A noteworthy feature of the Lord of the Rings, particularly as it was brought to the screen in the three recent films by director Peter Jackson, is its scenery. The tranquil Hobbit's shire and the misty surrealism of the elves' ancestral home at Rivendell are stunning achievements of New Zealand's natural beauty enhanced by the artistry of stage crews and CGI (computer generated imagery) technology. These are utopian landscapes, both in their idealized beauty and in their ideological ways of depicting visual milieus for the good life. Regarding the latter, the Hobbit's shire with its lowland kitchen gardens and Hundertwasseresque earthen-mound burrows is an environmentalist's paradise, and Rivendell with its Gaudi-like filigree, reflecting pools, lonely balconies and arcades, rising from an effervescent river in a hidden valley, is the idealized, sequestered academic cloister, where the immortal elves have safely archived the wisdom of the ages in runes. Utopias are sincere efforts to conceptualize ideal worlds built upon noble principles - and in current fiction and film these are dominated variously by feminist, environmentalist, multicultural, consumer, and technocratic paradises. The physical appearance of utopias naturally reflects the principles being promoted.
This suggests that the visual tableau itself is pertinent to theological analysis. Jane Tompkins has remarked how the opening shot in the typical western - the vast, empty desert - symbolizes the innocence of a land without human beings, a world unstained by sin at the beginning of time, where sheer potentiality is expressed by an Edenic landscape unmarked by human activity.10 This implies that the appeal of the western to its audience has something to do with what the image on the screen activates within their religious imaginations. In his study of the emergence of nature as a site of tourism in nineteenth-century America, John Sears offers an account of how modern tourism has retrieved a more ancient sense that magnificient natural landscapes are sites where the barrier between the sacred and profane is unusually thin. He begins his story with early reports of the sublime power of Niagara Falls. Soon after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Niagara Falls had the dubious fortune to become America's first developed tourist destination, and it was promoted from the beginning in the guidebooks as a place to witness God's power and glory. In a nation without imposing stone cathedrals, Niagara Falls, with its "astonishing height, enormous volume, stupendous force, and eternal sound" offered itself as an alternative site to encounter the majesty of God. Drawing explicitly on Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, early guidebooks described the "pleasurable terror" that was evoked within visitors to this natural cathedral, and all of Burke's ruminations on the sacred dimension of the sublime came to be so commonly applied to Niagara Falls that the association became a cliché.11 And it was a cliché that was then projected onto subsequent natural wonders that were discovered as the western frontier was settled. When Yosemite Valley was stumbled upon in the 1850s by an expedition of soldiers in pursuit of Indians, descriptions of it filtered back east and visitors began making the long, arduous journey to witness it for themselves. As early as 1866, a newspaper editor from Springfield, Massachusetts made the trip and wrote back:
the overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpectedness... such a tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face, as in great danger, in solemn, sudden death. It was Niagara, magnified.12
One particularly effective promoter of Yosemite and other wilderness tourist attractions was the painter Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt visited Yosemite and other points west on three different tours with cartographers and geologists, beginning in 1858. He would make sketches and oil studies in the field, then return to his New York studio to recreate the scenery in huge oil panoramas that accentuated the pristine beauty and transcendent grandeur of the mountains, waterfalls and alpine lakes he had witnessed. In one of the best examples of this, a massive canvas called Looking Down the Yosemite Valley (1865; see Figure 6), Bierstadt depicts the tranquil waters of the Merced River meandering through a trim green meadow, reflecting the oak trees that grow on its banks, with behemoth granite towers on the left and the sheer vertical face of Half Dome on the right. Luxuriant sunlight shines from the distant bend behind Half Dome, illuminating the forest primeval, beckoning an intrepid viewer to trek down the broad, flat valley floor toward God's radiant Shekinah. This is God's own holy temple, a place not made with hands.
Bierstadt's paintings have never been highly regarded by art critics or art historians, who view him as a weak representative of the Hudson River School. They have found his work to be sensationalistic and pandering, an exercise in prettifying the raw beauty of what he observed and unoriginal in its interpretations. But in any of the many museums that have one of
his paintings, the carpet in front of it is usually well-worn. His is an art of the people; his paintings captivate their imaginations and transport them to places they would rather be. His hyperreal depictions of sublime nature activate utopian feelings. Mountains in the Mist, Yosemite at Sunset, and The Shore of the Turquoise Sea are felt by many as the true dwelling places of their souls, places saturated with the numinous.
