Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What is Art. Part VII Kincade

November 4, 2009

As pointed out previously, art is non-verbal communication—speaking now of just painting, sculpture and other media that don’t ‘walk and talk’. It can be merely decorative, an assemblage of colors and shapes that is harmonious and pleasing to look at. Lots of people favor putting ‘decorative’ art on their walls because they consider it as simply a kind of home décor accessory. Their preference is to find something that matches the drapes and the couch. Nothing wrong with that either. If that is what they want, that is what they should have. Amen. There is also the genre known rather unkindly as ‘kitsch’ and the Lord of Kitsch is known as “The Painter of Light”. His actual name, however, is Thomas Kincade. And I have included examples of his work here so that you will know what I am saying when I tell you that he never saw a visual cliché that he didn’t like…or use. Joan Didion offered this pithy assessment of the painter: "A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire."

Kincade has a vast following of people who love his images. Make no mistake about that. But, then, there is a huge segment of the population who love Wonder Bread and drink lots of soda pop, maybe even consider ‘candy’ as one of the food groups. We seek out that which reflects back to us our own world-view and our own sensibilities. If I sound just a bit snobbish around this man’s work, that’s because I am. He is easily worthy of all the detriment that one can pile in a big, steamy heap, right on top of his reputation. He is a first-class art cynic, and--despite the photo above that might lead one to assume that he actually paints his own works--I once saw a t-v documentary on him in which he toured his ‘plant’ and put a few finishing brushstrokes on otherwise already completed paintings before he signed them. There were people in his employ who specialized in painting trees, skies, and—one might assume from seeing his work—cottages. Voila! Art, for the masses. The huge bulk of his sales stem from ‘limited’ edition prints…if you can consider editions that number in the five digit range as being ‘limited’, that is. People pay handsomely for numbered prints that have, in many cases, proven to retain and even increase in their value, simply because they are so popular. But, what really catapults Kincade into the realm of Lucien Freud, Julian Schnabel et al….is the fact that he has learned how to turn his art into a goose that lays 24kt eggs…and lots of them. He is almost certainly the richest artist alive today, and considering the competition, that is really saying something.

I find it somewhat interesting that Kincade has managed to become identified as THE Christian artist of these times. One writer identified his work as one of the three things no good Christian would be without…the other two escape me at the moment, or perhaps I have blocked them for the sake of my own sanity. One blogger, "Madame Lamb", noted--and I have no way of verifying it--that he was caught at Disneyland, peeing on a Disney figure in a state of inebriation and was heard to say: "This is for you, Walt". So how he managed to put himself out there as a 'devout' Christian seems like it would be good enough material for an SNL skit, but it has had the net effect of garnering such a rabid audience that it has driven him to ever greater heights of saccharine, sophomoric imagery.

If you could actually mix Sweet n’ Low with pigment and smear it on a canvas, it wouldn’t be nearly as cloying and nauseating as the paintings Kincade has his little army of painters creating. (Aside: no, they didn't appear to be elves from Santa's workshop) In a very real sense he has done exactly the same thing that Julian Schnabel et al have done: figured out what peoples’ tastes are and how to best exploit them. He’s just done it while sitting in the front pew, even as the ‘heathens’ are cavorting out in the forest behind the (little stone, flower covered) church. The bottom-line is identical in each case: untold riches.

At this point, one might begin to suspect that the art world is just one big minefield, awaiting the footsteps of the unwary. And, from the studios of art departments, to the sleek galleries of the concrete canyons, to the walls above double-wide breakfast nook pop-outs, in the most august museum halls, to the walls of staid mansions in the Hamptons, there is an avalanche of evidence to support that view. But, the fact is all of this decadence and tomfoolery has merely drawn the bow and readied the way for an awakening. I see evidence of it everywhere I look. An artist friend pointed out to me the other night that the art world is moving steadily back towards art that has the ability to deeply move people and that has intrinsic power and value based on high effort and higher quality. We KNOW what great art is. Museums are full of it…closely juxtaposed with the modernist trash that just makes the great art seem even finer.

Next time, instead of wallowing in the posers and wretches of the art world, let’s look at the work of an actual Grand Master, Johannes Vermeer.

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