Rachel Held Evans’s Sunday Superlatives are usually a good roundup of Jesusy People bloggery, and nestled among the links I found what is one of the best articulations of why Thomas Kinkade’s work has always bugged me so damn much–not just on an aesthetic level but on a much deeper emotional level. I’ve always felt that his stuff wasn’t just drippily schmaltzy but was also wrong somehow, and I really think this is why:
The problem with light is that we assume it always reveals, but light without its requisite shadow, which is a light of our own making, conceals…The soft, fuzzy glow of sentimentality that distracts from the shadows we’ve edited out, exaggerating what never truly was, is a deceiving angel.
Thomas McDonald wrote the most interesting blog post I found regarding Kinkade’s death (it’s hard-edged but not unfairly so—read it here), and he quoted Simcha Fisher who described Kinkade’s art as “anti-Incarnational,” saying, “Kinkade-style light doesn’t show an affection for natural beauty—it shows his disdain for it. His light doesn’t reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren’t merely trivial, they’re a statement of contempt for the world.” Even if her words are accurate (and I think she’s onto something), I remain sympathetic. We all desire escape from that which most wounds us. Maybe if he had learned to better hold the tensions, to embrace both the unflinching nature of light and the unsettling shadows it sometimes casts, perhaps there could have been a different outcome for Kinkade and his art.
If Kinkade had really been a “Painter of Light”, his work would have been not only beautiful but deeply unsettling. Should have been. Light isn’t inherently a warm, fuzzy thing, and I think we all have times when we’d rather avoid it–when light doesn’t mean safety but exposure of inner darkness.
The tension between the two–light and darkness, concealment and exposure, fear and longing–this is where some of the great emotional hooks in art come from. The tension between light and darkness gives rise to additionally powerful feelings that coexist in conflict: beauty, love, the terror of both. This isn’t just about aesthetics, again; this is about lived experience, and I think these contrasts touch experiences in us to which we respond intensely.
Really good creative work, however fantastic it is, should usually touch us like this. In order to do that, it has to reflect psychic reality in some way. Great storytelling is telling the truth, regardless of whether or not it’s fictional.
Schmaltz is bad work because it’s a lie. Some of us recognize and reject those lies. Some of us desperately want to believe them.
Anne Lamott has written a great deal on taking painful, uncomfortable truths in one’s own life–the nasty shit about your family, for example, that you’ve always been told it Isn’t Nice to talk about in public–and using it in fictional work; that because you’re writing from painful experience you can use it to speak honestly to the pain in others. If there’s one thing I think I’m still not very good at in my own writing–and believe me, there’s actually way more than one thing–it’s this: there are still places in myself I won’t go. There are mine shafts I don’t want to venture down, even though I know the ore there is rich.
My favorite stories hurt to read. I’ve only recently started to wonder about how much they hurt to write.
This is, incidentally, why I rankle a bit at entire genres of fiction (mystery, SF&F, romance, horror) being labeled “escapist”; they might be, sure, but the best work in any of those genres won’t and can’t be. It’s revelatory: at the end you know something new about yourself. Some part of you or the world or both has been illuminated. Sometimes there’s laughter. Often there are tears.
I don’t usually do the favorite word thing, but if you shoved a gun in my face and made me pick one (you asshole) I’d probably go with chiaroscuro, which is an Italian word that literally means “light-dark”–a kind of visual style that uses hard contrasts of light and shadow to reveal shapes and forms. The crux of this style is the point at which light and darkness meet; that’s where the world emerges into being and subjects begin to live and move. That’s the point at which we begin to feel. That’s where the truth is. That’s where we have to go.