Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Kitsch Thing

Warning: This post contains radical dismemberings of the work of two popular artists, Thomas Kinkade and Kenny G. If you are a fan of one of these artists, or if you ARE one of these artists, please stop reading now. It will only hurt your feelings.


This week, I am sorry to say, I turned on my TV. I have no excuse for myself. Somebody mentioned those two fatal words, "Christmas specials," and my seven-year-old id took over. Once it was on--oh, Lord, I don't even want to START the litany of the crap I watched. I feel like I've caught up on ten years' worth of popular culture. "Sex and the City," "CSI," "Frazier," and "Las Vegas" were vaguely familiar but meaningless terms to me until now. With fortitude and discipline, soon they will be again.

Watching so little TV, I am likewise Not Inured to Commercials. In my seven to ten-year intervals between bouts of TV-watching, things change a lot; crass materialism becomes ever crasser and more materialistic. The last time I did a dose of TV, sometime around 1998, a car commercial came on with the tagline, "I may not have all the answers, but at least I have a new car!" I went into a state of shock that lasted for weeks.

This time was no different. Car commercials, diamond commercials, "the best gift award--Old Navy Sweaters!" rolled by in an unending stream of fey hype and shouting. By contrast, the spots for "Glade Holiday Candles With Scenes by Thomas Kinkade" and "Kenny G Holiday Hits" should have seemed restrained and wholesome. But nevertheless I have decided to devote this week's post to explaining, in excrutiating detail, why it was these particular ads that made me want to vomit.

I might as well admit upfront that I could be seen to have a professional grudge against Thomas Kinkade, because, well, he's probably a squillionaire by now, and with a bit of luck I may be able to scrape together next month's rent. But my issue with him is not directly financial; in fact, I support the aggressive teaching of sales, marketing and bookkeeping skills in art institutions. My issue with Thomas Kinkade is that his work is vile, fatuous kitsch. Harmless, perhaps. But perhaps not.

Kitsch, as I have explained elsewhere, can be defined as "the pretense that shit does not exist." It's a prettification, a smoothing-down of gritty and troubled perceptions. Surely this can't be wrong; surely such quiet sweetness can provide a sense of peace and respite, however temporary, from a world of drudgery and strife. Nevertheless, it is a lie; and contrary to providing true peace, kitschy perceptions blunt and obscure it.

Let me illustrate. Here is a picture by Thomas Kinkade.

For those of you eight or ten readers who have successfully avoided encountering this artist's work, I may say that this piece is fairly typical. Note the semi-rural setting, the cozy dwelling with warm glow emanating from windows, the profusion of flowers, the filtered light, the brilliant foliage. Note, furthermore, from a compositional standpoint: the frontal, standing-on-the-ground horizontal perspective, the gently winding path, the diagonal line of the fence. Grass and flowers in foreground, house in the middle, trees as backdrop. I had a book as a kid called "It's Fun To Make Pictures;" the instructions for "How To Paint A Landscape" taught you how to compose a painting that looked like this--verbatim.

From a technical standpoint, then, I'd have to say his work is competent. Not inventive, but sound. Now, let's examine his palette. "Colorful," you say. "More or less realistic, but bright; idealized," you might observe, if you were to articulate your impressions. Indeed, this is why every middle-class family in the Midwest has one on the wall; it's pretty. If we were to get analytical, we would see that he has used colors from all round the color wheel; the vivid orange of the leaves counterbalanced by the soft blue-gray of the roof, the pastel pinks and blues of the flowerbeds popping against the whispery greens of the lawn, anchored by luminous yellows of window-light and deep charcoal shadows. Everything is balanced--and utterly predictable.

By way of contrast, here is a picture by Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo.



I have to say that I'm somewhat biased, having spent an inordinate percentage of my trip to Mexico City in the Rufino Tamayo Museum, gawping and having my entire conception of art and reality drastically altered. But even in the shadowy inadequacies of miniscule size and 72 dpi Internet re-re-production, one can see that this is an exceptionally stupid painting. Come on, those figures look like they were drawn by a four-year-old. And the colors! Pepto-bismol pink, clashing with blood red, burnt orange, puke ochre and flat black. Bleah. You speak of kitsch, you say--look at those asinine figures! Arms upraised in gesture of inane celebration on the left, straight-lined, skeletal smile on the right! Why This Stuff Gets Into Museums. I Mean.

