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:
Why now? What caused this outpouring of sentimental images? Why are we awash in sentimental artworks that celebrate emotion over reason, materiality and the handmade object, highly personal content, Beauty, childhood, nostalgia, and a longing for utopia? It may be that many of these sentimental manifestations are a post-9/11 phenomenon. Even the Whitney Museum allowed that many of the works in the 2004 Biennial, "convey an underlying sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the world today." (11) Directly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, an outpouring of sentiment found expression in spontaneous installations and memorials. This rapid commemoration was instantaneous and heartfelt, and the makeshift assemblages that appeared on the streets of Manhattan, and around the nation, included flowers, toys, stuffed animals, photographs, and other poignant objects resembling child-like offerings imbued with tenderness and a wish for all things safe and sweet. One of the collaborative installation projects that grew out of a desire to express feelings about 9/11 was The Healing Heart Project, organized by artist June Ahrens. Ahrens, who lives just blocks from the World Trade Center site, conceived of the project just hours after the attacks, and asked participants to write down their feelings about the tragedy, enclose them in hand-sewn cloth hearts, and mail them to her. Ahrens then created two circles of hearts representing each of the towers, with a heart dedicated to each victim. There has also been a marked increase in the building of permanent memorials since 9/11, commemorating this tragic day and numerous other national events. A rise in sentimental feelings and expression is a normal occurrence in the aftermath of national tragedy, and during wartime. The psychological fallout from 9/11 is centered on the sudden loss of a sense of security. The subsequent vulnerability, worry, anxiety, and disquieting fear many continue to experience post 9/11 can lead to a number of "expectable reactions" such as a resurgence of memories, and increased emotionality including crying, sadness, grief, fear, and feelings of helplessness. (12) Any appetite for irony and cynicism is lost, and sentimental expression is further encouraged by renewed interest in sincerity and security. Many of the sincerely sentimental works included in Pretty Sweet, and in other recent exhibitions of sentimental imagery, express a hope and desire for protection, and a retreat into a private, personal world often seated in the nostalgic past. This insular, inward-looking trend does not appear to be a self-indulgent, narcissistic endeavor on the part of the artist, but rather a protective device or avoidance technique employed to create a better world than he or she sees, something that transcends the immediate and painful present. In this instance, "the realm of our emotional responses provides one of the clearer cases in which imagination is not so much a peering into some other world, as a way of relating to this one."(13) While the aftereffect of 9/11 is certainly not the only explanation for the current proliferation in sentimental artwork, it will continue to have a significant and lasting impact on the images that artists create.
Childhood looms large in current sentimental artworks. Babies and children, toys and dolls, among other childhood effects, appear with great regularity, and the subject of innocence lost (and found) has been a theme of a number of recent exhibitions. The artists' approach to this time of so-called 'innocence' has been just as varied as with other sentimental subjects -- sincere, ambivalent, and ironic. Fairy tales, lullabies, favorite toys, and other personal belongings from childhood are incorporated into many works by Pretty Sweet artists. Some of these works are an emotional memorial to childhood, denying the darker side of human nature and growing up, and others expose the falsity of the sentimentalized innocence of youth. The sentimentalizing of childhood and childhood memories offers psychological comfort, and regressing to a time, however real or imagined, when we were nurtured and protected frees us from anxiety and responsibility. While the security concerns brought about by 9/11 may have heightened sentimental notions about childhood, youth, and family, childhood and innocence had been revalued in America long before then. A rash of books have recently been published on the topic of preserving childhood innocence, such as Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children From the National Assault on Innocence and A Return to Innocence: Philosophical Guide in an Age of Cynicism. (14) Childhood and innocence are now coveted and fiercely protected, and the primary sentiments that mark the nuclear family - romantic love, maternal love, and domesticity - are increasingly valued despite the reality of the high rate of divorce, physical and psychological abuse, and neglect within families. (15) This celebration of childhood extends far beyond the actual time span of youth. Sentimental issues have also become important in the realm of pop-psychology. Adults of all ages have been encouraged by pop-psychologists and popular culture at large to get 'in touch' with their 'inner child', and "youth culture" has deemed it acceptable for grown-ups to play video games and collect toys in a bid for eternal childhood.
