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Posts Tagged ‘mass culture’

Why can’t everyone have beautiful things?

Unlike other areas of popular arts — film, music, etc. — where the barriers to entry have gotten lower and the price point has allowed for mass enjoyment, high art remains an area locked away in the homes of the rich and tucked into the sterility of the museum.

I can’t get a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg to hang in my house, or if I did, it would cost a prohibitive sum. Sure, I could get a poster, but it wouldn’t have the depth or interest of the real thing, or even of a decent copy.

Thomas Kinkade was a philanderer, a hypocrite, and a sanctimonious jackass, but certainly if adultery, hypocrisy, and sanctimoniousness disqualify you for being a great artist, we wouldn’t have many to go around. His art, admittedly, was not the finest of anything — mostly the kind of cozy village scene or sun-dappled coastline that all middle Americans wished their communities looked like: equal parts Dickens, Grovers’ Corner, Hudson Valley School, and pastels (good Lord). It’s a particularly retrograde blend of lens flare and over-luminosity that feels to me like watching a JJ Abrams movie … with glaucoma and a pastel palette.

Yet, the art snobs who look at Kinkade with disdain ignore that Kinkade dedicated himself to a market that they had largely ignored — what the 99 percent actually want. Now, to be fair, Kinkade’s pricing system of tiered “limited editions” definitely created the same kinds of pricing and financing schemes that the housing bubble did, where “investors” believed (and still believe) that their paintings’ value will inevitably rise. But like predatory lenders and developers, he was addressing a demand unaddressed by the broader market — Americans wanted beautiful things that they could show off to people who entered their houses, and they wanted to look at beautiful things on a daily basis.

The art world refused to provide that, focusing on the Venetian Bienniale and “big art,” on skyrocketing prices for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and their titillating ilk. Much of the great art since the Renaissance was founded on a clientele of the small businessman and the petit bourgeois, from the local merchants who commissioned Dutch masters to paint their portraits to the tiny collectors dotted across Provence who picked up Cezannes and Van Goghs. Today, the art world has returned to the Renaissance-era patron, the super-client rather than the myriad horde.

Matt Yglesias has a schtick about lower-quality goods in higher-quantity, which raise overall utility and satisfaction. I don’t know if I always buy that argument, but in Kinkade’s case, he was producing an inferior good that was able to reach many more people, the store-brand art that you could enjoy in your home on a regular basis.

Kinkade was no saint, but he highlighted a problem with the way that visual arts in particular conceive of their purpose and their audience. Rembrandt and Warhol had no problem churning out work from a factory to give more product to a yearning populace. Instead, the art world of today is largely frozen in private collections and snooty museums, only occasionally glimpsed by the rest of us. Kinkade gave us art in the shopping mall, art through the mail, art a click away. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein thought they were making mass art, but it was Kinkade who truly brought it to the masses. For that, he deserves our recognition, even if not our gratitude.

P.S. If you haven’t read the Susan Orlean piece on Kinkade, it’s worth the (long) read.

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Basically everyone I know thinks I am trolling — or at the very least, deluded — when it comes to Taylor Swift.

Blogs I like reading (Vulture), people I like talking about music with (Linus), and many rock critics whose opinions I respect (the Sound Opinions guys) all consider her somewhere between dime-a-dozen pop demi-star and airbrushed garbage.

Thus, I feel I should lay out my defense of Swift, as well as explain some theories behind her mainstream appeal.

Swift’s music grows out of the ’90s suburban country music era — Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, et al. — in which country music, like so many “rural” trappings (stock car racing, SUVs, and cowboy boots), became mainstream. That’s not to say that country was without crossover before; certainly, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline achieved success on the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, the suburban country-pop of the ’90s was epitomized by Twain’s particular brand of feminism, emotionally charged lyrics, and overall smoothness that appealed to a suburban crowd — fitting for the gal from Windsor, Ontario. It’s no surprise that Swift cites Twain as her “biggest influence.

As rougher Southern artists, who might have been country artists in another era, gravitated towards rock (My Morning Jacket, Drive-by Truckers, Black Crowes, Band of Horses, etc.), country became dominated by the slicker sound of the suburban country star.

Enter Swift, 12 or 13, recording demos and trying to write songs. At age 14, sitting in math class, she starts writing her first hit single, “Tim McGraw,” the kind of bittersweet love song that teenagers love to write and listen to. The difference is that Swift’s songs are both honest and evocative, showing an in-depth knowledge of the construct of the country pop song. This aspect is important when viewing Swift’s pop-star rise; her gift is primarily as a song-writer, not a singer. RCA’s original deal with her kept her from recording on her own, and Nashville establishment first recognized her for her song-writing. She brings to mind the young song-writers of the Brill Building — Neil Diamond, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach — churning out pop songs.

Lyrical analysis after the break!

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