Thomas Kincade and Aesthetic Absolutes

Joe Carter at First Things blog recently posted this article about Thomas Kincade’s artwork.  I must admit, I’m not a big Kincade fan – I’ve never used one of his images for my desktop.  But I’ve never had anything against it either.  The glowing-window cottages are quaint.

The gist of the article is this: Kincade’s painting style has changed over the years.  He used to paint better than he does now.  The change has been from aesthetic excellence to Hallmark-quality art.  This change can be measured according to a transcendent objective standard of aesthetic excellence.  According to that article anyway.  The opposition, however, claims that glowing windows and bright lamp-posts are indeed nice to look at and that Kincade, therefore, is just fine in their eyes.  I’d recommend reading that post now if you’re not familiar with this issue yet (don’t forget to come back here, though!).

Some folks have extended this Kincade art debate into the realm of music.  I’ve read two blog posts that wondered if this discussion of visual aesthetics had anything to do with sacred music.  If so, that comparison would imply that music can also be judged by an external, objective standard of aesthetic value.  Let me suggest three reasons why I’m actually somewhat uncomfortable with that objective aesthetic standard philosophy.

In the first place, no one has defined what that standard actually is.  Some folks claim to link that standard to God’s character (and that sounds great!), but let’s be real and practical.  What kind of art is exactly like God’s character?  Is it Rembrandt, Monet, Ansel Adams, da Vinci or Warhol?  Or take music: is it a SoundForth recording, a Paul Jones hymn, a Bach chorale, a sacred Whitacre or Pärt song, the latest Getty CD or Patch the Pirate?  (And that’s not even beginning to answer questions about what kind of non-sacred music has value!)  This lofty, objective standard of aesthetic excellence sounds good, but no one actually knows what it is!

In the second place, making the kind of value judgment about Kincade art that the First Things article made borders on arrogance & snobbery.  It tends toward an artificial divide between “high society” and “the ignorant masses.”  The unspoken (and dangerous!) implication of the Kincade judgment is that if lots of people like it and buy it, then it is common, commercial and valueless.  The danger is that pride will set in and people will think that they have “more refined taste” than others and therefore are “better” than those others.

In the third place, this line of thinking almost entirely eliminates the validity of personal taste (or at least, it neglects personal taste).  When people decry the value of Kincade art, they forget that it’s OK for someone else to like Kincade paintings (just read through the comments on that post!).  They lose the ability to see other people as God’s image-bearers with different tastes.  Personal differences are made into an issue of good-bad, better-worse and right-wrong.

Of course, I agree that there are absolutes of morality based on God’s character.  Please do not misunderstand me or take these concerns out of context.  But do God’s absolutes really disqualify a Kincade painting of a warmly glowing cottage?  Music, of course, is a whole different story from paintings.  I’m not prepared to work out all the details of this question in the music arena.  But I will offer the warning that the first post with the criticism of Kincade’s work is incomplete – the real issue with Kincade is a matter of preference and not morality.

Oh, this image showed up in one of the comments and I thought it was well worth posting here!  :)

Cottage Abuse

2 comments on Thomas Kincade and Aesthetic Absolutes

  1. You wrote:

    “What kind of art is exactly like God’s character? Is it Rembrandt, Monet, Ansel Adams, da Vinci or Warhol? Or take music: is it a SoundForth recording, a Paul Jones hymn, a Bach chorale, a sacred Whitacre or Pärt song, the latest Getty CD or Patch the Pirate? (And that’s not even beginning to answer questions about what kind of non-sacred music has value!) This lofty, objective standard of aesthetic excellence sounds good, but no one actually knows what it is!”

    There are many (!) ways of approaching both sacred and “secular” art, but the most helpful one I’ve found is to ask of any work of art, “What is creational and what is fallen, here?” In other words, if God’s creation is truly “good”, His image is marred but not eradicated in mankind, and His creation “speaks to me everywhere”, then we should be on the lookout for glimmers (or beacons!) of God’s good creation as it reveals him, in both His works, and the works of men who, in His image, “create” in turn.
    On the other hand we have to be wary of the Fall, which affects all of creation (groans and travails…) and easily shows up in men’s creations, too.
    So with any of these examples, my first question would not be “good or bad”, but “creational (God’s image) vs. fallen (effects of sin)”.
    And even there, the ramifications run deep and often are not easy answers- but it’s a great way to approach these issues.
    Of course there are many other questions that need to be asked, too- but no thinking person asks the kind of question you asked.

    I would recommend Al Wolters, “Creation Regained”, and Francis Schaeffer, “Art and the Bible” as two of the most helpful resources I’ve read along these lines.

    df

    • Balance is key here, like in so many issues.

      On one hand we shouldn’t use a practically-undefined objective standard to denigrate the legitimate place of personal taste and individual opinion. On the other, we certainly cannot give any credence to a worldview that is purely individualistic and relative.

      Thanks for raising some good questions – I’ll be posting again shortly with comments about the image of God and how his nature affects our view of art.

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