‘”And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours. and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

‘”I liked white better,” I said.

‘”White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

‘”In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Book II Chapter 2, The Council of Elrond

I, like many people, shudder over Thomas Kinkade paintings…but why is this? What, exactly, is bad about them?

I read a Reddit discussion on the topic. Most of the respondents answerers couldn’t answer except through “opium contains a dormitive principle” tautologies.

It strikes me as kitschy, and kitsch is not art.

it is art for the lowest common denominator.

His marketing strategies are targeted at lower class Americans. His works are not owned by the upper classes, which is notable for any product but especially art which always purports to be noble (and Kinkade more than most artists wants to be perceived as high-minded).

it’s not Art; on the spectrum of art, it falls squarely in the “decoration” camp. There’s no deeper meaning, no depth, it’s simply trying to be a pretty picture

It’s considered bad taste because it marks you as someone who isn’t familiar with much art, or hasn’t thought much about it. If you’ve seen a lot of art, spent time paying attention to it, or compared pieces, styles and movements, you will probably find Kinkade very dull.

“he sucks, he’s bad, if you like him you’re an Ump-Tray Upporter-Say, etc”

Perhaps Kinkade’s work is so obviously bad that it’s not even worth analysing. It’d be like trying to quantify why a cockroach is so repulsive. Art is about instinctive, unlearned responses, after all. There’s little need to “analyze” art when the response is the aesthetic equivalent of a white phosphorous explosion.

But refusing to analyze things can lead to blind spots – it’s still interesting to consider what makes a cockroach more disgusting than, say, a woodlouse or a mouth. And it’s interesting to consider why Kinkade’s art is uniquely bad, when other similar art isn’t.

With respect to Gandalf, it’s time to break apart the Painter of Light.

1) Kinkade’s art communicates nothing

Art is defined as an artist’s attempt to create meaning in the mind of the audience. What’s meant by “artist” (and “meaning” and “audience”) is up for grabs. But there always has to be some element of communication. Art is the bridge for the artist’s ideas.

This is what separates artwork from wallpaper. It’s also why I have reservations calling the work of Dalle-2 “art”, even though it might look like it.

The triumh of the modernist movement was to understand that art is also an interpretive process. A work of art can be understood differently by different people, and the meaning might change depending (: the meaning can va).

But by the same token, it’s not totally up for grabs. But there has to be something. Art exists to say things. Just as language exists to say things.

Kinkade’s paintings say “goo goo ga ga”.

They’re bland collisions of soggy, overly sentimental imagery and branded Disney characters. The aesthetic impact they have (for me, sickened), seems almost accidental: Kinkade seems to have painted each one with dispassion bordering on contempt, working down a checklist of “nostalgic” signifiers.

2) He doesn’t understand that less is more

Do you like beer? Enjoy a cold brew over dinner, perhaps?

Well, Thomas Kinkade just threw you into an enormous 5000 gallon vat of beer. Salud!

Any chance his paintings have of creating a nice mood is spoiled by the fact that he does it to excess. When looking at Kinkade’s paintings, you get the feeling that you’re looking at a fighting game where the “Cute” and “Whimsy” sliders are stuck on maximum. This is the essence of kitsch. Sometimes this creates a ludicrous effect: with elements of the paintings not even seeming to exist in the same world. For example:

It’s the middle of the day. But every window is aglow with firelight, as would only happen at night. And who would build a cottage on low ground right next to a stream? Streams flood. After a week of heavy rain, the water would be up to the wainscoting. These are little things that shatter the impression of a unified world.

3) Almost all interesting art grapples with ugliness in some way

I don’t mean it has to be about or predominently feature ugliness. But Kinkade’s paintings deliberately do not feature it at all. As per his instructions:

The concept of beauty. I get rid of the “ugly parts” in my paintings. It would be nice to utilize this concept as much as possible. Favor shots that feature older buildings, ramshackle, careworn structures and vehicles, and a general sense of homespun simplicity and reliance on beautiful settings.

The image above shows off this philosophy in action.

He wants firelit windows…but doesn’t want a night scene. Because night is scary and forbidding. Very few Kinkade paintings depict night, and the ones that do normally turn it into a ghoulish purple-pink twilight that resembles a scene from an alien planet.

Here’s another one:

Another Kinkade signature move is branded Disney characters. Here he tries to capture the entire story of Bambi on one frame, and produces an overstuffed exercise in claustrophobia. Aren’t there sad and scary parts in Bambi’s tale? Not according to Kinkade.

