An old rule of etiquette -- still endorsed by Miss Manners, at last report -- says not to talk about politics or religion while in mixed company, or among strangers. Civility demands keeping the passions in check, and nothing inflames them like those two topics. By extension, one should also avoid discussing Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. His paintings of lighthouses, cozy cottages, and nostalgia-tinged city streets inspire adoration or disgust, but very little in between.
Kinkade was the single best-known artist working in the United States over the past two decades, and almost certainly the best-paid. At the peak of his career in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he was earning more than $7 million per year. Besides paintings and prints, the Kinkade brand (he used the term himself) includes towels, mugs, clocks, calendars, and La-Z-Boy recliners. His claim that one American home in 20 contains some Kinkadean product or other seems inflated, though not altogether impossible.
Even stating these seemingly inoffensive facts will offend some readers -- either for calling Kinkade an artist (which makes people in the art world unhappy) or for failing to say that he dedicated his life to the Lord, not the dollar. I am in no position to judge that claim, but clearly it will be necessary to watch my step from this point on. Expressing a personal opinion of Kinkade in this column is of little interest to me (suffice it to say I’m more of a Gerhard Richter man), but the intensity of response to his work certainly is.
In a culture supersaturated with imagery, we tune much of it out just to get by. Kinkade’s images are exceptional. They elicit not just a verbal but a somatic response: a heartwarming feeling or visceral loathing. Why? How?
There’s no accounting for taste, as another old saw runs. But for a number of contributors to Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall -- edited by Alexis L. Boylan and published last year by Duke University Press -- accounting for the late artist’s appeal is not difficult at all. The Painter of Light (he trademarked the phrase) was, in the title of Micki McElya’s essay, “Painter of the Right.” The world Kinkade portrays is, if not prelapsarian, at least pre-1960s: “unmarked by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, or the Vietnam War,” writes McElya, “suggesting instead the mythical, simpler youths and ‘Good War’ of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”
Seth Ferman makes an overlapping argument in “God is in the Retails: Thomas Kinkade and Market Piety.” The paintings and the incredible array of products reproducing them express the desire for a world untouched by corrosive modernity -- but that’s just the half of it. They also serve a kind of sacramental purpose: communion via commodity.
“Kinkade fuses elements of Christian orthodoxy and capitalist ideology into a single faith,” Ferman writes, “what I call market piety, a veritable theology that believes free-market consumerism to be numinous…. Through Kinkade the consumption of art becomes a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life (which ironically includes consumerism), making his hybrid market piety into an inconspicuous yet pervasive cultural identity for many of his collectors.”
His bucolic landscapes, then, are so many battlefields: the sites of culture-war skirmishing between “red” and “blue” sensibilities, fought out in an especially fierce way. A painting called "Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rainy Sunday Evening," taunts the presumed cultural elite with its very title, and to reliable effect. In her essay “Purchasing Paradise: Nostalgic Longing and the Painter of Light,” Andrea Wolk Rager writes that "Hometown Memories" “does not make demands of the viewer,” as serious art presumably does. “Instead, it lures you, almost imperceptibly, into a world where memory, placid and pleasant, has been supplied for you. The warm glow, the feeling of comfortably enclosing space, and the sense of welcoming solace complete the process of soporific pacification.”
That description stops just short of using the word “pablum,” which reflects Wolk Rager’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia as a desire to return to the security and bliss of infantile fusion with the mother. The spaces depicted in Kinkade’s work “are often wet and warm, slick with spring rain and soft with diffused light. The images are dominated by curving lines and framing devices that seem to close in around a protected center. One is given the sense of being cushioned and cradled and lulled.”
A womb with a view, then. By this point, any Kinkade enthusiasts still reading will probably consider the book to be an assault, and not just on the painter but on themselves. Interpretation can be an aggressive act. But not all of the essays are interrogations, and I want to recommend one in particular as a counterstatement.
In “Thomas Kinkade’s Heaven on Earth,” the performance artist Jeffrey Vallance writes about curating “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade” in 2004, conducted simultaneously at the gallery of California State University at Fullerton and the Grand Central Arts Center at Santa Ana, nearby. If looking at Kinkade’s paintings through Freudo-Marxian goggles seems perverse to his admirers, showing them in a museum setting horrified the art world.
“Some people will never forgive me,” Vallance writes. “They fear his existence. He threatens everything they stand for, and he makes them nauseous.” There were pickets and black armbands. Someone threatened to slash the paintings. It cannot have helped that the exhibit included one artifact each from the extensive line of tie-in products, including the official Kinkade Visa card, “displayed in a vitrine resting on a velvet pillow.”
