Every one of the following artists is not only hugely successful, but also genuinely beloved by worshipful fans. You can see why: Each artist puts his or her distinctive style to use in producing "cute" art. It should be noted, however, that this popular artwork is also overexploited to the point of naked greed. A few popular coffee-table books would certainly be understandablebut like Hollywood's unstoppable penchant for regurgitating bland sequels, these artists have created franchises more than they have fresh art. Every year, they issue new titles that are barely distinguishable from their previous books. Then the same artwork is republished in calendars, greeting cards, posters, postcards, etc. Far be it for me to criticize the actual artwork (though the words "cloyingly precious" do come to mind). Rather, let us examine the craven urges of popular artists and their publishers.
SARKjust SARK, thank youcombines her watercolor paintings of whimsical figures with hand-written thoughts on becoming a "succulent wild woman." Her journal-like books, usually filed in the self-help section, have titles like The Bodacious Book of Succulence: Daring to Live Your Succulent Wild Life, Succulent Wild Woman: Dancing With Your Wonder Full Self, or Eat Mangoes Naked: Finding Pleasure Everywhere and Dancing With the Pits. While self-help books generally tell you things that you already know, SARK takes the format to new levels of obviousness with such empowering words of advice like, "Live a wild, vulnerable life. Let us see you, laughing loudly, walking flamboyantly, and wearing colors that don't match." Don't worryshe also offers more specific directives such as "immediately take a nap! naps are when the angels come out to take special care of you." Naturally, these bold, new ways of thinking have snared thousands of people with low self-esteem or who watch the Lifetime network. Whether lasting personal change can really be effected via hand-written admonitions to be "succulent" remains to be seen.
Mary Engelbreit has created a Martha Stewart-like empire of decorating tips and crafts ideasonly with the addition of teeth-achingly-cute illustrations of children, pets, flowers, birdies, etc. The actual text is pretty mundane stuff. Here, for example, is a bit of simple wisdom from Mary Engelbreit Decorating Ideas: Projects to Make for Indoors and Out: "Some of the best times spent with family and friends are when we prepare for meals and enjoy each other's company as we gather 'round the table. These creative projects make every get-together a time of celebration." Expect more helpful advice from Mary Engelbreit Cross-Stitch, Mary Engelbreit's Queen of the Kitchen Cookbook, Christmas With Mary Engelbreit: Let the Merrymaking Begin, or Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion: Fabric. Yes, Mary Engelbreit has got your home projects coveredbut, more importantly, they also have delightful cartoon characters to boot. Let's see you try that, Martha! Meanwhile, Engelbreit also specializes in illustrating children's books that are actually for adults, especially mothers, such as Words For Mothers To Live By, A Mother's Journal: A Collection of Family Memories, When a Child Is Born, So Is a Grandmother, Mother O' Mine, etc. Amazon.com lists 161 selections of Engelbreit products. You can be sure that the country crafts-susceptible have bought them all.
As NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw so eloquently states in his foreword to Blue Dog Man, "When I am working, I can look up at the wall and see a picture of Blue Dog staring out from within a television set. The caption reads, 'Sometimes I feel like a Blue Dog.' It's a funny, provocative commentary on the feelings I often have as I look into the lens of a television camera and, by extension, into the eyes of millions of Americans."
While Brokaw's statement makes very little actual sense, the Americans he speaks of no doubt also feel the same mysterious attraction to George Rodrigue's Blue Dog. The perpetually hollow-eyed creature stares out unrelentingly in countless paintings collected in such books as Red White and Blue Dog, Why Is Blue Dog Blue, Blue Dog Love, A Blue Dog Christmas, etc. Why are this nation's citizens transfixed by the same dog in the same pose in paintings that seem barely different from one another? Why has a painting style that would normally be disregarded at the flea market become, as amazon.com's reviewer puts it, "a touchstone of contemporary American culture, winning accolades from U.S. presidents, Hollywood stars, and ordinary people alike"? Some claim that the pooch communicates on the same sort of human/dog level that occurs in real life, thus sparking memories of canine bonding. Or maybe it's just cute.
William Wegman is undoubtedly one of the most popular photographers in the entire world. His photographs appear on magazine covers, in museums and galleries, and on address books. They are instantly recognizable for their wit and charm. But there is one aspect that most art connoisseurs seem to disregard when lavishing his sizable output with praise:
These are a bunch of photos of dogs in costumes.
Dogs as Cinderella, dogs as Little Red Riding Hood, dogs as construction workers, dogs as firemen, dogs in dresses, dogs in suits, and on and on. Certainly, Wegman has brought a new degree of technical craft to the dogs-in-costumes genre, but the fact remains that this used to be the stuff of turn-of-the-century postcards. With his non-costume dog photography, Wegman is still just as manipulative; in Puppies, he jams cute lil' weimaraners into trees, vases, wheelbarrows, etc. While these poses are undoubtedly entertaining for humans, I wonder how fair it is to seal a puppy into a cloth pouch and then hang it from a metal fence post just because it looks cool?
What William Wegman does to dogs, Anne Geddes does to human babies: stick 'em into costumes and make 'em do silly things. This means coating a baby in feathers and propping it up in a bird's nest, attaching flowers to babies' heads then making them sit in flower pots or old cans, putting babies into watermelon costumes then sliding them into melon rinds, slapping a cabbage leaf atop a baby's head and making him sit inside a cabbage, etc. Of course, all of Geddes' photos are beautifully lit, artfully composed, and gosh-darn cute. But they're also manipulating children to do patently unnatural things just so we can say, "Look at the peapod with the baby's head! Awwww " The effect, at times, isn't just surreal, but rather freakish. Geddes' non-costume work of babies just being babies is often just as captivating, though perhaps not as profitable.
March 21, 2002
Got an idea for a Bottom 5 topic? Care to write one yourself? Drop us a line!