12 September 2002

The most recent issue of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion (Number 34), had a thoughtful editorial on Thomas Kinkade and his art, by publisher and editor Gregory Wolfe.

Wolfe begins by noting the difficulty of writing about sentimentality and popular culture--after all, a certain kind of artistic elitism can take a bit too much pleasure in beating up on the likes of Kinkade with his sugary, misty scenes of softly lit cottages and gardens. But Wolfe notes that popularity and sentimentalism are not necessarily linked, for example, in the popularity of unsentimental Shakespeare. And, while always difficult to define, sentimentality is deadly serious business involving, as Mark Jefferson notes, a deliberate misrepresetation of the world in order to indulge certain emotional states.

Wolfe notes that Kinkade's artistic world is a problem not so much because of the emotion it seeks to elicit or the "inveterate prettyifying" of nature it induges. The danger is more subtle and more political and theological. Kinkade claims to be a painter of "memories and traditions," who, in his own words, attempts to "portay a world without the Fall."

A certain kind of conservative nostalgia lurks here, with a highly selective memory and interest in only some peoples' traditions. Worse, however, may be the theology that is assumed. As Wolfe notes,The Bible, as a narrative, seems fairly explicit about there being a Before and an After. Moreover, Christ's message was not to pretend the world isn't fallen but to take up our crosses and follow him through suffering and sacrifice. To create a body of work illustrating a world with the Fall is, for a Christian, to render Christ superfluous.Jesus was not a sentimentalist and, if anything, when others around him were tempted towards sentiment, he subverted that turn. Wolfe observes,To the announcement that his mother and brothers have arrived at the edge of the crowd--a Hallmark moment if there ever was one--[Jesus] replies that only his disciples are his mother and brothers.In criticizing sentimentality one can become over-zealous, of course. Greeting cards and address labels are relatively harmless in their respective spheres. Yet the artistic mediocrity embodied in sentiment is not without its consequences. Wolfe quotes Henri de Lubac: "There is nothing more demanding that the taste for mediocrity." And as Wolfe goes on to suggest,Perhaps, at its best, sentimentality strives for something approximating the theological virtues of hope and love. But in refusing to see the world as it is, sentimentality reduces hope to nostalgia. And in seeking to escape the ambiguity and the consequences of the Fall, it denies the heart of love, which is compassion.Compassion, of course, requires suffering with the other, and to do so in that otherness. The sentimentalist in the end is, as Oscar Wilde quipped, "one who desires to the have the luxury of emotion without paying for it."