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:
In the broader cultural context, fashion and design are
both celebrating a return of sentimental style. "Heroin chic"
is long gone, pink has made a comeback, and frills, flounce, and ruffles
in the form of ballerina skirts and chiffon pantaloons now grace the runways.
"Retro" design has moved from mid-century modern to "modern
baroque" and, as the title of a recent New York Times article
about home furnishings announced, "More Shows Less The Door".
Romantic opulence is the current decorating trend, and toile, velvet
bows, damask fabrics, embroidered textiles, and chandeliers reveal a sentimental
shift and, "....a boredom with simplicity and a new reverence for things
from the past." (26) Even
advertising is drawing on sentimental imagery, and Absolut Vodka(TM), whose long-running ad campaign features
its bottle in the style of the moment, has recently unveiled "Absolut
Tchotchke". In this recent ad, the bottle of vodka appears as a ceramic
knick-knack with a ceramic baby deer, turtle and bunny at its base, which
is ringed with pink and yellow flowers. This ironic tribute to kitsch sits
on a crocheted doily and flowery wallpaper appears in the soft-focus background.
In the world of entertainment, there has always been a place for sentimentality.
The amount of sentimental material produced by the entertainment industry
varies from time to time, but movies and music exploring the sweet and tender
emotions remain ubiquitous; witness the Forrest Gump phenomenon,
and saccharine pop singers such as Jessica Simpson.
Given the current trend, it should come as no surprise
that sentimentality is back in favor within literary circles. Literary critics
have long argued whether there is a valid role for sentimentality in works
of fiction. The literary argument mirrors the larger societal/cultural argument:
is it right for an author to engage in a sentimental fantasy that idealizes
its characters and objects, presenting them as, "pure, noble, heroic,
vulnerable, innocent, etc", and is this sentimental mode of thought,
"typically one that idealizes its object under the guidance of a desire
for gratification and reassurance," a falsification? (27) The argument against sentimental literature as being "false
to the world" and "false to oneself" has recently been reevaluated
and the current belief is that, "the values of aesthetic excellence,
audience pleasure, and cathartic release, and escapism often override (and
quite properly so) the commitment to present the whole truth." (28) Should we look to art and literature
for an escape from the often painful and difficult realities of life? The
current sentimental reply is a resounding 'yes'. In recent years, there
has been an overwhelming response by both children and adults to
fantasy novels old and new, and publishers are racing to keep up with the
demand. Among these popular fantasy series are the Lord of the Rings
trilogy, Harry Potter novels, and the first of a three-part prequel
to Peter Pan titled Peter and the Starcatchers.
The current sentimental trend in art and in the broader
cultural landscape has us awash in feeling and meaning. Just as Norman Rockwell
painted pictures of middle-class America as it wanted to see itself, many
artists today are sincerely drawing on sentimental iconography to represent
the world as they wish it could be, or as they long to remember it. Inherent
to this earnest sentimental imagery is the yearning to transcend a disturbing
or mundane reality for a sweeter, gentler existence. Even artists whose
work expresses their ambivalence toward sentimentality -- or those who ironically
attack it as a damaging falsehood -- even they indirectly convey a hope
for a better world. In highlighting the ways in which sentimentality masks
prejudice, pain and oppression, these artists reveal their desire for change
and compassion. When viewing the artwork in Pretty Sweet, whether
sincere, ambivalent, or ironic, the disparity between sentimental dreams
and stark realities is apparent. In this way, the sentimental image can
serve as a tool to explore fundamental questions about the purpose of art
should art provide comfort and escape, or should it be concerned with
presenting truths about ourselves and the world? And, is it possible for
the sentimental image to do both?
- (1) Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, was a
traveling retrospective organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and
The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, and was on exhibition at The
Guggenheim Museum from November 3, 2001 - March 3, 2002.
- (2) G. Jurek Polanski, "Reviews: Norman Rockwell: Pictures for
the American People". February 2000. October 11 2004. <http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/Nrockwell.shtml>
- (3) Ibid.
- (4) Marcia Tucker, "Mother Laughed: The Bad Girls' Avant-Garde",
Marcia Tanner, et al., Bad Girls, exhibition catalogue, (New York:
New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994) 64.
- (5) Amy Newman, "Louise Bourgeois Builds a Book From the Fabric
of Life", The New York Times October 17, 2004: B30.
- (6) Exhibitions featuring sentimental imagery, in reverse chronological
- Innocence and Insight, COFA / Claire Oliver Fine Art, New York,
NY, October 22 - December 4, 2004.
- Precious, a sound installation by Claudia Ravaschiere and Michael
Moss for The 25th Annual Fort Point Open Studios, Fall 2004.
- Innocence Found, DFN Gallery, New York, NY, June 9 - August
- Girl Art Now, Hera Gallery, Wakefield, RI, June 5 - July 10,
- Expressions of Love, Handworks Gallery of American Crafts, Acton,
MA, February 3 - February 28, 2004.
- Stitches: A Fiber Arts Collaborative, The New England School
of Art and Design at Suffolk University, Boston, MA, Part I: January 12
- February 7, 2004, Part II: January 12 - February 28, 2004.
- Not So Cute & Cuddly: Dolls & Stuffed Toys in Contemporary
Art, Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS, October
26 - December 24, 2003.
- Rain Harris: Gilding the Lily, Tyler School of Art, Temple University,
Elkins Park, PA, September 9 - October 11, 2003.
