As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:
Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.
We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.
Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.
I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
I recently learnt of the Beuronese School, which was a nineteenth century attempt to reorient, literally and figuratively, Western liturgical art. You may read of it at the New Liturgical Movement. The linked article has some lovely photographs, as well. The style is what results, I suppose, when one expresses piety with Belle Époque aesthetic sensibilities.
What a century!
I have a theory, probably garnered somewhere now unknown to me, that human societies experience creative explosions in moments of civilizational crisis wherein cultures or ages collide. There are many counterexamples, but the high points of human civilization seem to occur at such moments. Take fifth and fourth century ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period throughout the Near East, the chaos at the end of the Roman Republic, the transition to Christianity in the empire, the first centuries of Mohammedan expansion, the High Middle Ages, the swan song of the Eastern Empire, the Renaissance, or the consequent ages up until the world wars. I do not know if one may see a similar pattern in South and East Asia, though such seems true of Mughal India. The 1800’s—that tumultuous century of revolution and reaction—gave the world remarkable literature, music, architecture, urban planning, and painting. Please forgive an indulgence in Hegelianism, but it seems that the nineteenth century resulted from a somewhat hostile dialectic between tradition and modernity that nevertheless created an extraordinary age. Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised that the coming together of opposites begets life.
Like everyone else, I am surprised by today’s news from Rome. May Benedict XVI’s successor steer the Roman ship well.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk issued the reaction of the Russian Church.
Somewhat tangential to the news of the day, I offer a short B.B.C. story: “Meet Orthodox Vatican’s official court painter.” (The story’s title should be “Meet the Vatican’s Orthodox Official Court Painter,” but the B.B.C. evidently no longer hires literate Anglophones.)
We live in interesting times.
My sister sent me today a Yahoo link to some delightful trompe l’oeil drawings by Ramon Bruin: “Amazing 3D art tricks the eye.” They are very cool.
I am glad that artists continue to create beautiful works even when the doorkeepers of respectable
fine art grant them neither respect nor status. If Bruin spent his time representing vulvae with nachos—you know, when he was not blasphemously depicting religious figures in human waste—then he would be showcased in the most prestigious galleries. Instead, he airbrushes objects that people want stylized. He plays with color and shape to delight the observer and to tease the imagination. He incarnates beauty in useful and in decorative pieces. How pedestrian! How vulgar! How very much like an artist—for most of human history.
We need to return to the understanding of art that existed before the pretentious distinction between artisans and artists. And surely we shall.
Christ is born!
Merry Christmas on this fifth day of the Nativity. May the Holy Innocents be ever remembered! Even adjusting for the calendar discrepancy, I have no idea why the memorial is observed on different days in the West (December 28) and in the East (December 29). Moreover, Wikipedia notes that the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church commemorate the Innocents on December 27. Like the feast of Saint Catherine or of the Conception of the Theotokos, the date varies by a day or two.
Significantly more cheerful than slain boys is the fine art of remaking fine art. Booooooom is currently showcasing submissions that you may enjoy. Some are silly and boringly transgressive, while others are striking and impressive in their fidelity to the original, in their creative departures, and in their own manifestations of beauty. There are currently seven pages of remakes, but the number appears to continue to increase. Here are the current links:
Remake Submissions / Part I
Remake Submissions / Part II
Remake Submissions / Part III
Remake Submissions / Part IV
Remake Submissions / Part V
Remake Submissions / Part VI
Remake Submissions / Part VII
I liked the following the most:
Le Désespéré remake by Stefano Telloni (currently in Part I)—perfect.
Pot Pourri remake by Tania Brassesco and Lazlo Passi Norberto (I)—lovely.
The Beaneater remake by Mark Bass (I)—a young Matt Drudge strikes a remake pose.
Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary remake by Marianna Oboeva (I)—she is there.
Grande Odalisque remake by Patrick Richmond Nicholas (I)—the Ingresque meets the Delacroixian.
Bedroom in Arles remake by Joshua Louis Simon (I)—impressive copy.
Supper at Emmaus remake by Jeff Hazelden (I)—nice lighting
Nighthawks remake by Bastian Vice (I)—it captures the vibe.
David and Goliath remake by Miguel Iturbe (II)—beautifully morbid.
Self Portrait 1889 remake by Seth Johnson (II)—the Meryl Streep of art remakes.
Girl reading a letter by an open window remake by Wanda Martin (III)—lovely, but a sad reminder of a lost art.
Man in a red turban remake by Ryan Halliwill (III)—I love the color and the light.
The Girl With The Pearl Earring remake by Sarah McCollum (III)—I love this series, but this one gets a nod for its humanity.
The Girl With The Pearl Earring remake by Sybille de Chavagnac (III)—But this one wins; it startles me . . . gorgeous remake.
Narcissus remake by Marco Serina (III)—most of the nude reinterpretations are often silly, but this one works beautifully.
Narcissus remake by Shmu James Levine (III)—excellent reflection.
Narcissus remake by Max Zerrahn (III)—quite faithful.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas remake by Cope Amezcua (IV)—lovely with good lighting.
Dance remake by Samantha Madonik (IV)—it conveys the pagan energy superbly.
The Death of Marat remake by Christian Strevy (V)—striking . . . bravo!
The Infanta Margarita of Austria remake by Jessica Rossi—props for comedic value.
Violon d’Ingres remake by Lujian Zeta Zee (VI)—excellent.
Arachne remake by Eugenia Blanc (VI)—I love the light upon the skin . . . beautiful.
