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September 06, 2007

Pygmy Painters

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in the lamented pre-20th century world of Western art, there strode giants whose names were, and are, known to much of the public at large.

Rembrandt. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. El Greco. Van Dyck. Vermeer. Goya. Monet. Van Gogh.

As for the 20th century fame? Picasso, for certain. Ditto Dalí. Klimt, increasingly. Pollock, probably. Calder, perhaps. Warhol, maybe. Norman Rockwell, in the USA at least.

Today? If you or I were to hit the street asking passersby to name a famous living painter, what responses would we get? I seriously doubt that many average people could name any currently active painter. And if they could, there's a good chance they would name Thomas Kinkade.

Don't laugh and get smug thoughts about the lumpenproletariat. Those same proles might well recognize several of the names in the listings above if the living restriction were lifted.

I believe it is a fact that there are no living painters (aside, perhaps, from Kinkade -- thanks to his gallery presence) whose names are widely recognized. This is because the art world has become highly fragmented. And it has become so fragmented because of the multitude of Mini-Isms left in the wake of the original Modernist thrust and its culmination in Abstract Expressionism.

The past several decades have seen painters -- assisted by galleries, publicists and the art press -- desperately trying to be "creative" and thereby famed for creating a "movement" or art "ism." Sadly for the participants, the result has been the increasing generation of random noise, not clarity.

Is there escape from this situation? Yes, there are possibilities. But many in the current art scene would not be happy with them.

More on this another time ...



PS: A reminder that I'm discussing fame and not artistic excellence, though the two traits tended to greatly overlap before the 20th century.

posted by Donald at September 6, 2007


Not only has the world of art, like entertainment (popular music, TV shows, etc.), become fragmented, but people who take art programs at university in our day are taught that art requires transgression; a friend of mine who went through a university fine arts program said to me, "As an artist, I feel it is my duty to stir things up, to generate controversy." (And here I thought that the role of an artist was simply to create something worthy of remembrance by future generations due to the beauty and creativity displayed in the work, silly me. What was I thinking?)

Anyway, given the prevalence of such attitudes, it's no wonder, along with the fragmentation of the art world, that only blatant, aggressive self-promoters like Kinkade ("the Painter of Light" [TM]) are remembered nowadays, regardless of talent or lack thereof (and I will sneer; bathing everything in pink, and rendering all in soft focus, doesn't make it art; it is vulgar, crass, and indeed proletarian, and only the sort of evangelicals who also think Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman are good music, could mistake it for art).

Posted by: Will S. on September 7, 2007 7:39 AM

Boy, I hate to say it, but this situation too may simply come down to the bottom line, money.

In publishing, some authors' names are bandied about as if that alone were their achievement. Though most authors will never make much money, they still are known by name, or title of their bestseller. But the best known are those authors either prolific enough to make money for their publishers, are steady producers of well-read books, or the flash in the pan that sells a million. Artists are becoming known only by their accessibility via poster prints.

Posted by: susan on September 7, 2007 9:44 AM

It's interesting, isn't it? Painting seems to have become such a small part of visual culture more generally -- kind of a specialty/niche interest. Are there painters these days who really "count" in the broader-culture way that some used to? Which is 1) awful, or 2) a big relief, depending on how you see it, I guess. Same with writing, it seems -- long past are the days when Gore and Norman were regulars on TV talk shows.

At the same time, culture has become so very visual in so many ways: graphics, electronics, movies, photography, ads ... Magazines these days have about half the text they used to have, with all that space now given over to visuals. So it isn't as though the visual part of culture is lacking for energy or presence. And it isn't as though the creators of visuals more generally aren't recognized and celebrated -- photographers, film and video directors, designers ... There are celebrity versions of all those, god knows.


Will S. -- Do you think it's quite right to say that Kinkade is untalented? I'm not drawn to his work, god knows. But it isn't because I think he has no talent, it's because he's catering to a schlocky/cheesy/sentimental taste-set that makes me either giggle or run away screaming.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 7, 2007 11:08 AM

Surely you can do better than this; you name a handful of great painters from various times and places in the past, each of whom became widely known over the long arc of time and ask where are the living painters with such name recognition. Let's just take one name, van Gogh, and examine how famous he was during his lifetime. Alive, he sold a handful of paintings to his brother and a few fellow artists, but was virtually unknown when he died. His fame grew in large part due to his influence on other painters. After his death collectors began to seek out his work and then, finally, the general public began to see and enjoy his work when it entered museum collections and was reproduced.

Andrew Wyeth is still living and is fairly widely recognized. He has been a master at self-promotion (as was Warhol) and his fame has benefited accordingly. A few other living painters who might have high name recognition include Robert Indiana, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney and Frank Stella.

Thomas Kinkade is a purveyor of kitsch. The vast majority of people who recognize his name have never seen an actual painting. He uses digital scans and high quality printers to reproduce his paintings in a wide array of sizes and then markets them aggressively through franchised galleries bearing his name. His fame is on a par with Mrs. Fields rather than van Gogh.

Posted by: Chris White on September 7, 2007 11:49 AM

This blog introduced me to Kinkade, and I've been a little puzzled to find that the standard criticism of his paintings is that they are sentimental, vapid, insincere, etc.

I guess those things are true, but there's plenty of art with those qualities that I don't have any visceral reaction to. My immediate reaction to Kinkade's paintings is that they're ugly, and sort of disturbing. They're lurid and grotesque in a way that makes me queasy. If some postmodern conceptual artist painted one of those cottages, I think people would find it interesting as a demonstration of how hyper-sentimentalizing these cozy images makes them cold and sinister.

But the standard rap on Kinkade--that the masses want these warm, fuzzy, feel-good images, and we sophisticates don't--seems off to me, because they're actually NOT warm and fuzzy and feel-good, actually the opposite (to me), and I find it unsettling that a lot of people do find them so. There's some kind of unbridgeable gulf there.

Posted by: BP on September 7, 2007 11:59 AM

Most people in the UK recognise Jack Vettriano's name. He may not be a great artist but he's a hell of a lot better than Kincade. I think one of his best works is a self-portrait, which I rate a lot higher than the retro pseudo-30s stuff.

Posted by: Graham Asher on September 7, 2007 12:15 PM

Through hard experience, I've discovered that Kinkade's art does particularly well in funeral parlors.

I often have a very similar discussion with my girlfriend about music.

"Music is just supposed to be fun," she's in the habit of saying.

"Well, music is nothing if it doesn't deliver a good time and a good beat, but there's so much more that I want from music. Music is about spirituality, beauty..." and on and on.

The 19th century world of the arts is gone. My hometown of Woodstock really struggles to accept this, too. I don't think that the world is going to go back to the place where painting, writing books, and writing songs were really important to people's lives. Something has fundamentally changed.

I don't exactly know what it is that has changed. Even I am no longer intently waiting for the next great CD to hit the market.

Maybe it's the glut of stuff. Maybe I'm just an old fart. But, I don't think so. I think that something, I don't know what, has changed.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 7, 2007 12:15 PM

I've never been persuaded that Da Vinci should be in the pantheon, but compared to the 20th Century Faux, he was pretty good.

Posted by: dearieme on September 7, 2007 12:32 PM

Chris -- Thank you for reminding me of Wyeth -- and I visited the Brandywine Museum only 3 1/2 months ago! (On a morbid note, he's 90 and will join the rest of his generation in due course.)

True, I mentioned Van Gogh, who was virtually unknown and unsold in his lifetime; my point would have been stronger had I skipped him.

I'm inclined to doubt that the contemporary artists you named would get much in-the-street recognition. Among folks who occasionally visit art museums or read the cultural press but don't live in NYC, yes -- but I'm talking about average people.

For much of their careers, Picasso and Dalí were famous. When I was young, "Picasso" was a term for artists just as "Einstein" was a synonym for genius. I don't see / hear that for today's non-flatlined artists.

Graham -- You might be right about Vettriano in the UK. Over here, I see the books containing collections of his works as well as reproductions of his better-known beach scenes. So Jack has made inroads in the USA, though is not a household word. Sadly, I haven't been to Britain in four years, and have no personal feel for the scene there. I hope I can get there in 2008 and if I do, the Portland Gallery will be a must-see because I've never seen a Vettriano in person.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 7, 2007 1:00 PM

Robert Bateman?