There’s an essential phonyness to Kinkade’s work that shines through even when he adapts Disney. His work is too idealized to be realistic, yet too enslaved to familiarity and folksiness to succeed as a work of imagination or fantasy.

3) He was not what he appeared to be.

Kinkade was a self-promoter and an entrepeneur: being a painter was incidental.

Yes, he worked hard on his paintings. Not because they had value in themselves (even as investment assets, many people who were suckered into buying them found themselves holding unsellable and unvaluable paintings), but because they were his brand, his business.

“Putting Thomas Kinkade in an art-historical context is like trying to put Jack Chick in the context of the illustrated comic strip,” – Peter Frank. A striking comparison.

Technically, Jack Chick is among the most successful comics creator of the 21st century. But it doesn’t seem right to describe him as a comics artist. He was a religious evangelist: the comics were a means to an end. Likewise, Kinkade’s pose as a “painter of light” is a cheap mask over the kind of hyper-aggressive Type-A personality cluster you see in Wolf of Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross. The type and tries to “close” three grannies before lunchtime.

His skilled technique makes it worse, in a way. If his art was dashed-off rubbish by an amateur, its lack of quality would be understandable. Instead, Kinkade worked hard to make his paintings suck.

His business-focused approach was unusual among artists. First, he identified a need in the market. Cosy, nostalgic imagery. Then he “iterated over a cycle”, in business speak, eventually achieving product market fit. He made himself tens of millions of dollars selling fairly worthless art.

Artists do not normally trademark names for themselves. Nor do they mass-produce their own work. Kinkade was incredibly succcessful, in the sense of making money. He was also so bad that his paintings almost have secret lives as depictions of folkcore dystopias. (This page describes Kinkade as the “Painter of Shite”, which is so banal and obvious that it might be the Thomas Kinkade of insults.)

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There are books that don’t sound real.

“A parable from the 70s about a seagull that wants to fly really fast. He strives day and night to set a new speed record for seagulls. The others make fun of him, but he never abandons his dream. Finally he dies and goes to heaven, where he attains perfect speed.”

Described as what it is, this book sounds like a parody of banal inspirational literature.  “The author must be a Holocaust survivor” was my thought while reading it. “Or a Guyana survivor. Or a survivor of something. That’s the only way this could have been published: on the back of the sobbiest sob story ever.” I was wrong, Richard Bach was an aviator turned technical writer, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull took wing entirely on its own merits.

There’s a thing called “irony poisoning”, where detachment is used as a weapon against criticism. “Didn’t laugh at my joke? Get bent, I never meant it to be funny.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull has the reverse problem: sincerity poisoning. It’s painfully earnest, solemn as a hymn, and blind to its own ridiculousness.

Why is the seagull called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”? Why is his surname his species? Can seagulls smile (as they do here, repeatedly)? How does he always know his exact velocity and altitude? It doesn’t even make sense to ask questions like that: the book exists in its own little world.

Sometimes this works. Bach’s story choices create a weird and dislocative mood, and you go along with Jonathan Livingston’s odd adventure. At times it approaches CS Lewis’s vision of a fairytale for grown-ups.

Other times I agree with Roger Ebert’s pan: “a book so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it.”.

One problem is that seagulls can’t actually do much. Jonathan just flies, and flies, and flies, setting pointless speed records over the ocean that nobody will document, remember or care about. This is a metaphor for following your dreams and believing in yourself (along with some Christian/Buddhist spiritualistic hippie mumblecore), but the meaninglessness of what he’s doing makes it tragicomic, not inspirational.

The book has three sections (dealing with Jonathan’s life, adventures in Heaven, and return to Earth). In 2013 it was reissued with a fourth part, which is set hundreds of years after Jonathan Livingston’s life. The flock that rejected Jonathan now reveres him as a spiritual figure, but has stifled his teachings in ritual and cant. This is satire about organized religion, and seems to have been created reactively to silence critics who found the book pointless (not so – apparently it was written concurrently with the first three). It’s more interesting, but also less sincere.

The book is slim and could have been slimmer. Photos of seagulls pad the pages. Specifics about angles of descent and wing profiles about are endlessly elaborated, to soporific effect. It’s like reading a book by an autistic child whose special interest is the airspeed of birds.

From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke. Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed. Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right. He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water. The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds — to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still. From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!