Sometimes art is provocative, and sometimes a provocation is an art. “Many erroneously thought that I would do the show in an ironic way,” the curator writes. “For me, irony is far too simplistic and expected. To do the show seriously was the challenge. As I often say, ‘The only irony is there is no irony.’ ”
Kinkade aficionados loved the exhibit, while the art critics were overwhelmed. “Many reviewers of the show followed a similar pattern,” Vallance recalls. “Most writers pretty much admitted that they loathed Kinkade and came expecting to hate the show – like gawkers at a train wreck. But then something happened. When they came to see the actual show, the kitsch was laid on so thick that something snapped in their brains. They experienced transcendence and ended up liking the show.”
And like it or not, any painter who can compel other artists to wear black armbands in protest of his work has already called dibs on posterity.
A fairly typical art school event: Students submit two- or three-dimensional artwork to fulfill a class assignment, or for a school- or department-wide exhibition. Perhaps less typical: At a West Coast independent art college some years back, with no advance warning, a student killed a chicken in class as his project. As one might guess, this was not a class in animal slaughtering, and the school did its best not to criminalize the student’s action (“Why make a big deal out of it?” the school’s then-president said), but some faculty members did give the student a talking-to.
Tensions over the nature of classroom content can occur in many disciplines, and professors in science, business or humanities courses get little if any training, too, in how to handle difficult situations. But the problem is arguably greatest of all in the fine arts, where a culture of epater la bourgeoisie – shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years. Art is supposed to get people to see the world in new and different ways, but what if that awakening is rude or employs violence or obscenity or blasphemy or something else that may cause offense? It may be assumed that art schools and universities are bastions of free speech and experimentation but, Lord, not in my classroom!
Art instructors tend to plan for the typical, preparing lessons and critiques, but they sometimes get the atypical, because art students occasionally look to shock/provoke/offend/transgress. Few enough of these instructors receive any pedagogical training, and the little they do learn concerns classroom management, organizing a syllabus, how to grade students and lead discussions. This essay aims to explore the issues that can arise and to suggest ways that institutions and instructors can be better prepared for what can unfold in art classrooms.
In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – and the prohibitions were recently expanded to include the more nebulous “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”
“You think you’ve covered all the bases and then someone comes up with something new,” said Ray Allen, the college’s provost. One student’s art project was to attach a commentary on sexual abuse by priests on a nearby church door, which led to another addition to the handbook, prohibiting the placement of “artwork” “on Corpus Christi Church or church property.”
The exposure to “blood, urine, feces…” section somewhat applies to the actions of the photography student who invited several men into the school so that she could take pictures of them at the moment of climax, but that prohibition covers only what Allen called the “ejaculants.” The fact that the student brought strange men onto school property was a separate matter. And, of course, where do you include a section on a student not locking himself in a box filled with snow (when he was finally pried out of the box, the student was unconscious and suffering from hypothermia)?
Walking a thin line between encouraging free artistic expression and what Ron Jones, president of the Memphis College of Art, calls “the rights of others not to be exposed to what they do not accept,” is a learned skill, and what one learns may apply only to a particular college, because each may have more or less tolerance of students with a desire to generate outrage. Artists, like so many others, are First Amendment absolutists when it comes to themselves, but in the context of a classroom or a college with a diverse student body or a publicly supported university where some state legislator may use a challenging art exhibit as the basis for a campaign to reduce governmental funding, they may question their moral footing.
At times, for example a student art project may involve, or suggest, violence, such as the performance piece staged at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005 in which an MFA student pulled out of a bag what appeared to be a handgun, loaded it with a single bullet, spun the cylinder and aimed the pistol at his head, pulling the trigger. (The gun failed to discharge, and the student received a talking-to.) At other times, the issue is sexual content, such as the photograph of a male nude by a Savannah College of Art & Design student, which was removed by college administrators from the school’s Open Studio Exhibition in late 2010, because the image was “unacceptable” for a “family event.”
Politics in art also may make people uncomfortable, such as the pair of portraits of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney framed with actual American flags exhibited at the student gallery by a graduate student at California’s Laguna College of Art & Design in in 2010. “A staff member took offense and complained to the president and development director, who were initially opposed to showing this work,” said Perin Mahler, chair of the college’s Master of Fine Arts program. (After a considerable amount of debate, the portraits were permitted to stay in the show.)
Religion is no easier a subject, as the Brigham Young University alumnus Jon McNaughton found when his painting “One Nation Under God,” depicting Christ holding the U.S. constitution and standing among the nation’s founding fathers, was removed from an exhibition space at the BYU bookstore in the summer of 2010. (One faculty member complained that McNaughton’s artwork should not be displayed unless an alternative liberal painting was also hung, and one of the university’s vice presidents declared himself “uncomfortable” with the presence of “One Nation Under God.”)