You will have to take it on faith, then, that the experience of standing in front of a painting by Rufino Tamayo in his museum in Mexico City is akin to spending 20 minutes in a 210 degree Russian sauna, then having a buffed-out masseuse throw a bucket of cold water over your head and thrash you for half an hour with an oakleaf featherduster. For Those Who Have Eyes To See, as they say.

Here's an exercise, which I might entitle, on the spur of the moment, the Robert Irwin Perceptual Meditation. As you go through your day, try to note what your eyes are seeing. Not what your brain interprets as what your eyes are seeing; try to discover the mere shapes, angles, colors and impressions that your eyes are actually registering. Try to reduce these perceptions to a system of shapes and colors, as though the world were a complex game of Tetris; vertical, horizontal, angular, big, small, color gray, color beige, color blue-gray or lavender. Practice this for a few hours, or one whole day. Then when you are done, tally up the number and percentage of moments when you were actually perceiving the world as a system composed of foreground, middle ground, and backdrop, from a frontal perspective, with a balanced rendering of vivid colors from all round the color wheel. Unless you are a real-estate photographer, my guess would be--almost never.

My point is that a Thomas Kinkade painting is not a picture of a house. It's not even a picture of an ideal, snug, peaceful, cozy house in your happiest dreams. It is a picture of what the lowest common denominator of centuries of cultural symbolism has told you is a picture of a house. It's actually a very potent block between your experience, your perceptions, and your imagination. By providing ubiquitous, unimaginative, bland symbols of a grit-free 'peace' that never existed, kitschy paintings are teaching you to disconnect from the unique experience of your own life.

Perhaps that's hyperbolic. But back to Tamayo.

Standing in front of a Tamayo, let's say in the toxic atmosphere of a dangerously polluted city at an altitude that's giving you a migraine, the first thing you might notice is that those are some weird-ass colors. Moreover, they clash; moreover, they're dirty. Really, it looks like he's poured sand into his paint. If it's pink, it's only pink on the surface, although on the surface it's a strangely loud pink; underneath and peeking through, mixed in with the sand, is a lot of dull gray, and flecks of blue and tan and improbable red. He puts screamingly bright colors either next to each other, screaming in entirely different languages, or next to the dullest, ugliest colors you ever saw--reference, in the painting above, that nasty olive-brown floor, host to some orange feet and a red trapezoid.

Then when you look at his composition, you notice that he's breaking so many rules that he's created a new system of rules entirely. There is not a single instance of symmetry, plumb verticality or horizontality in the entire painting, except for the vertical-horizontal lines within the figures' heads, right where they're not supposed to be. Nothing is consistent, everything is new; for instance, the calves of the figure on the left are vaguely anatomically delineated, the rest is a riff halfway between stick-figure and crypto-Cubist nightmare.

Every bit of this painting, in fact, is a surprise. And it's that way with every painting in the museum. You go through, wondering if you could stand to have any of them in your home, but each one of them has at least one element that makes you profoundly uncomfortable.

At the same time, this Tamayo guy seems like he must have been a relatively cheerful fellow. So many of the figures are smiling; he paints a lot of couples, families, landscapes and watermelons. Ordinary things. Life things. But he paints them like nobody else on the planet.

Perhaps, though, if every person on the planet got in touch with his or her own true perceptions and started to paint, without reference to pervasive cultural symbology, this might be a planet of four billion unique artists. And such discussions we'd have then!

Utopian ideals aside--the final point I'd like to make about Tamayo, and about painting in general, is that once you get used to it, it's the relationships between colors and forms that make them beautiful, rather than the colors and forms themselves. Radical contrast breeds excitement, complex harmony, and a beauty that is rich, deep and all-inclusive. Kitsch is about avoidance--it edits out any awkwardness, any reference to death and decay, to comfort the mind's fears. But great art puts in the death; great art accepts everything. And unconditional acceptance is a prerequisite for enduring peace.


