The sentimental debate

Just to clarify, by sentimental debate I am not referring to a sensitive way of arguing the pros and cons concerning art, or any topic. I am talking about the question of what does it mean to have a piece of art be overly sentimental, and why is that a bad thing, if it is really a bad thing.

I do not know if this issue is the most controversial topic in the art world, but it sure has impacted me. To explain what I’m talking about, I will take you on a little journey (yes again) back to when I first heard that word pertaining to artwork. I was presenting my art to galleries in the Grand Rapids area, and meeting with the owners. I kept hearing that word being used to describe some of my art and I received several warnings not to cross the line any further.

At first I did not know exactly what they meant and I faked understanding out of embarassment. After a while I pieced it together though. What the various gallery owners were referring to was what I later came to call “being cheesy.” Let’s say you have a painting of a field near a barn. That does not necessarily sound “cheesy.” Now let’s add a little swing, a farm cat asleep on the porch, the farmer milking the cow, and maybe a bright green tractor. Then to make it more clear, just think of any stereotypes about a happy farm house and throw them in the picture as well. Oh I know…how about a little girl swinging on a tire swing (which by the way was the subject of a picture that I had showed to a gallery once).

Now you have what I was told is an overly sentimental painting.

I remember one gallery owner showed me the Art Business News that I was also subscribed to and pointed out all my favorite pictures of women laying leisurely on  beds and mothers with their daughters strolling on the beach in sun dresses. I thought he was going to talk about how interesting the brush strokes appeared in the photos of those oil paintings, but then he said something like, “See what I mean? It makes me want to throw up. All the art in this magazine is crap.”

Wow, I thought those pictures were amazing because of the technique used by the artist and the wonderful feeling they gave me about how beautiful life can be. Well what is a good painting then? I became completely confused and what I thought I knew I realized I did not know at all. Then he finally added that a painting does not necessarily have to be about garbage in the streets or death, but that it has to be about real life.

Ok, now I at least understood his point. I suppose I do not know any extraordinarily beautiful women just lying around draped in pink sheets on their bed, perfectly posed.

Well now that I understood how to avoid painting something that was overly sentimental, I began to purge those ideas from my artwork. Then just when I thought I had figured out the art world, I was blind-sided again. At first it was just little commments from friends and family about how they loved those “cheesy” paintings and how they make them feel good.  Then I noticed yet another retail store open for Thomas Kinkade (that very same gallery owner I talked to used Kinkade’s artwork as an example of extreme over-sentimentality). If he is not a good painter, why does he have dozens of retail stores? People seem to love his paintings and he apparently must be quite wealthy by now, which one could argue is a measure of success.

Soon I noticed “cheesy” paintings all over the place. They were at art shows, in people’s living rooms, and offices all over the area from my dentist’s office to government buildings.  If that type of artwork has no value, why are people buying it? Does not the fact that people value that art enough to pay for it mean that it has value? Who is right then – the gallery owner or the mass of people buying all that “cheesy” artwork?

I guess for artists it must be about who they are painting for. Are they painting for the millions of us who like a nice picture to match the colors in our living room, or are they painting to create a piece of art that holds merit to art collectors and gallery owners?

For me, I found a balance. I strive to push myself further with my artwork to create art that means something and has interest on several levels. But every now and then I will paint something that I believe somebody might buy someday because it has nice colors and water in it (people love the calming effect of water in a picture). I suppose I will let others decide if my art has value, “cheesy” or not.

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One response to “The sentimental debate

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