There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm. History professors (I hope) would know that it would be reprehensible and illegal if a student in a Revolutionary War class brought in a musket and began firing it, but art faculty seem immobilized by the term “freedom of expression.” Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary ("the critics hated the impressionists, too!") but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.
Throughout a long career, most college studio art instructors will have students who look to test limits of taste and propriety, and some faculty will have these students sooner than others. Some tricks of the trade of teaching are learned on the job, but instructors need to have a firm idea from day one not only about how to educate and guide their students, but how to explore their ideas and materials, “but also to understand that there is a responsibility that goes along with that freedom,” said Kevin Conlon, vice president of academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “We have a cultural value at this school that respects tolerance and diversity, and artwork that borders on hate speech requires us as faculty to help students understand the context of what they’re doing.”
He recalled one student who produced a painting that was based on photographs from pornography magazines, “which I knew was going to make many of the women in the class uncomfortable. I sat down with this student and asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you think the effect of these images will be on other people?’ He really hadn’t thought much about it and had nothing to say. I told him, ‘If you can come up with a reason for what you’re doing, we can go forward.’ ”
"Going forward” is a pretty vague concept, but there are ways that potentially offensive student (or faculty or non-faculty, for that matter) artwork may be exhibited in good conscience. There is usually more than one gallery space on campuses in which pieces may be displayed, some more open to the public than others, and school hallways also may be the site of temporary exhibits. Some exhibitions have advisory signs that warn prospective visitors of challenging content, giving them the choice – and making them party to the decision – not to see something. Finally, potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content. Censorship (if we are allowed to use that word) may take place along a continuum.
One would assume that even the most novice instructor understands that cruelty to animals or humans should not be permitted and that use of bodily fluids or hazardous products creates safety issues that need to be checked, but that’s not a given. Schools look to hire young instructors, because they are expected to form strong connections to students to whom they are closer in age than older, more experienced teachers. “Very often, younger faculty pride themselves on getting their students excited about an art project, and they lose what you would think would be common sense,” Allen said. That photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art received approval from her young faculty adviser for both allowing the men on campus and their production of semen (that instructor was later reprimanded by the school’s administration on both counts), and the instructor of the student who locked himself in a box of snow and was eventually pulled out unconscious “didn’t have the sense to call 911,” he noted. (Another talking-to.)
What to do about an artwork that is likely to produce strong reactions in those who experience it is a toss-up, which is why schools resort to the less accessible galleries or warning signs. When in doubt, according to William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, instructors should bring problems and situations to their department chairs in order to receive guidance and support, which may be necessary in the event that a student’s artwork becomes a matter of significant controversy. Talking-tos are O.K., but they tend to take place after the fact, whereas instructors need to be more alert to what might happen and be ready.
Student artwork that may seem in poor taste or just disgusting has often elicited solutions that are even less appetizing. Many school administrators and faculty will try to talk students out of exhibiting works that are likely to engender controversy. However, from the eyes of a 19- or 22-year-old, this meeting is unlikely to be seen as a value-free discussion; students will see it as a directive from the people who give them grades and on whom they may rely for recommendations to make some change or do something different. Faculty may be worried about their own job security, and administrators may be fearful of criticism from trustees or groups in the community or the press, and their part of the conversation is apt to show that stress.
Buffeted by the calls for almost limitless free speech and the potential black eye that negative publicity over controversial artwork may create, schools and universities tend to establish few rules about what is unacceptable, but many are also reluctant to fully support their students and faculty in the event of complaints over the content of the art. Younger faculty especially may worry about promotions and tenure if their classroom work results in controversy that requires administrators to defend artwork that strikes the public as insulting to one group or another or as offensive to common standards of good taste.
Some schools are offering “artist as citizen” courses that view the role art plays in the general society. Artists must learn to be responsible to the community and culture they live in – so goes the thinking. Again, something is very troubling about this development: Were the purpose of this type of class to broaden the student’s intellectual outlook, there would be no complaint; however, half of the curriculum for art students already consists of liberal arts courses, which should provide that broadening experience. If schools want to offer an elective on art controversies in history or 20th-century art controversies or even art controversies of the past decade, that would be perfectly valid. Where it moves from an analysis of art in the social milieu to how artists are to behave and think about their audience and be sensitive to group members of that audience (which I think these courses are really about), then the educational component is left behind and the political correctness element enters in. In fact, it becomes a course in political correctness.