Once I owned an album by Kenny G. It came from one of those record clubs, where you get twenty albums for a penny. I put it on and was physically unable to listen to the entire thing. I'm not even sure I made it to the second side. 'Elevator music' was what we used to call it, back in Texas; also 'dentist office music'. (My childhood dentist wore the men's cologne, "Pour Lui;" for decades I thought that this was the smell of his distinctly ineffective anaesthetic. I didn't realize that it was supposed to be a good smell until I opened an issue of GQ one day and my gums began to hurt.) So maybe my dislike of Kenny G is a purely situational association, having nothing to do with the quality of the music itself.

But the thirty-second commercial for "Kenny G's Holiday Hits" still made me shudder as though some stranger had dripped snot down my collar. So, in a spirit of analysis and investigation, I downloaded a couple of Holiday Hits, to try to figure out what it was that bothered me so much.

Indeed, like Kinkade, the man has command of his instrument. He hits all the notes, sweetly if predictably. What started the hives on my neck might be called his "touch." He strokes each note like a pedophile patting an eight-year-old--with such conscious mildness that it borders on the creepy. There's a pathological avoidance of any untoward passion, harshness or 'edge.' The instrumental backup reinforces this saccharinity; disenfranchised drums keep a beat that never skips, wavers or syncopates, punctuated by emasculated harps and swells of synthesized strings, forcing a hypocritical climax. 'Twee,' that's the word for it, 'twee.'

My God, I sound like a wine critic.

Just to decompress, I then launched one of the greatest jazz holiday hits of all time, John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." Ahhhhhh. Relief. Saint John and his band thwack into glorious dissonance with that first inimitable chord, crashing on the bass like an oncoming army; THONK da-duh-dah, THRONK da-duh-daa-duh...and then when the sax comes in for the melody, it's fifty percent grime, nasal and joyous; BONK-bap-bap BONK bop-bop DONK bop-bop BOP-bop...breaking it down, I noticed that that army bass in the piano never lets up. The underlying rhythm is dissonance itself. Above it, John on soprano saxophone deedles insouciantly like a drunk on a tightrope, wandering whither he might. This approximates joy; playing music without a net from your scarred heart, while the clock is ticking and the unpaid landlord pounds on the door.

Now I sound like a pulp novelist. This is why I never read music criticism.

Purple prose aside, the point remains the same--Art is not Art if it skirts the dissonance; it's commercialised pablum for the masses. And who are the masses? Not you, not me, not anybody. Societies without mass media do not have kitsch. It's aesthetic junk food. It bloats the body and blunts the soul, channelling individual creativity onto an interstate leading nowhere.

Well, so what? It's just art. Art is a luxury anyway; it has little to do with a happy life.

No, at the risk of getting didactic--art mirrors life, which mirrors art. If, as a culture, our art becomes impoverished, avoidant, saccharine and twee, we absorb a false and dangerously destructive message about the nature of happiness. A close friend of mine told me that her boyfriend recently said, "I keep expecting our relationship to settle down and be peaceful." She told him, "You've known me for six years and it's never been that way. Do you really think I'll change?" Peaceful does not, and will never, equal sweet, uneventful and bland.

Too many people think that strife and conflict have no place in a peaceful world--that if problems arise in a relationship, for example, then you are with the wrong person and must drop it and start over. Or, conversely, that if you grew up in a seriously dysfunctional, abusive family, and are so emotionally damaged that you'll never live in a Thomas Kinkade house even in fantasy, that the best you can hope for is to sweep your dreams under the rug, deny the pain, avoid intimacy, and live a half-life on the fringes of light and laughter.

The reason that kitsch is a tragic lie is that it represents the opposite of peace. It constructs a cruel, inarguable, ironclad judgment by what it omits--and it omits almost everything. Healing is grounded in acceptance of everything. Once placed in perspective, once looked at fully and loved, the sand in the paint is what makes it beautiful.

17 comments:

Liz said...

WOW this is amazing and fits with everything I think about poetics.

Danny said...

I need to go in the blog and spend more time reading. I really love how you write. The words unravel like a rare and good conversation. I am shocked. It reminds me that I rarely have good conversations anymore. Something like...I have to do this or that...gets in the way....or " I am in the midst of creating something" separates me from a community of humanity that I am creating it for....and curiously, seperates me from me too.
Thanks for alerting me to your blog.
Danny

serena said...