Thomas Kinkade, the "painter of light," has inherited this mantle of painting translucent landscapes that minister to the soul. Still in his forties, Kinkade may be the most commercially successful painter alive today. It is not the sale of his original paintings that accounts for his success (he keeps these in his private collection), but reproductions of them in the form of framed prints sold at Thomas Kinkade Galleries located at malls across the country. More than ten million framed Kinkade's are now in circulation. They range in value from $200 for a poster quality print, to $500 for a canvas lithograph, to several thousand dollars for a print festooned with dollops and squiggles of paint applied by an assembly line of Kinkade-trained painters to give the canvas texture and the trademark luminescent effect, to more than $30,000 for canvas prints that Kinkade has personally touched up. For more modest budgets, Kinkade images are embossed on blankets, mugs, tote bags and cards that are sold through licensing agreements. In 2000, his operation posted $140 million in sales, clearing more than $90 million in profits.
His paintings are hyperrealistic interpretations of sturdy lighthouses on craggy shores, rustic cottages nestled in cozy dells in the shadow of snowcapped mountains, white clapboard churches and flower gardens (see Figure 7), with titles like Hidden Cottage, Mountain Majesty, and The Sea of Tranquility.1 Kinkade's artistic aim is to create images that inspire an appreciation for the inherent goodness of life, to counteract, in his words, "all the ugliness you see on the ten o'clock news,"14 and this vision has reportedly transformed the lives of many of his patrons. Indeed, judging from testimonials, peering into one of Kinkade's luminescent paintings of light can elicit an experience of spiritual enlightenment, akin to what Tillich underwent standing before Botticelli's Madonna in 1919. In one of his "Sharing the Light" newsletters, a woman describes spotting her first Kinkade painting while sitting in the waiting room of her doctor's office. She had been going through a rough stretch in her life, even wondering if she had it within her to go on living. But laying eyes on the painting stirred something inside of her:
It was like I was wandering down the little path, smelling the flowers. And I just knew what was inside - I could see the little rocking chair, the book beside it, and it was all so peaceful... When I saw that painting, I got a glimpse of hope - of a world where I could be happy again. My whole world is brighter now.15
Like Bierstadt, Kinkade receives no respect from the art world, but that only bolsters his conviction that he has ventured into genuinely populist territory. He is even brazen enough to describe his own achievement as creating a new "iconography" that is relieving despair and reenchanting the world for those who collect his work.16 That his images resonate with a public vastly outnumbering any that is reached by critically acclaimed artists, and that his admirers frequently describe the effect of his paintings in spiritual terms would seem to lend credence to the audacity of this appraisal.
To appreciate what might be going on here, consider the work of Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, two artists from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to the US in 1978.17 In 1993 they contracted a public opinion research firm to conduct a survey on what Americans like in a painting; 102 questions were asked about colors, styles, objects, even the size of paintings that people prefer. A cross-section of Americans was polled (1,001 adults). Komar and Melamid then studied the data. Their objective was to use market research as a mechanism to capture "the will of the masses," and then transform this into art. In their estimation, paintings produced in this fashion would be the essence of populist art - ask the people what they want and then give it to them. What could be simpler?
After analyzing the data, Komar and Melamid painted two canvases, to which they gave the titles America's Least Wanted and America's Most Wanted. Following the numbers, their most wanted painting is an autumn outdoor scene featuring a lake, wild animals, three ordinary children and George Washington (historical figure), all wearing clothes and at their leisure (see Figure 8). It is the size of a dishwasher, predominantly blue with visible brush strokes, and realistic-looking. It bears a striking resemblance to Hudson River School in style and feel.18 Their Least Wanted Painting is abstract and angular (overlapping triangles), predominantly gold, orange and teal, and the size of a paperback book.
Coinciding with the unveiling of these two paintings at a 1994 exhibition in New York City, Komar and Melamid commissioned variations of the survey to be conducted in ten additional countries, ranging from Iceland to China to Kenya, and then produced least and most wanted paintings for each of these countries. As a scientific sample, the combined data pool represents 32 percent of the world's population. Of the many surprising similarities that surfaced across the cultures represented, the most striking is that outdoor, natural settings are the clear favorite (66 percent), and blue stands out as every country's favorite color.
