Saturday, March 07, 2009

the painter of light, the ambassador of sunshine vs safe little world, pt 1

Two of the most commercially successful artists of the American 20th century also happened to be Christians. Poet Helen Steiner Rice and painter Thomas Kinkade 'captured the hearts' of the American middleclass with a commercially viable artistic style that could be called something like 'Christian Romanticism' - a warm view of the world and humanity laced with Christian concepts.

Burgeois, trite, chocolate-box, sentimental, kitsch in the view of people that appreciate art and literature on the cutting edge, what Steiner Rice and Kinkade have produced is undeniably 'successful' in terms of sheer popularity.

I grew up surrounded by Christian pop culture, albeit removed from the USA. Our Sunday School and Bible-in-Schools classes were illustrated by flannelgraph and soft-focus poster images of woodlands overlaid by uplifting scripture verses. These illustrations were indicative of a machine that was (in the early 80s) already in full swing manufacturing product for a lucrative Christian market.

My first awareness of Helen Steiner Rice comes in the form of a memory of Mum buying greeting cards at the local news agent stationery shop. As a four year old (or so) I helpfully select a floral card from the rack for my mother's consideration. She looks inside, and with a definite air of something on the spectrum of repulsion says, "No, that's a Helen Steiner Rice card." My mother is clearly queasy about a type of poetry which I would later come to label 'doggeral', overly sentimental, and perhaps penned under the influence of Christianity tainted by humanism (that concept came from Mum). We did, however, have a collection of HSR's poems on our bookshelf at home - a gift, as I recall it - from a well-meaning friend of my mother's.

My concious awareness of Kinkade came later, after I had already grown up and been to university, after I had turned my back with disgust on Christian cliché and had gone off seeking after artforms that I felt engaged with Christian concepts in a more meaningful, grittier, cutting edge way; before then returning to kitsch Christian commercialism with a kind of curiosity touched with affection. In hindsight, I had probably seen his work before, but my attention was drawn to him sharply by a book called Making Contemporary Art: How Today's Artists Think and Work by Linda Weintraub. In this wide-ranging book, Weintraub had clearly decided that America's top-selling artist should be considered along with all the other artists more readily acceptable to the tastes of the art establishment. My interest was piqued.

In my own art, I had been looking for opportunities to critique the product of Christian commercialism that I had grown up with. I decided that a way to do this was to attempt a blending of the two bastions of Christian commercial art - Steiner Rice and Kinkade - with a style that I was personally working with - a gritty urban context. I wanted to see what would become of their work if I took it, 'remixed' it, and reimagined it a context removed from the comfortable living rooms of Bible Belt America.

In the event, the conceptual side of the project has probably outweighed the artistic merit and weight of the finished product. The more I thought about the project the more it formed a conceptual grid of ideas in my mind - most of them probably impossible to make explicit in the art itself without some kind of accompanying document.

I started out by doing some research to learn a bit more about the artists and also find the material that I would 'sample' for my remix. A coffee-table biography of Kinkade, illustrated with large colour reproductions, was easy to find at the local library, as was the collected works of Steiner Rice.

Thomas Kinkade is self-styled and promoted as 'the painter of light' - interesting when compared with the fact that Helen Steiner Rice was known as 'the ambassador of sunshine'. The research lent some interesting insights into each artist.

Steiner Rice

Steiner Rice was born in 1900 and died in 1981 - a life and career span that takes in all the turmoil of the 20th century. Her work was in marketing for an electric light company and then later for Gibson Art - a greeting card manufacturer. When the greeting card editor at Gibson died suddenly in the mid-1930s, Steiner Rice took over the job, and so the mass output of her verse began. When the stock market crashed in 1929, her husband (a banker) descended into depression and never recovered - taking his own life in 1932. Having been touched by this event and some of the other dramatic events of the 1900s, one thing that is noticeable about her poetry when it is read in collected form is that her subject matter is not always light and airy. She writes about grief, death and winter, but nearly always with a hopeful twist appropriate for a greeting card. What is also notable is that regardless of her subject matter, her style is always the same.

An advertising poem she wrote to promote the use of electricity in the home:

The Happiness of Housekeeping

Your room shines out in splendour,
No dirt or dust is seen,
Because the rugs within your house
Are bright and Hoover-clean.

A poem that deals with her own death:

When I Must Leave You

When I must leave you for a little while,
Please go on bravely with a gallant smile
And for my sake and in my name,
Live on and do all things, the same -
Spend not your life in empty days,
But fill each waking hour in useful ways -
Reach out your hand in comfort and in cheer,
And I in turn will comfort you and hold you near.

Helen Steiner Rice’s books of inspirational poetry have sold nearly seven million copies.

Thomas Kinkade

Kinkade was born in 1958. Having started as an art student at University of California at Berkeley, he dropped out after two years and eventually published a guide to sketching which sold well. He hit upon a popular style of painting which sold extremely well in galleries across California and he eventually formed his own company, Media Arts Group Inc. The paintings are sold through mail-order and dedicated franchises, and are available in formats ranging from 'originals' (hand painted copies signed by Kinkade) to posters and calendars.

Meanwhile, from 1994-1997, Russian artists Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar hired a research company as part of a fascinating conceptual art project to conduct interviews to find out what ordinary people most want to see in a painting. The research was conducted across several nations, and then Melamid and Komar painted the pictures that people most wanted to see (according to the resulting statistics). To summarise their findings, people most want to see landscapes, hills, a tree, a big lake, they like the colour blue, they want to see deer, families and George Washington (I assume that last one is influenced by American data). 88% of Americans surveyed favour outdoor scenes over any other representation.

Interestingly, quite separately to Kinkade, they have arrived at a rather fitting description of Kinkade's work (although I've never seen this fact mentioned elsewhere). The genius of Kinkade was hitting on the formula without the research. And so, it is estimated (by Kinkade's own company) that 1 in 20 American homes have a Kinkade print. Kinkade is reported to have earned $53 million for his artistic work in the period 1997 to May 2005.

Melamid & Komar:


In rough form here are some of the things that I wanted to experiment with in my project:
  • commercial art tested out in a non-commercial space
  • idealised sentiments tested out in an unideal context
  • 'Christian Romanticism' remixed into an 'unromantic' context
  • a test of Christian culture in the 'marketplace' - the commercial marketplace and the 'marketplace' in the sense that evangelicals talk about it as the place we live and work
  • if the work of these two artists is in fact 'beautiful' then they are being given a chance to 'beautify' an 'unbeautiful' space
  • testing work designed for a refined suburban context in the back alleys of an urban / suburban setting
  • contrasting the aesthetics of urban / street art with the aesthetics of popular art - both are 'art of the people'
That's the background, next up my pictures...

No comments: