Guilty Pleasures

Alison Rosen, the most excellent cohost of Adam Carolla’s funny online show, wrote a 2001 guilty pleasure article about her affection for Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.

Guilty pleasures are defended against by sarcasm meant to dispel the idea of tastelessness. Guilty pleasures get it, they say, by way of irony and assertion. “So sue me,” the article says. This distanced irony is a species of “not that there is anything wrong with it,” as Seinfeld brilliantly satirized the ambiguities of political correctness in a single phrase. Credit to Alison Rosen for not taking that path completely, but stating her genuine affection for Kinkade’s work, and the effect it had on her.

Kinkade’s work has a warm glow that is reassuring to many. The pleasure is visual. It is the pleasure of color and prettiness. This will not get one applause as a sophisticated or sensitive soul. The thought police are always lurking, waiting to pounce on those not worthy. Not worthy at all. (How can you have taste if you are always on the lookout to deride and cackle? Where’s the taste in that?)

The Impressionists were derided for the pretty shallowness of their work, but soon their work became “banker’s art.” It was esteemed and bankable – high priced.

Liking the wrong thing is an oddity of social life rather than of aesthetics. But Kinkade’s work exists at the wrong end of the pop culture: it is not there to affirm one’s prejudices of correctness, but rather designed to reassure in a treacly way, but nevertheless reassure. I sometimes wonder if critics more despise the motive than its expression in Kinkade’s work.

The deficit of Kinkade’s work is the deficit of too much candy. Teeth and stomach hurt. Art of the 1800s created a more durable expression of visual pleasure devoid of depth. The artists of the time, neoclassicists, were able to incorporate an overflow into substance by sheer skill. The relationship here is that Neoclassicism harked back to Rome and not a dreamed of crystal city on the hill of fairy tales. A past that never was. The followup to Neoclassicism, with a few stops along the way, was the Academicism of the 19th century; brilliantly instantiated in the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme.