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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Sentimentality vs Progressive Realism–Why Norman Rockwell And Hallmark Cards Will Always Have A Place In America

Sentimentality – pictures of grandma’s hands, babies’ feet, pretty smiles, gardens and quaint little cottages – is everywhere; except perhaps in academia where such dreamy idealism is looked down upon as anti-intellectual, hopelessly subjective, and worst of all damaging to reality, the stock-in-trade of progressivism.  Sentimentality leads to the status quo, complaisance, and irresponsible self-satisfaction.  Sentimentality, in fact is the only fake news that progressive realists acknowledge.  America is not a great country nor anywhere near it.  It is a country of unequal wealth and opportunity, civil oppression, privilege and unfair advantage, one which with a false sense of righteousness continues to bully and threaten, cheat and deceive, all to impose American hegemony.

There is no ‘Morning in America’, no ‘Shining City on a Hill’, no ‘Thousand Points of Light’.  These are the electioneering slogans of Republicans who have always relied on sentimental images – the flag, patriotism, home, farm, and family, purple mountains’ majesty, and a kind, beneficent God – and have nothing to do with objectivity or fact.  They are meant to mislead, to quiet political resentments and socio-economic concerns, and to create a national fiction.

Image result for images ronald reagan image shining city on a hill

Benjamin Myers writing in First Things, wrote ‘The Sentimentality Trap’ in which he argues that sentimentality creates a false sense of security and by so doing separates us from the harder realities of philosophical and religious understanding.  “Sentimentality offers us the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of any real human engagement”, he says, “not too much feeling but too thin an experience. This is what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote:

We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography . . . is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.

“Sentimentality is emotional satisfaction without emotional connection, an agreement between the artist and the audience to skip straight to the gratification, which, due to the skipping, is not so gratifying after all”.

Myers point of view is Christian and rooted in Christian history and teaching.

The Christian sentimentalist wants the bliss of Easter morning without the pain of Good Friday or the sorrow of Holy Saturday, reducing the great joy of Easter to the pleasantness of a sunrise or spring flowers. The sacrifice of our savior is lovely. His blood is pure. If we can look on these things and know they are good, then we, in a deeply Christian art, should not fear looking at the hard realities of our fallen world. The Christian artist who wraps himself in sunbeams and daffodils fails to be Christian at all, producing a bloodless, lifeless art that pleases a middle-class consumerism, not an authentic Christian encounter with a hurting world.

The progressive realist and the Christian theologist have a lot in common.  The way to both secular utopia and divine salvation is through ‘truth’, the unvarnished, unsentimental appraisal of life as it is.  Such objectivity can help the faithful of either type to better understand the problem and take steps to resolve it.

Yet it isn’t sentimentality per se that limits vision or purposeful intent.  It is an intellectual lassitude which is as much a part of the human condition as intellectual discipline. It is far easier to accept images than ideas; slogans than documents; dreams than reality.  The progressive realist is as seduced by images of a parched earth, fire, and natural disasters as the political idealist is of fields of wheat, harvests, mountains, and parades.  It is hard to parse court decisions on religious liberty, balance arguments of individual responsibility against those of community values, study economic and financial balance sheets to prove or disprove the contributions of immigrants, to validate or dismiss public investments in education, to interpret and understand geopolitics.

Relying on images is not necessarily sentimental, but more likely a natural reversion to simplicity in an overwhelmingly complex world.

What about pure sentimentality?  Myers quotes the opening lines of a poem by Mary Oliver.

Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.

Or Oliver’s less spiritual but equally sentimental:

But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me.

These poems are Shakespeare compared to the drugstore greeting card rhymes.

Image result for greeting card poems on love

Aside from political refuge, a need for simplicity in an intimidating world, and a desire for settled convictions, sentimentality has another more profound role.  It expresses common emotions in a popular, evocative way.  There is no need for any of us to read Plutarch’s or Shakespeare’s sonnets on love and loving; no need to struggle with the intricacies of the Romantic poets.  While intellectuals may sniff at the treacly rhymes in Hallmark Mother’s Day cards, no one reads them as poetry.  We already love our mothers and the verses evoke a momentary but emotional response.  Verses evoking childhood, romantic love, beauty, and serenity are enough. 

Norman Rockwell has been roundly dismissed by art critics.  His works are too sentimental, too obvious, and too one-dimensional to be considered serious art.  They cannot possibly be compared to the works of  Anselm Kiefer, powerful, evocative paintings that challenge settled wisdom, belief, and conviction.

Image result for images anselm kiefer paintings

Nor can Rockwell be compared to Francis Bacon whose works of religious figures are frightening, familiar, and inescapable.

Image result for images francis bacon painter

Yet it is wrong to dismiss Rockwell for his lack of depth and ‘seriousness’.  His works capture the zeitgeist of America not only of the 40s and 50s but for all its history.  His evocation of family life, school, patriotism, compassion, and belief are iconic.  Rockwell had an innate sense of what America was all about – the fundamentals which underlie civic nature.   On one level he was indeed sentimental in the greeting card sense.  One look at his paintings and immediate, positive, generous feelings are felt.  Yet unlike the quickly-penned, formulaic verses of Hallmark, Rockwell’s paintings are careful and considered.  They are meant to evoke sentiment, but never sentimentality.

Image result for images norman rockwell paintings sunday dinner

There is plenty of room in America for sentimentality and progressive realism.  It is when they become exaggerated caricatures of themselves – treacly, manipulative sentimentalism and hysterical, exaggerated scenarios of doomsday – that they lose resonance and meaning.  Both have a place.  One is evocative, the other demanding and insistent.  One prides itself on intellectual rigor, academic sophistication, and logic; the other on evocative image and the power of simplicity.  From the perspective of the Left, most of Middle America is hopelessly lost in a senseless and immature fantasy, in an ideal world which never existed.  From the perspective of the Right, progressives of the Coasts are ignorant of history, human nature, and essential values.  Their ‘objectivity’ and realism are nothing of the kind.  They are as trapped in fantasy and idealism as any.

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