Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In which the Meridian loathes Kinkade and gets religion without knowing it

I once told an artist-friend of mine regarding the artist whose work you see below, "I don't believe anything he paints." As it turns out and as you shall see, it is good with my soul that I do not.

The text below (from here, if you insist) is, apparently, authored by Thomas Kinkade, self-trademarked "Painter of Light"TM:

Serenity Cove, featuring a lighthouse inspired by Marblehead Light on Lake Erie, celebrates the guidance my faith offers as I face life’s transitions. For me, the four boats sailing toward the horizon symbolize the life journey of my four daughters as they grow into adulthood.

In nature, times of change are often the most brilliantly colored. The transition of sunset paints the fading hues of autumn with a heavenly radiance; in this, the still waters of Serenity Cove reflect the glory of earth and sky.

The lighthouse is not just a beacon of hope and symbol of faith; it is also a cozy family cottage. The gazebo and lawn furniture suggest the comfortable life lived within this safe haven.


Did you read the text carefully, or were you retching as well?: Serenity Cove depicts not a place but a state of mind. That's all well and good, except, as the text makes clear, the viewer can't visit this place, not even vicariously. It's all about the Painter of LightTM and his Adirondack-chaired twilight years, his comfortable life and the peace in his heart. It's just a pretty picture. He's painting his world and is willing to share it with you for a price (as opposed to asking you to see yours differently). It'll always remain his, though.

But here's the question: Why should that bother me so much? Or you? What is it about this guy's work that makes me want to pass out torches and pitchforks and lead a mob to the nearest gallery? It's irrational, I know, but before last week I could never put my finger on the issue being anything more than bad and dishonest art.

It was last week that my former wife, who still works at the school in Mobile where I used to teach, sent me this announcement for a lecture there:
Kevin Sparks
"The Painter of Light and the Prince of Darkness: The Problem with Thomas Kinkade"
Moorer Auditorium, Martin Hall
Thursday, March 29 at 2:30
Why is bad art bad for the soul?
How is a flawed notion of beauty destructive of our understanding of God?

These and other questions will be on the table as we consider the work of the bestselling painter of all time, Thomas Kinkade, who is a great favorite in Christian circles.

In his lecture, Kevin Sparks will use a series of slides to juxtapose the work of the “painter of light” and the work of the American Luminists. He will address democratization of taste and critique Kinkade’s aesthetic through the theological work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and others.
The announcement had me at the title, as you might well imagine. And in the teaser Dr. Sparks notes something I've always wondered about: Kinkade's enormous appeal among conservative Christians. I've wondered if that popularity was due to Kinkade's continual referencing of his faith, or if it was something inherent in the works themselves, whose subject matter is at most indirectly religious in its content (scenes depicting the typical Church in the Wildwood--that sort of thing)(Wikipedia comments more on this in a thorough, nauseatingly-balanced article on the man.) Well--Sparks implies that whatever it is seems to be, in part, in the works themselves . . . and that they're evil!

I knew it!

Below the fold, some quotes from and about Balthasar's theological aesthetics.

Time doesn't permit me to comment much on what follows, but enough is here--and (I hope) is clear enough on its own--to give you a sense of this aesthetic. I haven't yet run across an actual application of them, but I must say I'm intrigued by the idea. I suspect that Balthasar is someone I'll be coming back to, at least on occasion.

I really liked this quote, not just for its sentiment but because, in so far as I understand it, this seems like a fundamental assumption of Balthasar's aesthetic:
"Even if a unity of faith is not possible, a unity of love is."

Balthasar sees beauty, truth and goodness as a sort of Trinity, but says that the Church is to blame for seeking to excommunicate beauty from that trinity (I assume because of its association with the material world). This can only result in very dire consequences if accomplished:
Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past whether he admits it or not-can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Joel Garver, a professor of philosophy at La Salle University in Philadelphia, has a lengthy discussion of the aesthetic. Here, Garver quotes the distinction Balthasar makes between hearing and seeing and the stance of the observer relative to the world (ellipses are Garver's)(crucial note to keep in mind here: seeing is crucial because of Christ: it is through Christ--God in human form--that we begin to know God; hearing is crucial because it is via that sense that we come into faith (via the hearing of scripture)):
The eye is the organ with which the world is possessed and dominated… Through the eye the world is our world, in which we are not lost; rather, it is subordinate to us as an immeasurable dwelling space with which we are familiar. The other side of this material function denotes distance, separateness…Hearing is a wholly different, almost opposite mode of the revelation of reality…It is not objects we hear—in the dark, when it is not possible to see—but their utterances and communications. Therefore it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it before us as an object in order to turn our attention to it when it pleases us. That which is heard comes upon us without our being informed of its coming in advance. It lays hold of us without our being asked…The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is heard is thus one of defenselessness on the one side and of communication on the other…The hearer belongs to the other and obeys him.
We can see here what Balthasar would say is at fault with Kinkade's work: that it conveys a world of Kinkade's invention rather than of God's making.

This notion of beauty has its roots in a paradoxical ugliness:
It is in the formless, the deformity (Ungestalt), of the Cross that the very form of God’s glory (Ubergestalt) is revealed as the boundless, self-giving love that characterizes the very life of the Trinity. This form of glory unseats all worldly aesthetics and all classical notions of beauty as proportion and harmony, making way for a new theological understanding of beauty in the Trinitarian dynamic of cruciform love seen by the eyes of faith. And that is the fundamental point that Balthasar expresses in his aesthetics.
There's more to say on this, but I'll summarize here what Balthasar might offer by way of a critique of Kinkade's art: "You may have crosses in your work, sir, but you don't have their ugliness."