Then, there is the question of whether some groups are more acceptable to attack or parody than others. One art instructor at a state university proudly spoke to me of her efforts defending to school administrators a woman student whose artwork included a painting of Virgin Mary using a crucifix as a sex toy. I asked her if she would have made as strong a case if the student were male and the imagery was arguably misogynistic or Neo-Nazi. “Absolutely not!” she said. Political correctness meets comparative victimhood.
Other solutions are a toss-up. Making artwork less accessible by exhibiting it in a less public, harder-to-find space skirts the boundaries of censorship, and parental advisory signs about the content of works at the front of an exhibit removes the surprise element from art.
Publicly supported institutions, such as universities, and particularly those located in rural and traditionally conservative areas of the country, are more likely (but not always) the focus of controversy than private and more urban colleges and art schools. Private schools are answerable only to their trustees and immediate community, whereas public institutions additionally may be condemned by citizens’ groups and legislators for spending taxpayer money on blasphemy, homoeroticism, pornography, racism or something else to which they object. Obscenity laws, for which "community standards" establish a legal basis of judgment, have not been applied to schools, and it certainly is not clear who or what the community is: other students, the entire campus, the entire campus plus the surrounding community? For a state-supported institution, the community may be the entire state, plus out-of-state students (and parents), alumni, businesses, foundations and government agencies that provide the operating budget of the school.
Students are generally young, generally inexperienced about the world, and it may make sense not to put their work up for display so much. That is not censorship but based on pedagogical theory: Student work should be seen as part of their artistic development, a process and not a product to be exhibited and defended. The effort to get students to rework their pieces and rethink their ideas would be less fraught with anxiety if exhibitions were not part of the issue.
The student’s world is often a circumscribed, cloistered one, existing almost completely within the confines of the school, and the intellectual parameters are defined by teachers and fellow students. The work that is created tends to reflect the culture of the school, because students have a very limited sense of what actually is exhibited and sold in art galleries. It is a good thing for students to be “out of the market” and in an educational setting where they may develop artistic skills, ideas and a sense of process, but they should not become out of touch with how the real world works. Were art students more out in the world – directed there through internships, externships, mentoring relationships with full-time artists, employment in the art world and visits to galleries and museums – they might quickly recognize that simply being provocative carries no weight in the arena that they look to enter.
Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog on the arts page of the Huffington Post.
As a mathematician, I expect that people at parties will tell me that they're no good at math. I'm used to my fellow professors confessing their ignorance of my subject. I understand that many of my students think math is hard and scary. That's why I was so eager to do drawing -- something I figured would be easy and approachable -- in my math classes.
But to my great surprise, I found that it is the art, not the math, that makes people nervous. As my co-author Marc Frantz told me, most college graduates have a bit of math in college, and almost all have had a math class their senior year of high school. But few adults have had an art class since 6th grade. Carra’s drawing below is typical of what I see at the beginning of the semester in my course. My students enter college drawing like children, and they are understandably embarrassed by this.
Carra's first drawing
I got started with a math-and-art project because of a fortunate coincidence of time and space: I happened to be spending part of my first research leave at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis during the semester that Indiana University was applying for a large Mathemematics Throughout the Curriculum grant from the National Science Foundation. The MATC project aimed to team up a mathematician with an "other" — a historian, a biologist, an economist — to do math in the context of that other discipline. Marc Frantz was in the math department at IUPUI then (in fact, he was the executive director of the MATC project), but he had his first graduate degree from the the university’s Herron School of Fine Art. We teamed up; I added "instant dissemination" by taking the project out of Indiana and back to Franklin & Marshall College, my home institution. I started designing a first-year seminar, a course that our college uses to introduce students to writing and introductory research skills, but that leaves me a lot of flexibility with regard to content.
When I started working with Marc on designing a course on the mathematics of art, I didn't realize Marc would soon have me looking at the world in a whole new way — literally. Here you see Marc's students looking through a window at buildings outside, directing their classmates to recreate the image of those buildings on the windows themselves. (Drafting tape is easily removable, for which the custodial crews thank us!)
I'm just a math geek, but over the past decade while we were writing Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art and leading workshops for other instructors, Marc and I have gotten to repeat the window-taping exercise with an amazing list of 200 people. I've taped windows with mathematicians and artists, with chemists and geologists, with a minister and a motorcycle rider. One couple who came to our Pennsylvania-based workshop stuffed their dorm room here with shrubbery they'd take back to Ohio at the end of the week. Other instructors taught my student helpers to play an electronic party game called "Catch Phrase," and it went viral that week.
