The following essay is reprinted January 26, 2005 with permission of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or would like to acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue for Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art, please contact the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park directly through either this phone number or web address:
With feminism, sentimental imagery made its way back into the art world at a time when imagery itself had dwindled down to the stark geometries of Minimalism and the pure fields of color of Post-Painterly Abstraction, or had disappeared entirely after having been chased out by Conceptual Art. And while the Pattern-and-Decoration movement was short-lived, the political arm of feminist art remained steadfast in its mission to hoist sentimentality by its own petard. The exhibition Bad Girls, organized in 1994 by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York as a pulse-taking of recent feminist art, featured hanged Barbie (TM) dolls, demented babies, and an installation formed of a zillion pretty pink consumables. (15)
Now, in the early twenty-first century, interest in sentimental imagery has expanded far beyond the feminist frontier. Contemporary artists who deal with the sentimental tend to break down into three rough and overlapping categories. The first reflects the direct legacy of feminism. Certainly, many of the artists in Pretty Sweet would have felt right at home in the Womanhouse, or in the Bad Girls show, and extend the feminist critique of sentimental imagery and sentimentality as complicit in over-determined constructions of gender, sex/race/class discrimination, and the cover-up of domestic abuse and violence. Their work includes embroidery, figurines, antique photos, Disney and Barbie - all peppered with humor, irony, anger, and horror. The second category includes artists who display a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards coded emotional material -- they are both attracted to, and repulsed, by kitsch. In their work, they seek to question the dualities of sentiment and sentimentality, sweet and saccharine, high art and low art, and art and camp -- without coming to any resolved conclusions. Last, and by no means least in numbers or importance, are the artists who borrow from the bank of sentimental imagery to create works which seek, honestly and directly, and without any irony, to elicit feelings of happiness, joy, nostalgia, warmth, serenity, etc. These artists are devoted to craft and loyal to beauty, and care not a whit about one hundred years of art history, or ongoing critical derision.
Sentimental imagery pervades our culture, and kitsch exists alongside art -- however either term is defined. How can contemporary artists avoid it? Artists today are open to all sorts of competing and complementary imagery, from the worlds of commix, computer games, advertising, anime, technology, genetics, esoteric spirituality the list is endless. But sentimental imagery is the last taboo. And in an age when aesthetic shock tactics (artists severing body parts, painting with HIV-positive blood, or selling tins of their own excrement) provoke more eye-rolling that outrage, the current embrace of hearts-and-flowers may be the last option for the avant-garde.
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