Friday, 25 September 2009

On bad and good art

I fear I'm going to make enemies with this blog but something has to be said. Last weekend we were on the edge of the Cotswolds for a family reunion and on the Sunday spent a couple of hours in the once picturesque but now rather tourist beset village of Broadway. There we found a shop devoted entirely to the works of the American artist Thomas Kinkade and we wandered around looking at the numerous prints and keeping our comments to ourselves. If by some fortune you do not know the work of this gentleman then here is a specimen.

And if you insist here's another.

Now that's probably all you need to know; his work is pretty much variations on a theme and instantly recognisable from ten paces. ‘Thomas who?’ I hear some of you say but what is interesting is this man is probably the world's bestselling living artist.  You may consult his website (I have no intention of giving you the URL) and you will find that he declares himself ‘Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light’. (The last bit by the way he has rather modestly trademarked; although as some wit has remarked, ‘The Painter of Lite’ is a better title.) Now normally I would pass over such things but Kinkade makes claims to be a Christian and certainly a little fish logo rests over his signature. Not only that but the Wikipedia article on him (which I have no reason to disbelieve) tells us that his paintings are much loved amongst American Evangelicals. I have a nasty feeling that they are probably popular amongst British Evangelicals too. 

Now here I want to be careful. After all, we all disagree on aesthetic matters: and it could be -I suppose - that my intense dislike of these works is due to a sort of cultural snobbery or a personal dislike of American popular art. Well I've searched hard and I don't think I'm guilty of either sin. Indeed, with respect to the latter I have to say that I have rather a soft spot for Norman Rockwell. I suppose too I want to be wary of what is no more than envy: Kinkade has certainly made a massive fortune through shrewd marketing: another wit calls him ‘the artist formally known as prints’. (By the way Kinkade attracts some extraordinary attacks: there are some spectacular and often hilarious parodies of his work on something I also recognise that the man clearly has (or had) talent; there are well, portions of his paintings that are done well.  And let's face it, in a world where dead sharks and unmade beds can be considered art it's surely no bad thing to see landscapes and homely scenes. Yet when every excuse is made I have to say that I find these paintings bad art generally and, in particular, bad Christian Art.

I have spent some time considering why I dislike these paintings. There are several reasons. I loathe the formulaic and lazy repetition of elements (the glowing skies, the sombre trees, the absence of people, the snow draped rocks and above all, those wretched houses with golden light blazing through the windows as if every stove had suddenly gone supernova). I am sickened by the nauseous distorted colours which seem to me to be the visual equivalent of chocolate sauce and syrup on ice cream. Yet I think my biggest dislike of these paintings is simply that they are not true to the world. It's not just that the water wheels he paints couldn't turn, that no house ever glows like that, or that it’s sometimes impossible to know whether it is dawn or midday. It's something more profound: these paintings are escapist in the worst sense of the word. In Kinkade's world, no shadow falls. And because no shadow falls there can be neither redemption nor authenticity. His paintings, as Christian Art at the very least, are lies both about us and about the world.

By way of contrast (and I hope I don't come over as an intellectual snob), I have been listening to Bach cantatas on the way to and from college. (The first 40 discs by the Japanese Christian Masaaki Suzuki have come out in a series of cheap box sets.) Anyway in Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Klagen  (‘Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing’) there is a wonderful aria with the following haunting couplet probably based on Revelation 2.10 and 1 Corinthians 9:24.
‘Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden,
Kampf und Kleinod sind vereint.’

Which being translated is “Cross and crown are joined together, struggle and treasure are united”. The great authority on Bach, Durr, suggests that Kleinod should really be translated as ‘prize medal’: so maybe that last line ought to read “contest and prize are united.” Well maybe the alliteration is a little bit cheesy but frankly, it all seems so much truer to life and ultimately, infinitely more encouraging than all of Kinkade’s paintings.