I just saw the most magnificent sunset of my life.
I had been shopping for opening night gifts at Target. Somewhere close to the card section, I happened to spy a Thomas Kinkade painting. They're nothing but commericialized sentiment, as individual as a Big Mac. This particular print was of a snow-bound cottage in the forest (surprise, surprise), and was accompanied by a quote from the Master himself. It went something like this:
BEAUTY is found in the sheer EXPERIENCE of LIVING, and is cause for REJOICING.That's right. His phraseology is as cloying as his artwork. Bleah.
So I headed home with my purchases, happily mocking the self-styled Painter Of Light. It must be silly to contemplate a dinner theater actor slamming Kinkade. But when I'm running around acting silly while people are digesting their lasanga, I don't pretend to be the Thespian of Light. So safe in my fortress of dryness, I traveled west through one of the more beautiful areas of Nashville, Belle Meade. As I turned onto Highway 70, my wry humor saw the real thing and hushed.
It had been raining all day, but the storm was now to the west of us. Behind me, the sky was clear and deepening into dark blue, but the wind-swept clouds were flinging a warm amber onto every surface. The wet road had melted into an avenue of gold. The mist droplets on my windshield had snatched sparkles from the sky, while a vista of bright blue was gleaming through the riot.
Only the fast-food signs and traffic lights of Bellevue could resist transcendence. This impious stand was futile, though; the vain enclaves of capital were passed in a moment. I drove to my apartment, scratched my cat's head while the computer started, and wrote this down.
During my drive, I contemplated the actual nature of beauty. It seems to me that the familiar viewed under a single unifying element is the true essence of beauty. By looking at the sides of the road, you could see each individual tree try to assert its own color against the dazzling sunset. But looking west, there was only dark yellow and shadow. There the immanent could give a shape to transcendence, but only on transcendence's terms. That interplay of familiar and glory is what arrests the soul in observation, and is the artist's laboratory. The focus-grouped fantasies of Kinkade don't have a fraction of the emotion of a Rembrandt. His works are shaped by the assembly line they spring from; that is the unifying principle of them all, and this is why Kinkade's paintings stink.
The second factor in beauty is rarity, you see. Never again will I see that sunset. And yet that very singularity was at one with a sense of free abundance. Tomorrow I may see another sunset, gorgeous in its own way as this one, and the next day, another. Who could have thought that ten minutes on Highway 70 could be so enchanting? This must be the second tension of beauty that art seeks to capture, the intersection of rarity and abundance, of precious and free. We have been given so much for such a little while. Art tries to remind us of this, to capture our thoughts and focus them on the reality of what we're experiencing.
But people don't usually pay to be challenged. They want the familiar and comfortable. A filling meal, a few laughs, and it's home to a wall full of sentimental goo. That's why we artists must be passionate about excelling in our art. Only the most ignorant or inured could glance stupidly at the Sistine ceiling. And can anyone resist a glorious sunset?
P.S. If you did go to the Kinkade site, I'm awfully sorry about that. Here's an antidote.