Some New Thoughts on Old Art

When it comes to art I have far more opinions than expertise, but I do have an interest in art as a reflection of social values. In a word, I view art from the standpoint of a social critic rather than an art critic.

Like most art novices, I know what I like and what I don’t like, but would be hard pressed to defend any particular piece as good art or bad art. For instance, we have two Bilson Key sand paintings. Art critics tell us they are quite valuable because Key is one of the finest practitioners of the discipline. I simply have to take their word for it; I like them because they’re beautiful.

I have recently discovered “The Hudson River School” of art. Actually, I’m acquainted with many of the paintings and have had the privilege of seeing several of the originals at various art museums, but have only recently become acquainted with these artists as a school. Previously I’ve looked at their various works individually, but just recently have considered them together as expressing a particular historical point of view.

I am somewhat ambivalent about these various paintings. On the one hand, they are beautiful – and sometimes stunning – landscapes full of light and life. But they have been cast with a personality. As Arthur Danto says, It is “impossible not to be struck by their status as furniture – as objects of interior decoration that summon up the other components of domestic embellishment with which they converse in the plush language of comfort.”

In contrast to the Hudson River School, I will confess that I have a deep and abiding dislike for the art of contemporary artist Thomas Kinkaid. I confess this with some trepidation because I know that several, possibly many, of my readers are big fans of his work. There are certain similarities between Kinkaid and the Hudson River School, but there is also an important difference, and that difference is at the heart of this essay.

Both Kincaid and the Hudson River School are lush and realistic (although not photographically realistic – they maintain their sensibility as painters). Both emphasize nature as their primary environment. In other words, even though they are a century apart, both reflect high American romanticism in the visual arts. And as is typical of American Romanticism, both emphasize light. Kinkaid famously calls himself “the painter of light.” Paintings within the Hudson River tradition are similarly imbued with light (for instance, Albert Bierstadt’s “Looking Up the Yosemite Valley”). Their style is sometimes referred to as “Luminescence.” In other words, they were the original painters of light while Kincaid is the derivative.

But at this point the similarity ends. Kincaid’s paintings are privatized and internalized. Typically the main focus of light is from within the house (although he occasionally works with sunlight in a manner reminiscent of the Hudson River School).

A second difference is that the Hudson River School celebrates the real world with specificity. Bierstadt’s most famous paintings are of actual scenes in the Yosemite Valley. Similarly, Thomas Cole painted “The Oxbow” which is specifically identified as “The Connecticut River near Northampton.” One of John Frederick Kensett’s most famous paintings is “Mount Washington” (that is, the Mt. Washington in New Hampshire that is so famous for its weather). George Caleb Bingham even managed to bring that luminescent background light into his painting called “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap.” All of these paintings depict real places, and in the last case, real people. Yet the emphasis of all these paintings is less on the specific place or people and more on the light which fills the painting. (Which is why this school of painting is sometimes called “Luminescence.”)

In contrast, Kincaid’s world is idealized. Rather than an historical figure (Daniel Boone) standing in a real place (Cumberland Gap), Kincaid paints villages that are so idealized that they could be anyplace in tree groves or clearings that are so generic they could be anywhere, but certainly would never be confused with somewhere specific like the Yosemite Valley. In short, his idealization is taken to such an extreme that the “anywhere” becomes “nowhere.” His realism becomes a caricature of the real, a place that is so idealized that it never existed at all, except in the wishful thinking of the beholder.

The third difference (which is a direct result of the first two) is that while the paintings of the Hudson River School are expansive and inclusive, Kincaid’s paintings, taken as a whole, tend to reject the outside world and are pensive rather than expansive, exclusive rather than inclusive. For instance, in his painting “Christmas Evening,” the house is sealed up and closed off from the outside world, but with an inviting warm light flowing through the closed windows.

To be fair many of Kincaid’s newest paintings are of public scenes, such as Yankee Stadium or the Indianapolis 500 as well as fantasy, such as Pinocchio and Peter Pan. But all of these paintings have the same idealized, slightly unreal sense of his more famous paintings of houses with an internal light burning.

And herein lies my real beef with Kincaid. Just as the Hudson River School was only vaguely Christian, and in fact far more Transcendalist than orthodox Christian, so Kincaid’s works are only vaguely Christian and far more gnostic than orthodox. What do I mean by that?

Gnosticism is a twofold movement rooted in a specific attitude toward the world. The first movement is inward; it is away from the world toward the inmost self. The gnostic seeks the inner light (or private illumination) for comfort. The second movement is away from the world, as it actually is, toward something other-worldly. Classic Gnosticism (big “G” Gnosticism) rejected the physical world in favor of a spirit world. Kincaid’s style of gnosticism rejects the world as it is for a world cleansed of its imperfections and imbued with a light flowing from within. In his more recent paintings, the people are idealized and perfected. One can’t even imagine a drunk fan puking in the infield of his Indianapolis 500. In contrast, after going to the Brickyard, it’s hard to imagine that Kincaid is painting the same place. The real Brickyard is completely antithetical to the idealized (or “spiritual vs. physical) world that he has fabricated for this painting.

This twofold movement is rooted in despair. When the world-as-it-is seems unredeemable, a world-as-it-could-have-been is imagined. More than anything else, I find Thomas Kincaid’s paintings to be depressing. I was enthralled with the writings of Francis Schaeffer as a kid. He carefully delineated the development of despair in modern thinking. Not until his final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, did he identify the roots of despair in contemporary Evangelicalism and its expression as a latter-day gnosticism clothed in Christian garments. That book was an angry screed that was far more accusatory than scholarly, but Philip J. Lee’s, Against the Protestant Gnostics, said the same thing in a lengthy (!) and thoroughly documented manner. Kincaid paints in spades precisely what Lee warns against and Schaeffer mourns … and I find his beautiful little scenes terribly sad precisely because they’ve turned Christianity inside out and against itself.

Transcendentalism, narrowly defined, is a literary movement, Emerson and Thoreau being its most famous practitioners. The Hudson River School, following the spirit of Transcendentalism, may not be precisely Christian, but neither is it anti-Christian in the manner of gnosticism. Transcendentalism is both life-affirming and world-affirming; one can’t understand America without appreciating the Transcendentalists. Neither can one be Christian without being life-affirming and world-affirming. Thus Transcendentalism is a necessary tool in the arsenal of Christianity seeking to express itself in North America. God is light and in him is no darkness at all! Transcendentalism is a door into that truth for those of us born and bred to the expansive and optimistic culture of North America.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, rather than a means of connecting Christian truth to culture, is a means of perverting Christian truth with the culture of death (Pope John Paul II’s term) all dressed up as a secret light seeping out from a cottage tightly shut against the world outside.

Sanford Robinson Gifford’s world of “Hunter Mountain, Twilight” is far from perfect. The scene is no longer Edenic because the trees are felled leaving a blood-red sense of human destruction, but the overwhelming beauty of the Catskills at sunset remains the dominant theme. It is rooted in reality, it views the world as it is, but it also imbues that same imperfect world with the golden hope of God who is the light that ultimately can neither be defeated nor privatized. That is the view of reality that I wish to embrace rather than the ultimately depressing and privatized view of Thomas Kincaid.