- The Burbs: The Influence of Suburban Iconography on Pictorial Art,
DFN Gallery, New York, NY, June 4 - August 29, 2003
- Arne Svenson: Sock Monkeys, Julie Saul Gallery, New York, NY,
December 5, 2002 - January 11, 2003.
- But I Wuv You, 31 Grand Gallery, Williamsburg, NY, October 19
- November 17, 2002.
- Family, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield,
CT, May 19 - September 4, 2002.
- Uncommon Threads: New Twists on Textile Art, The 2002 Gloria Wilcher
Memorial Exhibition, The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, July
13 -September 2, 2002.
- Be My Little Valentine: Small Sculpture, Precious and Sentimental
Paintings and Works on Paper, James Graham & Sons, New York, NY,
January 31 - March 2, 2002.
- Welcome To My Dollhouse, Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, New York,
- The Healing Heart Project, an ongoing traveling collaborative
installation project organized by artist June Ahrens, created after September
- Domestic Culture: Home in Visual Culture, Institute of Contemporary
Art at Maine College of Art, Portland, ME, March 10 - May 2, 2001.
- My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation,
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA, February 10 - May 6, 2001.
- The Darker Side of Playland: Childhood Imagery from the Logan Collection,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, September 1, 2000
- January 2, 2001.
- My Little Pretty: Images of Girls by Contemporary Women Artists,
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, April 19 - June 22, 1997.
- Bad Girls, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY, Part
I: January 14 - February 27, 1994, Part II: March 5 - April 10, 1994.
- Fragile Power: Explorations of Memory, The Newton Arts Center,
Newton, MA, October 22 - November 21, 1993.
- Popular Passions: Harlequin Romance Cover Paintings, The University
of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, KY, March 28 - May 7, 1993.
- Goodbye to Apple Pie: Contemporary Artists View the Family in Crisis,
DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA, September 19 - November
- (7) Bill Arning, curator, from the press release for the exhibition,
The Strange Power of Cheap Sentiment (or à Bientot to Irony)
(New York: White Columns, October 25 - November 27, 1996).
- (8) Holland Cotter, "Duck! It's Whitney Biennial Season Again",
The New York Times, March 7 2004. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/07/arts/design/07COTT.html>
- (9) Michael Kimmelman, "Touching all Bases at the Biennial",
The New York Times, March 12 2004. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/12/arts/design/12KIMM.html>
- (10) From the online press release for the Museum of Fine Art, Boston
exhibition, John Currin Selects, May 14, 2003 - January 4, 2004.
- (11) From the online press release for the Whitney Museum of American
Art exhibition, The 2004 Whitney Biennial, March 8, 2004. <http://www.whitney.org/exhibition/biennial.shtml>
- (12) Ray Monsour Scurfield, "The Normal Abnormal", Psychology
Today, October 13, 2004. <http://cms.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=pto-20020101-000033.xml&print>
- (13) Richard Moran, "The Expression of Feeling in Imagination",
The Philosophical Review (New York: Cornell University, 1994) Vol.
103, No. 1, 106.
- (14) Annie Murphy Paul, "The New Age of Innocence", Psychology
Today, March/April 1999. <http://cms.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=pto-19990301-000048.xml&print>
- (15) David Elkind Ph.D, "Waaah, Why Kids Have a Lot to Cry About",
Psychology Today, May 1992. <http://cms.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=pto-19920501-000024.xml&print>
- (16) Steve Kroft, correspondent, "The Echo Boomers", CBS
News, October 3, 2004. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/10/01/60minutes/printable646890.shtml>
- (17) Ibid.
- (18) Ibid.
- (19) Thomas Kinkade with Anne Christian Buchanan, Lightposts for
Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life (New York: Warner Books,
Inc, 1999) 108.
- (20) Ken Johnson, "The Meaning, Beauty and Humor of Ordinary Things",
The New York Times April 23, 2004: B29.
- (21) Ibid.
- (22) Laura M. Holson, "A Finishing School for All, Disney Style:
Pretty Girls (and Moms) Can Become Princesses for a Pretty Price",
The New York Times October 4, 2004: C1
- (23) Anthony Faiola, "Japan's animated culture of cool turns into
biggest export", The Boston Globe January 4, 2004: A10
- (24) Jeff Fleming, "My Reality, Your Reality", from the exhibition
catalogue, My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese
Animation (New York: Des Moines Art Center and Independent Curators
International, 2001) 36. This exhibition was on view at the Des Moines
Art Center, Des Moines, IA, from February 10 to May 6, 2001.
- (25) Marion Maneker, "The Giant Cartoon Landing at Rockefeller
Center", The New York Times August 24, 2003: B23.
- (26) Marianne Rohrlich, "More Shows Less The Door", The
New York Times September 30, 2004: D6.
- (27) Anthony Savile, "Sentimentality", Arguing About Art,
- (28) Ira Newman, "The Alleged Unwholesomeness of Sentimentality",
Arguing About Art, ed. Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, (New York:
Routledge, 2002) 320 - 322.
- Page 1
- Article about the exhibition
- Page 2
- A Sentimental Journey, or How Did We Get Here?, essay by Nick
- Page 3
- A Sentimental Journey, continued
- Page 4
- A Sentimental Journey, continued
- Page 5 -
A Swell of Sentiment, essay by Alexandra Novina, Curatorial Fellow
- Page 6
- A Swell of Sentiment, continued
- Page 7
- A Swell of Sentiment, continued
This is page 7
RL editor's note: Resource
Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mr. Jonathan DeCoster, Manager
of Creative and Interactive Services, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park,
for his help in obtaining and forwarding the above texts
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