Being the world’s fastest seagull is only slightly more interesting than being the world’s fastest tapeworm, but this is the personality type the book appeals to: the pointless striver. The person who thinks that effort, in and of itself, is valorous. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the battle hymn of the illiterate “writer” with a shoebox full of manuscripts, the tone-deaf singer, the 5’2 wannabe pro basketball player, the aging LA actress who mails (ten years out-of-date) headshots to every agent in Hollywood. “Follow your dreams,” it says “no matter how unlikely success is, or how pointless success would be.” In the real world there’s a dark side to dream-following. Athletes cripple their bodies, entrepeneurs bankrupt themselves (and sometimes their families), naifs are exploited by scammers and grifters. Sometimes it is both good and necessary for a dream to end, and the book doesn’t confront that possibility. Jonathan Livingston only wins. He wins so much he gets tired of winning. He barrel-rolls past every obstacle, breaking even the laws of physics, proving every doubter wrong. It’s a shot of wish fulfilment pornography, both endearing and toxic. It takes twenty minutes to read and might ruin your life.

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There was a mass shooting in Buffalo, NY. Ten dead.

This is a bigger deal than the ~60 murders that happen in Buffalo every year because of the shooter’s beliefs, which were rather naughty. He belonged to the far right. He believed in something called “The Great Replacement”. The FBI is conducting forensic analysis of his keyboard to see if he ever typed offensive hate-slogans like “subscribe to Pewdiepie”, but sadly he probably did.

Social media is effervescing with the usual mixture of anger, sorrow, sloganeering, conspiracies, and bizarre object-level claims about reality. In particular, people seem fascinated with the idea that the media ignores right wing terrorism; or that it calls terrorists “lone wolves” if they’re white.

For example:

Look at the breezy confidence of these tweets. They’re not saying the media might call him a lone wolf. They’re saying it will. That it has.

Is this true? I’m going to cheat by actually looking at what the media’s saying.

CNN: “The 18-year-old man who allegedly shot and killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket Saturday afternoon was motivated by hate, authorities said.”

ABC: “Authorities say the shooting was motivated by racial hatred.”

Axios: “The suspect allegedly published racist writings before the attack.”

Fox News: “U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland called the attack ‘a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism.'”

NBC News: “The Buffalo supermarket shooting suspect allegedly posted an apparent manifesto repeatedly citing ‘great replacement’ theory”

Buffalo News: “Racist manifesto details hateful views, methodical planning of accused gunman”

LA Times: “Buffalo shooting is an ugly culmination of California’s ‘great replacement’ theory”

WSJ: “the writer describes himself as a fascist, white supremacist and racist”

The Grauniad: “Hate-based crime has been getting worse in recent years, largely cultivated in the cauldron of darkest reaches of the internet”

Associated Press: “racially motivated violent extremism.”

Ten stories from large, reputable sources.

Zero out of ten describe the attacker as a “lone wolf”.

Ten out of ten connect him to right wing causes, or quote officials who have done the same.

In fact, Googling “Buffalo + ‘lone wolf'” serves no relevant results, just people handwringing about how everyone is calling the shooter a lone wolf.

This is the epitome of “making up a guy to get mad at”. Nobody is doing this thing. Nobody at all. “The sooner we can dispense of this absolutely ridiculous descriptor, the better.” We can’t “dispense” of a descriptor that nobody’s using.

Twitter almost feels like a window into an alternate universe at this point. These people live in a world where every newspaper headline and news station chyron is referring to the shooter as a “lone wolf”. So why are their messages appearing in my world, where the most casual investigation shows this to be false? Quantum entanglement anomaly? I wish these visitors from Dimension X would specify whether their tweets relate to their home planet or to the world that I live in, similar to how Marvel Comics distinguishes between Earth-616 and Earth-1610 timelines. It would be less confusing.

“Lone wolf” means something relatively specific: a terrorist that plans and executes an attack aloneIt doesn’t mean “the shooter is unmotivated by ideology” or “the shooter has no political views”.  No semantic boundary exists between “lone wolf” and “terrorist” and “white supremacist”. You can be all of those things at once. It’s less a question of “what did you do?” or “why did you do it?” and more a question of “who did you do it for?”

Did you blow up a migrant hostel with two tons of ANFO because you’re nuts? Then you’re a lone wolf. Did you do it on the orders of Combat 18? Then you’re part of a terrorist group. But there’s a huge fuzzy area in between, where blame becomes hard to assign. What counts as a terrorist group? What counts as acting alone? What counts as being nuts? We end up asking existential questions about the nature of free will and causality.

