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. <>
(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 order:
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 27, 2004.
Girl Art Now, Hera Gallery, Wakefield, RI, June 5 - July 10, 2004.
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, NY, 2001.
The Healing Heart Project, an ongoing traveling collaborative installation project organized by artist June Ahrens, created after September 11, 2001.
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 29, 1992.
(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. <>
(9) Michael Kimmelman, "Touching all Bases at the Biennial", The New York Times, March 12 2004. <>
(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. <>
(12) Ray Monsour Scurfield, "The Normal Abnormal", Psychology Today, October 13, 2004. <>
(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. <>
(15) David Elkind Ph.D, "Waaah, Why Kids Have a Lot to Cry About", Psychology Today, May 1992. <>
(16) Steve Kroft, correspondent, "The Echo Boomers", CBS News, October 3, 2004. <>
(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, 318.
(28) Ira Newman, "The Alleged Unwholesomeness of Sentimentality", Arguing About Art, ed. Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, (New York: Routledge, 2002) 320 - 322.

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