Thanks, Danny!

I believe that good conversations are the entire reason for living. Let's have more of them.

Anonymous said...

On T. Kinkade, art making factory: Where the hell are all the SUVs? They are such an integral part of our shared pastoral fantasy. He could make bank if put a Hummer roaring up and down all those cobblestone lanes. I am SHOCKED that he has not recognized this opportunity. It would play so well in Orange County.

Jordan said...

Believe or not I was just pondering today on why so many people don't like Thomas KinKade..I hope you don't mind a link!

serena said...

Not at all, Fine Art Doctor. I am quite honored. Particularly as I was supposed to be a doctor, but stubbornly insisted on being a starving artist instead. I feel both balanced and vindicated.

Jordan said...

I was supposed to be many things...but stubbornly insisted on being a doctor instead. As for balanced or vindicated, who knows!

MC said...

You seem pretty sharp, Serena.

I was wondering, (maybe a silly question) have you read Greenberg?

Famously, he's written on Kitch himself, of course, but also a few words here and there on Tamayo (some positive, some negative).

Just thought it'd be up your alley, but knowing what a bad rap CG gets these days, I thought it might be possible for even a NYer like yourself to have overlooked him.

(I hope not.)

serena said...

MC--I'm sure I read Greenberg back in the dark ages when I was a student and pretending to be an academic, but it's so long ago that I don't remember any details at all. Possibly it has soaked so deeply into my consciousness that I was under the impression that I'd thought of it myself.

I will go look for his words on Tamayo, however.

tom bennett said...

Serena:
I just stumbled on your blog; very intelligent and funny. I was considering adopting the moniker, "Painter of Movement". But now I've seen the light.
Thank you.
Tom Bennett

always learning said...

Interesting ideas - love the way you compare and contrast the two styles :)

Anonymous said...

Actually, I favor the figural work, is it not influenced by the primitavist movement? And what rules does it break? Didn't realize there were rules. However speaking of breaking rules...that's if there were any (and there maybe) Kinkade is known as the master of light...is he not? Which he breaks most often in his paintings with inaccuracy, not to mention, his poor ability of cropping resulting in compisitional tangets! My point is simple...if your going to feed your crap art to the masses with the soul intension of "banking", do a better job of it visually, but whom am I to criticize right!? His sucess does speak for itself? Does it not? -DWS

The Aardvark said...

Wow...as a former Dobsonoid, I have an allergy to the "painter of light" and his work. We have a Kinkeade store in our local mall. If that doesn't say it all, well...

I think he would like to be an ambient Rockwell,
Muzak for the eyes.

Desert Cat said...

Let me tell you what I like about Kinkade's work--it is just what you don't like. The idealization, the peace, the perfection that never was and isn't. At least not on this earth.

No, the first time I saw a Kinkade painting I was sure he'd glimpsed a bit of heaven, and was painting from there. For me, what he depicts is what may very well be for me someday. In my interpretation of his work, those cottages and chalets and mansions are the places the Lord has gone ahead to prepare for us.

Now perhaps that could mean that my perceptions are thereby blunted, that religion is indeed my opiate of choice, that my hope in the world that Kinkade depicts blinds me to the ugly reality that we currently live in. But of course, I beg to differ. As I've written before, it is about holding up another reality, defiant in the face of the one that I acknowledge to be real.

And I rather like the one that Kinkade has produced.

Let that say what it will about me.

But if it's any comfort, I will agree with you that it's not exactly "art" he's created. Maybe that's what you were really getting at.

Vidad said...

I couldn't have written it better myself.

As a painter I'm constantly getting asked by the masses if I like Kinkade. Obviously, lots of folks do.

I'm sure he's a nice person. But... yeah, you summed it up. A picture of what we're told a house should look like.

Please give me dissonance!

Lynn Dunham said...

I narcissistically admire your blog.It is rare I disagree. Just read the kinkade/kenny G. piece. You're right on the money.

luxinthemachine said...

You must compile your writings into a book! I can not explain to you how grateful I am to you. Thank you!