Madame X remake by Emily Kiyomi (VI)—it captures the spirit of the original well.
St. Rose of Lima remake by Genevieve Blais (VI)—uncanny approximation of that sort of pious art.
St. Francis in Ecstasy remake by Nicola Bailey (VI)—I am not usually a fan of the ironic, but I love the phone.
Boy with a basket of fruit remake by Guido Ricci (VI)—impressive.
Marta e Maddalena remake by Guido Ricci (VI)—most impressive.
San Giovanni Battista remake by Massimiliano Vermi (VI)—kudos, but perhaps less pulchritude and more gravity is appropriate for the subject matter . . . and the croton is too much.
Self-Portrait 1629 remake by Matt Martens (VII)—not bad.
New York City, 1956 remake by Kelly Culhane—not a good copy, but still an evocative photograph.
Loie Fuller in La danse blanche remake by Charlotte Doran Davies (VII)—beautiful.
Portrait of Leonora Carrington remake by Srge Miranda—I love the woman’s intensity.
Young Woman Escaping remake by Alma and Ed (VII)—very fun.
Salon des Cent 1896 remake by Charlotte Davies (VII)—it keeps the sensuality, but it lacks the ethereal quality of the original.
Le Baiser remake by Sybille de Chavagnac (VII)—ambitious.
Two Cherubs remake by Bri Hammond—somewhat sacrilegious, but charming.
Starry Night over the Rhone remake by Breno Rodrigues (VII)—clever.
Portrait of a Lady remake by Sara Huneke (VII)—another excellent presentation of personality.
If it is not apparent, I am a sucker for lighting. One of my favorite paintings is Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalen. Online pictures do not do it justice, as is always the case. Make sure to see it if you are ever at the National Gallery of Art.
Last week, I finally visited the temporary Rockwell exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum: “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.” You may look at some online images of the works shown, though pictures of pictures never do the originals justice. Among the collection were two versions of “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones.” Lucas and Spielberg both owned a copy, one the sketch and one the painting, though I forget who owned which.
I have always enjoyed Rockwell’s work, and I have a devotional attachment to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Therefore, I appreciated the exhibit immensely on many levels. Not only did I get to see some of Rockwell’s paintings and drawings up close, but I also venerated contact relics of popular culture’s hallowed saints. It was especially interesting to me to see which man owned which works, and some of the informative descriptions for the paintings contained commentary by Lucas or Spielberg about the works. I liked learning a bit more about these movie and myth makers through their love of Rockwell.
I visited Thomas Jefferson’s library at the Library of Congress last week. Jefferson’s collection reconstituted the Library of Congress after the British destroyed the original collection in the War of 1812. Looking at the tomes, I felt as though I was surveying the intellectual world in which Jefferson thought and worked. To see a man’s books is to see his soul. I think that something similar may be said of one’s art collection. I am thus thankful for Lucas and Spielberg’s generosity in sharing some of their Rockwell collection. To offer the public these works is to offer the public themselves in a significant way.
The exhibit also contained a short documentary that features interviews of Lucas and Spielberg about Rockwell and his works. Lucas and Spielberg stress Rockwell’s cinematic brilliance as a story teller, even though he only did drawings and paintings. Nonetheless, both men agree that they relate to Rockwell as directors and as story tellers. They also offer comments about Rockwell’s other qualities, and I certainly agree with their assessment of Rockwell as portraying for Americans their values and ideals—even in “lowly” commercial advertisements and magazine covers.
Much of the press coverage of the Rockwell exhibit deals with the resuscitation of Rockwell’s reputation as an artist. During those hideous years in the mid twentieth century, the establishment was not kind to Rockwell, which dismissed his work as fodder for the ignorant and vulgar masses; he was for them the Thomas Kinkade of the post war generation. Transgressive art was the way of the progressive, future man. Rockwell was stuck depicting silly people engaged in ordinary life. How bourgeois.
Fortunately, more and more Americans are growing beyond the childish rejection of beauty, form, and goodness in the arts. People now commonly value older architectural, musical, and visual artistic works, having suffered enough the nihilistic pretensions of the past few generations. Thank goodness. Nature will have her way, and man by nature loves the beautiful, Mencken’s commentary about Americans’ tastes notwithstanding. Man also loves the good, and he finds such good in the best of his social order. Not all art has to be that of social criticism and protest. Euripides was an unlikeable fellow, genius though he was, and the West has long had far too many unworthy Euripides’ posing as Socrates with a jarring aesthetic. In addition to the scornful chastiser from on high—the artist as angry prophet and revealer of society’s faults—a nation needs artists who incarnate in their works the beauty, love, and insight of their own civilization. The art of the last century, like the intellectual movements that defined it, was strong on hatred and rejection and weak on love and celebration.
Rockwell stood out from this nihilism and despair. He fulflled the ancient role of the artist as servant of the people who manifested in his works the greatness of his people. To see his work is to see ordinary Americans at their best. It is to recognize the goodness of life and to smile at the little, quirky absurdities of society and of common living. We do not need a scathing critic in order to laugh a little at ourselves. We always laugh at ourselves. To be human is to be a wee bit ridiculous—and to be aware of it. Nonetheless, or, rather, as such, we are full of life and thus of loveable goodness. One who cannot see the divine splendor even in banal, domestic settings suffers from demonic blindness. Rockwell had no such defect. Like all good artists, he saw the beauty in the world and reflected it in his images with wit, delight, mercy, love, and a profound sense of humanity.