Thursday, April 26, 2012
Swan Songs XXXVIII--Discernment
After a fashion, I want my students to be able to discern between art and kitsch, and I want them to aspire. One of the most distressing moments in my teaching life used to occur whenever an American lit class was reading Huck Finn. They'd come to the passage where Twain offers this awful poetry. The vast majority of the students in my classes didn't "get" the fact that the poem is supposed to be putrid. I'd have to point it out. Only then would it be funny. Sort of.
But I don't care to create elitists either, students who disdain anything less than T.S. Eliot. A little learning is a dangerous thing, and arguing for aesthetic standards shouldn't create bigots. So last night, reading through papers on Flannery O'Connor's views of art, I had to say, time and time again, that they shouldn't get crypto-fascist about "Christian" art, even when "Christian" art is really, really tiring.
A couple weeks ago Thomas Kinkade died, the "Painter of Light." In addition to being a nearly Billy Graham-level evangelical, he was an astute businessman who made millions with paintings someone rather aptly called "cottage cheese," gorgeously lit landscapes and bungalows that made people feel good about themselves and their worlds in an almost eerie fashion. Nothing he ever painted was particularly real. See above.
His death was not his greatest moment. He was drunk--he fought alcoholism for most of his life--and he was with his girlfriend, having left his wife and four daughters some time ago. Well, okay, so did King David, right? We all have sinned, we all have gone astray.
Sure, but there is inescapable irony in the bio: the man who purveyed, even manufactured illusion ends up inescapably slimy. His life looked nothing like his art. More like Steve Jobs. Sad, very sad.
More irony: his death created a healthy spike in the sale of his paintings. In dying, he made more money on even more illusion. You can't make this kind of thing up.
Okay, I admit I'll never own a Thomas Kinkade; but the Lord knows--and so do I--a host of folks who do--and love him. Fine. Takes all kinds, as people say. There's no accounting for taste.
When I wrote some things about Native American boarding schools several years ago, a friend sent me a novel that, after a fashion, dealt with the subject, a novel by Janette Oke. Oke has thrilled millions; my books have sold in the hundreds--well, sometimes. Who am I to criticize?
But what angered me about that novel was the way the author handled Native boarding schools. Her protagonist, a young Sioux girl, was essentially "saved" by the experience, so glorious it was.
Do I think Native kids may have been "saved" in boarding schools? Sure. But telling only that side of the story is an exercise in half truth, and half truth is still falsehood.
Something in all of us reaches mightily for the ideal. Something in all of us wants life to be not only better, but best. Thomas Kinkades offer an ideal world we all wish was ours. So do movies, most of them in fact. In them, we escape life's complexities. Somewhere in my dreams there's a moon-lit cottage on a serene lake surrounded by perfect triangular pines--don't I wish I had one? You bet.
If you don't want your kids or your students to be discerning, then don't send them to school, where, at best, we ought to be teaching them to think. Honestly, I want them to see the difference between art and kitsch, maybe especially when that kitsch is done in God's name. On the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lord God almighty once upon a time stuck a pen in Janette Oke's hand and a brush in Thomas Kincade's.
I still like Paul: We all have sinned--we all have gone astray. That's wisdom. That's real discernment.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:10 AM