On sentimentality.

This image and others are available here: http://www.somethingawful.com/d/photoshop-phriday/paintings-light-part.php?page=1

I’m making some observations about sentimentality in a couple of upcoming reviews, and to enhance those articles I’ve been reading and re-reading some other essays on the subject.

I revisited one of my favorites tonight, a piece by Gregory Wolfe, publisher of Image, on the popular paintings of Thomas Kinkade. And again I was impressed. Here are a couple of excerpts:

…what scares me about Thomas Kinkade is not so much the treacly emotion he seeks to evoke or his inveterate prettifying of nature, but the political subtext underlying his iconography. The only folk who could ever have inhabited his cottages and lighthouses are prosperous white people. Nearly all of his paintings are of a world circa 1800-1914, with perhaps a small percentage depicting a world between 1914 and 1960. He likes to say that he is a painter of “memories and traditions,” but he is highly selective in what he chooses to remember, and that choice bears an unnerving resemblance to a world that is comfortingly pre-modern and Anglo-Saxon in composition.

And then, he delivers the sledgehammer…

The essence of Kinkade’s sentimentality is the packaging of nostalgia. It’s an oxymoronic idea, but it has become a major part of our cultural life, as Florence King has noted: “True nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories…but American-style nostalgia is about as ephemeral as copyrighted déjà vu.” Kinkade’s patriotism and his attacks on the horrors of artistic modernism are standard-issue conservative notions. When it comes to theology, however, he is a little more original. The majority of his expressions of faith are fairly conventional, solidly within the evangelical mold, but his theological defense of the world depicted in his paintings is that “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” I have yet to encounter any evidence that Kinkade cites scriptural or other warrant for this modus operandi. 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 without the Fall is, for a Christian, to render Christ superfluous.


This image and more are available here: http://www.somethingawful.com/d/photoshop-phriday/paintings-light-part.php?page=1

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  • Jacob T

    Here’s an honest question:

    Last year I visited a wonderful exhibit of the impressionist paintings. It was just amazing to be surrounded by such beauty for a lengthy period of time. I really found myself feeling “addicted” to it as I left.

    I also left with a question though. (Now I am a musician and know next to nothing about visual art so please be gentle.) What’s the difference between Kinkade’s portrayal of life and beauty and say, some of Monet’s? Besides technical ability, etc. do they sometimes send a similar message?

    Again, I hesitate to even ask such a question but I really want to know from those who do.

  • I never liked Thomas Kinkade’s paintings and always just thought it was a matter of taste, but now I have some arsenal to fire back at those who embrace such hyper realistic portrayals!

  • Jeremie Begbie has a great chapter on Sentimentality in “The Beauty of God” ed. by Roger Lundin. Seems to echo the Scruton post here, too.

  • From Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music:

    “[The sentimentalist] is not so much feeling something as avoiding it. He is not feeling what he pretends to feel, and he prefers to pretend, for the pretence is deeply motivated. Sentimental emotions are artefacts: they are designed to cast credit on the one who claims them. The sentimentalist is courting admiration and sympathy. He wishes others to credit him with a warm heart and generous feelings; but he does not wish to pay the price that those things demand. That is why there is sentimental love, sentimental indignation, sentimental grief and sympathy; but not sentimental malice, spite, envy or depression, since these are feelings which no-one admires.

    “Sentimentality, so described, is a vice. Not only does it place someone at a distance from reality; it also involves an overevaluation of the self at the cost of others. The other person enters the orbit of the sentimentalist as an excuse for emotion, rather than an object of it. The other is deprived of his objectivity as a person, and absorbed into the subjectivity of the sentimentalist. The other becomes, in a very real sense, a means to emotion, rather than an end in himself. […]

    “The sentimentalist is […] a paradigm immoralist. His carefree existence is not a happy one: for it lacks the essential ingredients—love and friendship—on which happiness depends. The sentimental friend is not a friend: indeed, he is a danger to others. His instinct is to facilitate tragedy, in order to bathe in easy sympathy; to stimulate love, in order to pretend to love in return, while always reserving his heart and mind, and calculating to his own advantage. He enters human relations by seduction, and leaves them by betrayal.

    “Sentimentality exists in art as well as in life; and it is as much an aesthetic as a moral defect. Expression in art involves and invitation to sympathy. The characteristic of sentimental art is that it invites us to pretend to an emotion, without really feeling it. It gives the trappings of emotion without the real and costly fact of it. One sign of this, as Leavis has powerfully argued, is a vague and unobservant portrayal of the object of feeling. The world of the sentimental work of art is an excuse for emotion, but not a full-bodied object of it. It is schematic, stereotyped, smoothed over by the wash of sentiment, deprived of the concrete reality that would show the cost of really feeling things. […]

    “Sentimentality in art […] goes hand in hand with cliche and banality. Sentimental art is always reaching for effects, but since–in a deep sense–it is feeling nothing, it cannot derive these effects from its subject-matter, or from its own expressive life. They must be borrowed, therefore, like costumes. And that is precisely the origin of the cliche–the borrowed gesture, which has become the formula for an emotion which it cannot recreate.

    “Furthermore, banality and sentimentality feed upon each other. We are all to some extent sentimentalists: for human kind cannot bear very much reality. And banalities help not merely to give expression to our sentimental pretences, but also to gain other people’s complicity in them–to sustain a kind of collective illusion, with which we cloak our common heartlessness. The sentimentalist makes direct appeal to his kind: you are like me, he reminds us; these cliches that I utter are your cliches too. However, by accepting them we can appear noble in each other’s eyes, without the cost of being so. Let us, then, pretend.”