Yes, the killer was influenced by 4chan’s /pol/ board. Is the board causally responsible for the terrorist attack (in the sense that if moot hadn’t renewed 4chan’s domain name in 2004, ten people in Buffalo would now be alive?) Possibly. But that’s not the same as moral responsibility. It’s also possible that Payton Gendry was a psychologically broken person, and that without /pol/ he would have fallen down some other rabbit hole (or would have encountered the same reading material elsewhere, and would have been radicalized the same way). We can’t conduct a scientific a/b test involving two Payton Gendrons,  one exposed to /pol/ and one that wasn’t. We’ll never know. Calling/pol/ a terrorist network feels very tenuous, in the same way as calling William Powell a “terrorist leader” because someone copied a bomb recipe from The Anarchist Cookbook.

A lot of people want to use the shooter’s ideological stance as a weapon against mainstream conservatism. If you’ve spoken critically about immigration, you’re promoting “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories, and a direct causal line can be drawn from you to the killer.

Twitter’s saying this, but Twitter is a bad website. Big boy journalists are getting in on the action too. Here’s Talia Lavin, in Rolling Stone:  The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a ‘Lone Wolf.’ He’s a Mainstream Republican

I don’t blame her for the headline, which she didn’t write. I blame her for the stuff after the headline, though, which she did.

The argument seems to be “Tucker Carlson is worried about birth rates declining, and the killer is worried about birth rates declining, so let’s draw a causal link between Tucker Carlson and the killer, based off no evidence. Don’t question it. They’re both on the same side.”

But there’s no sign that the killer was a Tucker Carlson fan, or had anything but contempt for the Republican Party. He cites NZ shooter Brenton Tarrant as an influence. From his manifesto: [1]Which is being scrubbed from the internet, in the name of “not spreading the killer’s views”. This has the side effect that any idiot can claim Payton Gendry said something, and … Continue reading

On p157, he says “conservatism is dead. Thank god. Now let us bury it and move on to something of worth.” On p31, he includes an antisemitic collage of Fox News hosts, each with a Star of David over their faces. The implication appears to be “Fox News is run by Jewish globalists”. Was he really inspired an avid Tucker Carlson fan?

The fact that he and Carlson may have agreed on some points is neither here nor there. This man – insofar as he has a firm political outlook – is probably an eco-fascist, as Tarrant was. I doubt Tucker Carlson has ever endorsed such a viewpoint on his show or even knows what it is.

Your political opponents are not all secretly the same. This must be the most prevalent fallacy in politics.  I used to see it on boards like Free Republic, where you’d hear about how Obama was going to rally his army of Islamic terrorists and Godless atheists and Marxist college grads and Hispanic anchor babies and devil-worshipping Satanists to overthrow America. They seemed to believe that all of these (vastly different) people were all working on the same team.

This isn’t how it works. Conservatism isn’t a monolithic hivemind any more than liberalism is, but Lavin has no interest in that kind of nuance. To her, life is a chessboard. There’s her side, then there’s the enemy side. All conservatives are secretly working from the same playbook.

It’s an awful piece, full of emotive verbiage and factual mistakes (Alito did not coin the phrase “domestic supply of infants”, he quoted it from a 2008 CDC report about adoption). Also, it’s written like shit. Aren’t journalists supposed to be eloquent?

“The Republican Party’s embrace of nativism has been more of a full-on dash than a slow slide, and it has been catalyzed by the vast constellation of right-wing media.”

Can an “embrace” be a “full-on dash” which is “catalyzed” by a “constellation”? This sentence has five metaphors and four make no sense with any of the others.

“Far from ebbing as Trump has ceased to be the party’s sole center, however, the tide of white animus has become even more central to a new crop of Congresspeople and candidates.”

How does a “tide of white animus” become “even more central” to a “crop”? What’s a “sole center”? Is there any other kind?

But hey, I’m glad to have Ms Lavin writing this stuff, if it leaves her too busy to pursue her side hustle as an internet Nazi hunter.

 

 

References

References
1 Which is being scrubbed from the internet, in the name of “not spreading the killer’s views”. This has the side effect that any idiot can claim Payton Gendry said something, and nobody can effectively disprove or debunk it.

Why is it being hidden from the world like weapons-grade plutonium? It’s not scary or interesting. It’s a profoundly nerdy document, proving something that’s already been proven to Valhalla and back: mass shooters are not cool. The part where he cites the white birthrate to two decimal places has a Leeroy Jenkins energy. “I’m getting a 32.33 percentage, repeating of course, chance of survival!”

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