An autumn walk in the woods: life, death, and kitschy art

leves on groundNature is life and death equally. What is living is dying, and what is dead becomes new life. Recently on a walk through some river-bottom woods I found the “dying” part on full display. Granted, falling leaves and brown grass represent plant dormancy, not death, but certainly there’s an element of death to it. The trees grow bright with dying foliage, and the ground is littered with the carcasses of the fallen. How’s that for a cheery autumn stroll?

What’s more, as the leaves fall and the undergrowth withers, the sight lines open up to better reveal the wreckage of fallen trees and the broken and battered limbs of those still standing. Nature is imperfection and resilience.

But I didn’t find it morbid at all. It was a cool day, but not chilly, and I walked through the tawny, withered, crunchy autumn woods thinking about nature and death in a matter-of-fact, rather cheerful sort of way that seemed perfectly normal in that setting. Again, in nature, life and death are all around, inseparable. Sometimes I come upon clean-picked bones, or scattered feathers, a tuft of fur, a vague odor of rotting fish.

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade in his studio. e The Thomas Kinkade Company, Windermere Holdings, LLC, via Wikimedia Commons

I thought about Thomas Kinkade, the late Painter of Light™. How would he have painted these woods? It’s a funny question if you’ve seen any of his work—all golden light and saturated colors, quaint little cottages and perfect trees.

I’m not a fan of Kinkade, but I admit there’s some kitschy art that I like, usually because it has a personal connection. When I was growing up we had a cheap print hanging in a corner of the living room that showed some trees and a footbridge over a stony little brook. I suppose everything about it was a cliché, but it made me happy to look at it. I wanted to walk into that gentle world.

Bob Ross, via Wikipedia

And sometimes I’d go over to my aunt and uncle’s house and they’d be watching Bob Ross on TV, painting his happy trees, and we’d sit there in quiet reverence as the scene magically took shape before our eyes. By the time Bob did his finger wave and said “God bless,” we were all a little more relaxed and content than we had been before.

If you feel that way about Kinkade or about sentimental art in general, I’m certainly not the one to criticize you for lowbrow taste.

But I want to say something about kitsch and its relationship to nature. “Kitsch,” as it turns out, is a big topic, or so I gather from its Wikipedia page (and with that admission, you now know not to look for expert art criticism on this blog). Here’s the part that most interests me:

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), defined it as “the absolute denial of shit”. He wrote that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult with which to come to terms, offering instead a sanitized view of the world, in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions”.

And I think that’s what bothers me about Kinkade, an evangelical Christian, and the dominant style of art in Christian bookstores. You might call it heavenly or Edenic kitsch, because I think it assumes that real-life nature is “fallen” from its Edenic state, and that death and struggle and imperfection were never part of the original creation and will not be part of the heavenly future.

Christians aren’t the only ones who defang nature with a paintbrush. There’s a lot of art that literally or metaphorically denies the “shit” of scarred trunks and scattered bones. Not that I particularly want to see paintings of bloated deer carcasses, but I find something perverse in the unspoken expectation that art should celebrate the world by distorting its essence beyond recognition.

Kitsch nature is wonderful in a way. It throws welcoming arms around you. Real nature doesn’t care whether you love it or not. Kitsch nature is gentle. Real nature is at war with itself, and it builds and discards entire species with complete indifference. Kitsch nature is static and unchanging; real nature is forever in flux, and though the scale of time is vast, not even the stars are permanent.

And so most of the time I find kitsch nature too small and simple. It’s toy nature. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and I can think of few activities more human than the creation of imaginary worlds. But to dwell continually in those little worlds is to limit one’s conception of beauty to something narrow, shallow, and ultimately unattainable. Nature is imperfection and impermanence, but it also contains astonishing complexity and resiliency. Everything that survives does so against the odds, and there is beauty in that, and the beauty is real.

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