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WHY IS AMERICAN TASTE SO CRAPPY?

by Charlie Finch
 
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The death of kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade, whose nauseating fantasies are said to hang in one out of every 20 homes in America, reminds us that America leads the world in cultural crap and that, frightfully, that same crap from American Idol to the Saw movies to gangbang porn is not only the one commercial export we have left, it has polluted civilization from Murmansk to Montevideo.

The biggest problem I have with Barack Obama is that he hasn't tried to stop it, indeed he is a big part of the problem with First Lady Michelle Obama appearing on Dream House and The Biggest Loser and the White House hosting a bunch of moronic PBS music specials, featuring, you know, a Latino hour in which everyone sings "La Bamba" or a "jazz" hour with Kenny G. And we know that Barack knows better, as his brilliant riff on Al Green's Let's Stay Together at an Apollo fundraiser a few months back attests. At least when JFK was in the White House Pablo Casals played his cello and Robert Lowell read his cracked New England poetry.

P.T. Barnum put it best, "No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American people," and the best American artists from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons have exploited the lowbrow to make millions. Yet, the USA is also Greil Marcus' Old Weird America, a fountain of specialized tastes from the Mississippi Sheiks to Ralph Stanley, the Watts Towers, the Living Theater and all the best bent minds of each generation howling quietly in between.

Some might say that crass commercialism is the problem, and, if you think about it, there is really not much difference between the upcoming Frieze Art Fair on Randall's Island and those weekend art fairs at the Sheraton Motor Inn in Rahway where, for $59, you can purchase knockoffs of Starry Night produced in Hell's Kitchen's warehouses by assembly lines of South Korean immigrants.

What they have in common is Americans' corporate-manufactured and now self-identified role as "consumers." Pigs in a trough, among the most intelligent mammals, have little time for the detachment to enjoy the finer things with subjective cool. Consume is what they do, and us, too. Even bad economic times don't pause that giant sucking sound, because price points for junk and throwaway culture can be lowered to suit any pocketbook.

You can buy a Thomas Kinkade print for $10 or a Thomas Kinkade house for $10 million. And what makes me think that the treasures of the dead Kinkade may soon end up at Sotheby's? As to the why of all this, maybe the vast melting pot of immigrants across American generations, which throws up bluegrass fiddling or Joseph Cornell boxes or cowboy dances by Agnes DeMille in random places, also dumbs down the American whole to mashed up milk and cookies, tastewise. No wonder our best critics feel as elitist as they do.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).


 



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