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Study in Green

People love Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light. Is that a problem?

While I didn't see Kinkade's landscapes, homes and (for the adventurous) "impressionistic plein-air works" as particularly interesting in and of themselves, I was interested in how his work related to contemporary art's much-lamented "failure" to reach a "mainstream" audience. (The presumption is, of course, that art should reach a mainstream audience, which I'm not so sure about.) According to critic Dave Hickey, who has been at one end of the debate over this issue for several years, the problem has been contemporary art's rejection of the beautiful in favor of the virtuous. Since beauty sells, Hickey wrote in 1993, ridiculing the art world for its horror of commercialism, beauty is suspect. The network of museums and nonprofit art spaces -- "therapeutic institutions," Hickey calls them -- fails to avail itself of "the subversive potential of visual pleasure."

Of course, to carry Hickey's love of mass culture and commercialism to its very extreme (which I don't think Hickey really wants to do) is to get stuck with Thomas Kinkade. Left in Kinkade's hands, the subversive potential of beauty drains away instantly. If, as Hickey argues, Robert Mapplethorpe used beauty to persuade viewers of the glory of gay sex, then Kinkade uses it to persuade his viewers of the glory of singsong family values -- not a challenging task. If beauty is a rhetorical tool, Hickey says, one can distinguish among "the most beautiful image," which simply appeals to the most people, "the most effective beautiful image," which makes the most extreme set of values palatable to the most people, and the "most efficient beautiful image," which sneaks transgressive content into the homes of the elite and influential. Kinkade's work falls under the first category, and therein lies its weakness. It doesn't persuade anyone of anything new.

Hickey's beauty juggernaut has gone on long enough, and been influential enough, to have given rise to a backlash. In the extended multicultural symposium that was the art world of the late '80s and early '90s, Hickey's theories could be used as an excuse to go home early. Because of that, they've recently been attacked (wrongly, I think) as patriarchal and exclusionary. Although Hickey never has to my knowledge advocated a universal beauty -- to him, visual pleasure is a tool artists forgot to use rather than an absolute measure of quality -- he has been assailed both for asserting white, male privilege in resuscitating beauty and for pandering to the masses. The former charge rings hollow; the latter somewhat true. Writing in a Los Angeles art magazine whose latest issue was primarily devoted to beauty-bashing, Peter Lunenfeld called Hickey's position defeatist: "If you can't beat the middlebrow, why not join it."

Hickey attacks the fact that artists decline to give the market what it demands as a petulant refusal to acknowledge the audience, and accuses the nonprofits set up to handle this nonmarketable art of neutering art's power -- and in both cases he is providing a valuable service. The resentment comes, I suppose, because Hickey has not critiqued the market itself in terms of the escapist, Republican pablum that can gain ascendancy there. Is it really fair for Hickey to champion the tastes of the people and ignore Thomas Kinkade? It's true that the market has room for many, many opinions, but market forces tend to push product in one direction. Hickey may use the market as a whip for an art world that depends in no small part on market-free but agenda-laden charity funds. But he can't claim that all that sells is good art, or that all good art sells.

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