Admittedly, there is as much prank (say, 66 percent) in this whole project as there is insight into the human soul. In an interview the artists did with The Nation, Komar suggested at one point that "It is my hope that people who come to see our Most Wanted paintings will become so
Some of the more interesting results of the Poll-Art Project
• 88% of Americans prefer outdoor scenes. Preferred outdoor objects (in descending order):
- fields and rural scenes (18%)
• 60% like their paintings to be "realistic-looking"
• Blue is the most popular color in a painting (44%)
• Green is the second most popular color (12%)
• Twice as many people prefer seeing wild animals (51%) to domestic animals (27%) in paintings
• If a painting has people in it, ordinary people are more favored (41%) than famous people (6%) - but to 50% of those polled, it makes no difference
• If a famous person is in the painting, a historical figure is preferred (56%) to a more recent one (14%)
• A group of people is preferred (48%) to a single person (34%)
• Fully clothed people are preferred (68%) to nudes (3%)
• People at leisure are preferred (43%) to people at work (23%)
• Fall is the preferred season to see depicted in a painting (33%), followed by spring (26%), summer (16%), and winter (15%)
• Soft curves are more desirable (66%) than sharp angles (22%)
• Visible brush strokes are preferred (53%) over a smooth canvas (33%)
• Most people prefer large paintings (41%) to small ones (34%)
• Of those who prefer large paintings, the ideal size is that of a dishwasher (67%) as opposed to a refrigerator (17%) or a full wall (11%)
horrified that their tastes will gradually change." Then, a little later in the same interview, possibly fishing for the next grant, he proposed that some land be acquired and the blue landscape of America's Most Wanted Painting be recreated in real life: "It is possible to plant trees similar to ones in our painting, create the same lake, same hill, and so on. This locale will be called Poll-Art Park, a place where people can spend time as hermits. It will be an ideal vacation getaway."19
Nevertheless, the data they have collected on cross-cultural aesthetics, however limited, is real data that has been produced by state of the art polling mechanisms, and both Komar and Melamid keep circling back to dwell on the apparently universal attraction to the blue landscape. People everywhere, it seems, have in their heads this ideal landscape, this outdoor scene with wild animals, water and trees that is washed in shades of blue. Melamid theorizes,
Almost everyone you talk to directly - and we've already talked to hundreds of people - they have this blue landscape in their head. It sits there, and it's not a joke. They can see it, down to the smallest detail. So I'm wondering, maybe the blue landscape is genetically imprinted in us, that it's the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it.20
This blue landscape, installed in our minds like a Kantian a priori, as it were, also pervades the paintings of Thomas Kinkade and Albert Bierstadt before him. It appears in Peter Jackson's cinematography as he depicts Hobbiton and Riverdell, the Shangri-las of Middle-earth, it is the convention of the western movie in its portrayal of a land untouched by sin, and it is the prevailing aesthetic of travel industry brochures and postcards, going back to the development of Niagara Falls as a tourist destination. It extends even before that to the popularity of spas, lakeside retreats and beach resorts in virtually every part of the world. The blue landscape, dominated by sky and water, has long been the symbol for the peaceable kingdom. As judgment is like fire, redemption is like water. When the biblical prophets described the peaceable kingdom, following God's judgment of the nations the redeemed are invited to return to Zion, where "waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water" (Isa. 35.6f). Ezekiel described a discharge of flowing streams from below the temple, and
On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing (Ezek. 47.12).
It is not hard to imagine the millions of Kinkade framed prints hanging on living room walls in suburbs and high-rise apartments, or in win-dowless waiting rooms and offices across America, serving as elegantly framed windows offering a view onto this peaceable kingdom. While for some they may simply be escapist fantasies, for others these images reflect an inward groping for contentment that eludes them, and they stare searchingly down Kinkade's wooded paths. Like religious icons, these pictures can transfix wandering minds with the power of a reality beyond.
"The power of profound meaning is found in blue," Wassily Kandinsky wrote in his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Then he elaborated: "Blue is the typical heavenly colour. The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest."21 Kinkade's rustic iconography may aid the viewers of his prints in picturing a place where they hope their souls might finally find rest, and that picture lightens their anxieties in the present. This is an eschat-ological dynamic - the way a positively envisioned ultimate outcome can lend greater meaning to events in the present and render life's many disappointments and insults more tolerable. From the vantage point of the end of the story - as pictured in an eschatological tableau - present potentialities can be sorted through, and those potentialities that will bring this ending to pass may be activated, while others can be left to wither.
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