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Ariel said...

I'm always interested in finding additional reasons to dislike Kinkade, who has apparently never noticed that really bright ambient lighting causes colors to fade after prolonged exposure.

John B. said...

I'm glad to be of service.

R. Sherman said...

I'll add another reason. The guy's a dick. (He threatened to sue a client who sold his prints second-hand at deep discounts.) I never met him, but I read letters. Man, I've never met someone so full of himself.


The County Clerk said...

Very interesting.

I was just having a discussion about Kinkade the other day. I don't/didn't know much about him but my fellow conversant was BIG fan.

emawkc said...

I'm actually surprised that Kinkade has roused such extreme emotions ("hate"? "Prince of Darkness"? sheesh). Who knew he was so controversial?

I've always considered his paintings the kind of thing old ladies put up on their walls next to their plastic Jesuses and collections of porcelain angel Avon bottles.

In short, aside from the fact that I didn't like his art, I've never given him a second thought. At least not until now.

I guess if the measure of an artist is provoking strong emotion, then perhaps Kinkade is a success.

John B. said...

Just so everyone knows: I don't like Kinkade either as an artist or as a person (see Randall's succinct character study above); but I intend for my tone to be a bit playful, at least in places.

Having said that, the idea of a theological aesthetics is an intriguing notion; based on my reading so far, though, I'm just not sure how exactly it would work--I'm not even sure that what I do say by way of playing around with it in this post is something Balthasar would agree is a proper employment of it.

Camille said...

Like Emawkc, I'd love to ignore Kincaid, too. Ultimately, history will forget about him, like so many other popular practitioners before him.

Back in '01, I worked at an art school in whose sole aim was to teach kids how to copy oil paintings (naturally, I didn't last long there). Kincaid was a huge favorite among our first generation Indian and Chinese parents. I was never sure why-- if it was something they perceived as positive cultural assimilation or if it was just an example of his universal popularity. What really blew my stereotypes of Kincaid's popularity with white evangelicals, was the fact that very few of those families were Christian. My heart broke for the students laboring so hard for parental approval that hinged on such a lame production.

One of the reasons I don't consider him an artist is that nothing he presents actually challenges the viewer's perception of anything. I learn nothing about the humanity of other people, of new perspectives, of beauty. There is no way to connect with other times and places through them.

On another level, I am glad he exists, otherwise we wouldn't have to work so hard to figure out what what it is we really love about good art.

Camille said...

it conveys a world of Kinkade's invention rather than of God's making

You hit another nerve that is close to my heart, the whole idea of truth in art (and how many body metaphors can I fit in one sentence?). If we dislike Kincaid because he presents a false picture of the world, then what is a true picture? (now I am wishing I did get that philosophy degree) Is it false just because its his own invention? Is it not only his own invention, but is his imagination lacking the thing that would give his imaginary world any value in ours? Or is he purposefully creating a devious propaganda to exploit people's need for the status quo? Is he basically a con artist? (ha ha, I said "artist") Are his soul brothers the Soviet artists who had to create propaganda glorifying an oppressive state? I love Soviet propaganda art, but it also announces what it is in its content. Is Kincaid's holy masquerade what really makes him diabolical?

What a great post! So many great aesthetic nuggets to ponder.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

Not to be crude, but Kincade and his art studio artists work makes me want to projectile vomit.....on the canvas'...

the Prince of Thrift said...

I loveKinkades work, I especially like the piece inspired by 9-11. Unfrtunately, I cannot afford to purchase his work.

Gwynne said...

I wish I had the time to say more, though I think you've said it all quite's 'bout time Kinkade be exposed for the money grubbing imposter that he is. Not that there's not a place for his pictures (as emawk recognizes...right next to the Avon bottles), but it's not art. I can't even call it "work."

Steve Hayes said...

I'd never heard of him until I read your post, but how does he get to steal Turner's epithet?

Anonymous said...

Is the question (concerning Kinkade) one of why he makes kitsch or the deception of the masses into believing his kitsch is fine art? Tolerance for guarded amounts of kitsch can be a synonymic metaphor for the relationship between a McDonald's big mac and an exquisitely made meal. Is it okay to have a big mac once in a blue moon? Does the baseness of the big mac enhance the quality of the homemade/skilled and nutritionally superior, by way of contrast? Let me offer another analogy; relationships. While we all would most likely agree that deep friendships were worthier than passing acquaintances; it would not be possible to engage in deep friendships with every human being we meet. We must allow for the hierarchy to keep us sane, rational and healthy. . just a thought.

As a side note, a friend of mine that teaches painting at Yale recalled when one of the grad students tried to get Kinkade to come defend himself as a guest lecturer. . .needless to say, the faculty were upset and wouldn't have it. I think it would be quite interesting to hear his defense in the line of fire.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Kinkade is a great artist. You all must be pretty jealous of his talents because that is all you keep talking about. I don't think he became a rich guy because people don't like his work. His paintings show his feelings and his opinions and if you don't like it you can ... well never mind this is a family website.

Anonymous said...

Gees half of you can't even spell his name right.