Anyhow when I was working as a "sales and design consultant" for one of those custom frame a poster print chains I saw a lot of crap that was popular and called art. That's when I first heard about that stupid digital printing of French name and overhype when folks insisted there prints were worth thousands for the insurance declaration part. Oh what nonsense that was.

Posted by: TW on September 7, 2007 1:02 PM

"The 19th century world of the arts is gone. My hometown of Woodstock really struggles to accept this, too. I don't think that the world is going to go back to the place where painting, writing books, and writing songs were really important to people's lives. Something has fundamentally changed."

I think that's wrong. I'd say people today are far more involved on a daily basis with media than at any time in human history. Literacy, at least in the West, has never been higher, so more people are reading (and writing) books.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 7, 2007 1:31 PM

Most painters were never generally famous in their lifetimes--they may have been well-known in some circles, but until the print market was widely used (and in the old days, it was just black and white etchings), it wasn't much of an issue. I agree with Chris White on this point, that the fame you now associate with many artists has been arrived at over a long period of time, and through the mediums of museums, prints, and art education.

Since that is the case, it is logical that the few painters you know of now are those who have achieved success in the print market, or who have been spotlighted in major museums and the universities. Unfortunately, few (if any) of them are dedicated realists.

Posted by: BTM on September 7, 2007 1:52 PM

Thomas Kinkade is an interesting fellow, to say the least, considering the standpoint of art blogging.

I was reading an indie comic short (sorry, I can't remember the collection it was in, it's in a box with hundreds of others like it up in my closet) done by an artist who went to art school concurrent with Kinkade. Apparently Kinkade during his art school years was one of those self-promoting pomo types that ain't too popular here, always looking for the next big sell and mercilessly trendy. Seems that when he found religion he found a market that dwarved whatever money and fame the secular art types could give him.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 7, 2007 4:02 PM

If you asked the public to name an architect, what response would you get other than Frank Lloyd Wright? Maybe Gehry? Maybe a prominent dead local architect from the past that was big in the local area like say Albert Kahn in the Detroit area, Louis Sullivan in the Chicago area or Julia Morgan in California. And if you asked them to name an architect and a work (again other than FLW), would you get a response?

Posted by: Rodney King on September 7, 2007 8:41 PM

Michael: fair enough, I'm sure Kinkade is more talented than I am (I'm not an artist in the least, and can't even write very legibly, let alone draw or paint - though I have some musical talent, but that's not relevant to this discussion); but I still hold that his art is not good. While I may not be able to come up with a precise definition of what constitutes art and what doesn't, it's like what some judge supposedly remarked about porn, "I know it when I see it." I think it's certainly possible for a given artist's work to be fairly repetitious yet nevertheless pleasant to view, such as Cornelius Krieghoff's paintings a century ago of rural Quebec. But while, like Krieghoff's work, Kinkade's work all looks the same, unlike Krieghoff's work, it looks otherworldly and alien to me, with the dominating pink tones; like BP, I find them creepy, too. And IMO, evangelicals simply lap it up because, truly or falsely, he markets himself as one of them. They have no taste. (Ever listen to "Contemporary Christian Music"? Enough said.)

Posted by: Will S. on September 7, 2007 8:43 PM

I could name quite a few living artists, but they all work in the fantasy and science fiction genres, primarily for covers. That genre has sometimes been referred to as "the last bastion of representational art."

Mostly, though, people look down on it because it's (shudder) commercial. Personally, I don't think less of Thomas Canty, Michael Whelan, or Dave McKean because they choose to work towards a stated set of limits at the outset. The chosen form helps to give meaning to the finished product. And artists who work towards commercial ends often have more craft than some lauded artists. (Not all of them, though.)

Posted by: B. Durbin on September 8, 2007 1:56 PM

I think there's just too much stuff competing for everyone's attention and most people don't know how to shut out the noise and just go looking on their own. They rely on the media to tell them what's good and what isn't. Most people honestly think that if they haven't heard it mentioned on TV a few hundred times it can't possibly be any good.

Forget fame. There are hundreds of talented artists displaying their work on the Internet. Just go to Google and type in any "-ism" that appeals to you - impressionism, realism, surrealism, whatever - and you'll find more art than you'll ever have time to look at.

Posted by: Lynn on September 10, 2007 2:44 PM

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