The most enjoyable part of this project, though, has been seeing my students wrestle with simple-seeming questions (where do we draw the next fencepost?) and come up with those Ah-HA! moments of insight. In our book you'll see statements and theorems listed by number, but my students and I think of them as "Alex's Theorem" and "Dierdre's construction." We all ought to get a chance to name a brilliant insight after ourselves or our friends, I think.
Gary Larson, in one of his Far Side comics titled "Math Phobic’s Nightmare," shows Saint Peter quizzing a supplicant at the Pearly Gates with this question: "O.K., now listen up. Nobody gets in here without answering the following question: A train leaves Philadelphia at 1:00 p.m. It’s traveling at 65 miles per hour. Another train leaves Denver at 4:00.... Say, you need some paper?"
Larson’s nightmare is in perfect contrast to why our work with students has been so much fun. We all know and can parody the dreaded two-trains problems. A simpler question is this: If you sketch a picture of the rails of the train track going into the distance, and you know where the first two railroad ties go, where do you put the next one? In our class, we change the problem from a horizontal one to a vertical one: the question becomes "Where does the next fence post go?"
Where does the next fencepost go? (Hint: not at the point marked ‘P ’).
Where does the next fencepost go? (Hint: not at the point marked P).
It’s an easy question to understand, and that simplicity itself makes it unusual in mathematics. It’s an obvious question: any artist would want to know the answer. It’s even a question that begs to be answered – few people care at all when those two trains meet, but if we want to draw a decent-looking picture of a sidewalk or a fence, then this question about where the next line goes is going to matter to us. It’s not obvious what the answer is ... and that puzzle of obscurity lies at the heart of mathematics. This problem is puzzle-solving at its prettiest.
There are a lot of other aspects of this puzzle (and of related drawing puzzles) that I have come to love. One is that artists often answer the puzzle long before their mathematical counterparts – this trend holds at the undergraduate level all the way up through Ph.D.-holding professors. We mathematicians tend to stare at the paper, hoping an answer jumps off the page at us. Artists pull out their pencils and start doodling, often stumbling upon a solution almost by accident. The artists have learned to overcome their fear of drawing something that is "wrong," and so they become the first ones to draw a solution that is right.
Another aspect of this problem I love is that, although there is only one correct answer, there are many different correct ways of arriving at that answer. In this way, the problem captures the essence of mathematical research. The bane of my profession is the student who likes math for the black-and-white-ness of the subject: "because there is always one right answer." With this fence problem, however, I can celebrate my students’ various solutions, exploring nuance and expounding upon elegance.
It's also a lovely problem because, once you know a way to sketch the answer, it’s fun to do over and over ... drawing the fencepost lines going into the distance becomes almost like a meditation. (Not many people would say the same about bringing together those trains from Philadelphia and Denver).
But Viewpoints hasn’t just helped me and my students draw the world around us; it’s helped us look at the world around us. When a person tapes an outline of what she sees onto a window, the only way another person can make the taped picture line up with the outside world is to stand exactly where that artist stood. In the same way, we can reconstruct where long-ago artists must have placed themselves in their paintings. By standing in the same spot in front of the canvas, we see the paintings become full and more 3-d than ever. We do this without 3-d glasses, without focusing or unfocusing our eyes near a stereogram. Really, the only "trick" is to understand mathematical proportions.
When I learned this trick of finding the right viewing location, I finally understood why all my vacation pictures failed to capture what I thought I saw when I took the pictures. My scenic photographs would come back looking technically correct but empty of that majesty that surrounded me when I gazed on that canyon or that field. The problem isn’t in my camera or my technique. It is a problem of simple proportions: the lens was close to the film but I’m not close to my photograph. I can "fix" this problem in one of two easy ways, either by enlarging the photographs, or by moving my eye in very close to the small photo.
You can try this yourself with this simple image of a box from our book. It looks more like a brick or a dumpster than a cube to you, I’m guessing. But if you enlarge the picture a lot on your computer, or if you lean in very, very close to that top right tree and look down at the box, you’ll see the proportions appear to change, and this brick will become very cube-like. It’s mathematical magic.
Is this a brick, or is this a cube? What you see depends on how close you are to this picture.
Is this a brick, or is this a cube? What you see depends on how close you are to this picture.
Learning the mathematical "rules" for drawing opens up whole new possibilities. In this context, rules don't stifle creativity; they allow for fuller expression. My math-and-art students have flourished, and I have been heartened, too. Few of my students ever want to see their final calculus exam after they turn it in, but almost all of my students show their parents photocopies they've made of the final drawings they've turned in to me. Carra’s final drawing, like so much of my students' late-semester work, shows a mastery of space with hints of great things beyond the horizon. You can tell she's not going to be afraid of anything.