I never cared for Thomas Kinkade’s fantasy world of pink-lit stone cottages in dark woods, so, when I learned of his recent passing, I figured to keep my mouth shut on the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” principle. Interestingly, pretty much no one covering the story can resist mentioning – often in agreement – that many art critics did not care for his work. Why? That is, why bother beating on a guy’s life work only days after his death?
Kinkade’s cottages are hugely popular, so it is probably legit to call some of the criticism snarky elitism – populism is always controversial for the smaller cadres who feel personal investment in a medium. But the most interesting criticisms concern a topic of much relevance to us scholars of the 18th century: sentimentalism.
Sentimentalism, in this sense, is bad because is offers cheap emotion – or cheap grace, in Flannery O’Connor’s terms. It’s a kind of emotional – or, worse, spiritual – pornography. Kinkade’s world is such a pornographic world in which grace and transcendence are readily and immediately available at no cost (in fact, about $400 for a framed canvas).
But this isn’t primarily about Kinkade (though, for a thoughtful look at how some of his work is actually pretty good, see First Things web editor Joe Carter’s 2010 blog on the topic). This is about what to make of the sentimental. Gregory Wolfe, the always-thoughtful editor-in-chief of Image, nicely surveys the current state of thought on sentimentalism and offers his own insights in a 2002 blog on Kinkade. What most concerns Wolfe is that sentimentalism misrepresents reality. He quotes Kinkade saying he paints a world “without the Fall” and rightly objects that there is no such world. It’s one thing to paint a world before the Fall or even after Christ’s return and the inauguration of the new heaven and new Earth, but to remove the Fall from redemption history is to ignore sin and its attendant suffering and to obviate the need for Christ. Wolfe connects this neglect of sin with a desire to do away with ambiguity – for moral blacks and whites. Such absolutism eludes the need to show compassion, and to the extent that the message of Christ – found also throughout the prophets – is one of compassion, this absolutism, again, reveals that it has no use for Christ.
If this, then, is the bequest of our Enlightenment forbears, surely they were some kind of monsters! But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. There are clear problems with the doctrine of the innate goodness of humans, and it is monstrous to suggest that we can engineer ourselves into perfection, but the most interesting writers interested in sentimentalism were savvy enough to simultaneously critique it.
For example: Mackenzie’s Harley, the eponymous Man of Feeling, is surely a model of compassion and benevolence. But he is also so impractically ethereal that he dies of a broken heart despite his beloved returning his love. In the sentimental reconciliation between Matilda and Isabella in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, the women’s immediate responsiveness to one another is frustrated by their own private competition for the love of Theodore.
Sterne, I think, is the most helpful and insightful on this score. In A Sentimental Journey, Yorick declares that “there is nothing unmixt in this world,” and means precisely that we humans cannot hope to attain to the emotional or spiritual purity promised by the thin and mawkish variants of sentimentalism. Sterne will not allow his reader to luxuriate in beneficent emotion precisely because he doesn’t believe we can ever be so purely beneficent – but that’s also what makes him so entertaining to read. He does not despair at our brokenness but laugh at it. And this is the power of Christ in Laurence Sterne: that, though sin has been defeated, we must never forget that we are among the Israelites or the Pharisees or the prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors – but, by the grace of God, we can at least sometimes laugh at ourselves.
If this is enough to defend sentimentalism (to some extent), the obvious questions would be: For what? For Sterne, sensibility proves the existence of our souls. That’s something, at least. And for students of how imagination shapes culture, shouldn’t we be open to the possibility that our emotions, which must somehow be connected to our imaginations, reveal something to us about the world?
So, what do you think? Is this an adequate apologia for sentimentalism? Is there something worth retaining from this tradition, or are we too far gone down Kinkade’s forest path to recover?