thomas Kinkade doesn't need any of those German names or funny long words with dots over them to be a great painter.
Now some of you might complain that I'm a liberal elitist, and that thinking about and examining art takes away its purity and emotional immediacy, blah blah blah. And you'd be wrong about, but that's not the point here. The point is not just that Kinkade's art is kitschy, but that the kitsch has a self-reinforcing quality. Thomas Kinkade's art is not interesting or complicated, and you don't have to spend much time on it to get it. And if all you look at is Thomas Kinkade's art, you will be trained not to spend much time looking at art. So, like Pavlov's dog, you'll continue to like Kinkade's art precisely because it doesn't require much of you, because you've been trained to do so.
For what it's worth, I don't believe that any of this has anything to do with education, intelligence, or academic elitism. It's simply a matter of habits of the mind. If you pay attention to what's going on around you, whether it's a painting or a piece of music or a car accident or a tsunami or a cold day, you'll learn stuff, and many of us consider that a valuable part of being a human being. If you don't, though, and stick with the easily digestible that you already know, well, you'll probably vote republican.