This surge of "youth culture" and the current attraction to childhood and all things sweet, innocent, and fun may have to do with the sheer numbers of children coming of age right now. A recent program on CBS News' 60 Minutes titled The Echo Boomers described the largest generation of young people since the 1960s to come of age: "Born between 1982 and 1995, there are nearly 80 million of them, and they're already having a huge impact on entire segments of the economy." They are the largest generation since the 1960s, and are called "echo boomers" because, "they are the genetic offspring and demographic echo of their parents, the baby boomers." (16) This generation arrived at a time when children were being re-valued, as historian Neil Howe observed, "During the '60s and '70s, the frontier of reproductive medicine was contraception. During the '80s and beyond, it's been fertility and scouring the world to find orphan kids that we can adopt. The culture looked down on kids. Now it wants kids; it celebrates them." (17) Childhood is now considered precious and rare and, as Dr. Mel Levine, a preeminent professor of pediatrics reported, "Parents feel as if they're holding onto a piece of Baccarat crystalthat could somehow shatter at any pointparents really have the sense that their kids are fragile. And parents therefore are protecting them, inflating their egos. Massaging them, fighting their battles for them." (18)
The "echo boomers" are a bumper crop of new consumers whose aesthetic and influence on the market propel interest in the sentimental image in American pop culture. The sentimental image, however, was a popular phenomenon in this country long before this generation arrived on the scene. American kitsch and the beloved tchotchke have long been mainstays of our popular sentimental aesthetic. We have all visited (or lived in) homes overflowing with a profusion of Hummel and Precious Moments figurines, treacly pastoral landscape paintings by the likes of Thomas Kinkade, phony antiques, crocheted doilies, toile, cheap flowery crafts and other such stuff. Sentimental kitsch is fabricated 'beauty' that is neither unique nor challenging but accessible, reproducible, and comforting, and often appears as 'cheap art' or 'bad taste'. In the realm of sappy sentimental kitsch, painter Thomas Kinkade reigns supreme. Kinkade, the self-proclaimed "Painter of Light" who is prone to such sentimental statements as, "Steeping my life in beauty brings color to my days and a song to my heart", creates paintings that are scorned by many as 'bad motel art', yet he is one of the most widely collected artists in recent years and his stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. (19) Excess and rampant consumption are important characteristics of the sentimental aesthetic, and many sentimental artworks can be read as a satiric commentary on commercialization and capitalism. Jeff Koons' work is an example of sentimental Pop Art that is ironic and campy and addresses, as Ken Johnson of The New York Times observes, "the commodification of art and life, and the erosion of the real by the artificialthe beauty of his best work is in its surplus of meaning and feeling." (20) Koons' cast stainless steel Rabbit from 1986 is an intimate sentimental work merging high and low art. "In its childlike vulnerability, innocence and eagerness to please, it exudes a feeling of new possibility and elicits a nurturing response," and the artist's enormous Balloon Dog, though childlike and cheerful, is inherently unstable and precarious, reflecting the fact that, "Many people live these days with an anxious feeling that the world that they know could suddenly burst. Balloon Dog embodies the joy and terror of such a moment with exhilarating panache." (21)
Pretty Sweet artists have drawn on the glut of sentimental imagery and information in popular culture that has seeped into every corner of the American market, in entertainment, fashion and design, and even literature. Sales of Hallmark greeting cards and romance novels (which have their own bestseller list) represent vast enterprises built on the desire for sentiment alone. And, children and adults are currently more entranced than ever by fairy tales and beauty queens, causing a boom for Disney and Barbie. Mothers and daughters visit Cinderella's Princess Court at the new World of Disney store on Fifth Avenue on New York City, where they meet Cinderella, make jewelry, learn "princess principles", while sipping tea and wearing tiaras and white gloves (for $75.00, crowns, bracelets, necklaces, and attachable charms not included), while fathers and sons can take a trip to Celebration, Disney's planned community near Orlando, Florida to choose their new fantasy theme-park home designed in one of six neotraditional styles. (22)
Americans' appetite for sentiment in popular culture is
seemingly insatiable, leaving plenty of room for the sentimental imagery
and merchandise concocted in Japan. Both countries have a booming "youth
culture" and Japanese sentimental imagery has been easily translated
and assimilated in this country and throughout much of the developed world.
For decades, Americans have devoured Japanese toys such as Hello Kitty,
as well as Pokeman games, anime (animation), and manga (comic
books). Japan's culture of kawaii (cute), which has been incorporated
into its art, music, anime, video games, films, and fashion has earned
revenue from royalties and sales amounting to $12.5 billion in 2002, an
increase of 300 percent from 1992. (23) Artist Takashi Murakami is an example of a well-known Japanese
artist who addresses many aspects of Japanese popular culture in his paintings,
sculptures, inflatable balloons, films and videos, and consumer items. Murakami
has combined his creative process with a capitalist enterprise, and formed
the Hiropan Factory, which allows him to produce products such as figurines
and t-shirts associated with his own trademarked character, Mr. DOB, who
references both Disney's Mickey Mouse and a cartoon monkey popular in Hong
Kong. (24) It has been predicted
that Murakami will be as influential in this decade as, "Warhol, Jeff
Koons or Damien Hirst were in theirs." (25) In 2003, Murakami's installation of giant cartoon inflatables
was an earnest sentimental expression based on the artist's imaginary benevolent
deity, and drew huge crowds to Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza.
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