Several times yesterday in conversation the subject of art criticism came up with regards to one particular painter who I am fond of for reasons that are rather deeply personal and intricately related to the general tenor of my times. Some time ago, the artist Thomas Kinkade committed suicide , a subject which I blogged about at the time given my longtime interest in his art (which was inspired by the puzzles of his art collected by my family starting during my teenage years). As a painter with mass appeal  who did not necessarily appeal to the world of art criticism, and as an example of a talented but clearly troubled person who was ultimately unable to overcome his personal demons despite his massive success and popularity, Kinkade is sort of a touchstone for the role of art in our current cultural divide, as an artist whose music appealed to the wrong sort of people for it to be respected by the gatekeepers of supposed cultural relevance, who are seemingly only interested in decadence and not in nostalgia for an imagined past .
When I was a teenager, the first song I ever sang as a solo vocal solo of any kind came during a variety show that my congregation held. The song I chose to sing was itself significant for its own cultural reasons, even if it is not a particularly well-known one. The song was “Walls #3” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, from the soundtrack to “She’s The One.” My memory of the performance, besides the way in which it gave me a great deal of confidence as a singer who has always been a bit shy when it came to solos, is largely in the way in which the performance included a lengthy period of silence as the sound people were trying to ready my backing track, as anyone who knows me well will recognize the rarity of lengthy periods of silence in personal conversation, unless something rather serious is on my mind that cannot be easily articulated into words. Tom Petty, of course, is also known himself as a deliberate nostalgic rocker with a fondness for recovering the music of the pre-hippie aesthetic, though like his forebears the Byrds (who, ironically enough, were one of the early bands that helped create the hippie aesthetic despite their own vague but profound biblical leanings in songs like “Jesus Is Just Alright” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”), he is an artist who has achieved critical praise and acceptance despite his deliberately neo-traditionalist leanings.
What both Thomas Kinkade and Tom Petty represent is a deliberately nostalgic and ironic appeal to the past. The fact that both artists were aware of their ironic appeal and that they were making a deliberately political (at least in the sense of cultural politics) statement by their art suggests that their art is part of a larger conversation that seldom enters into the conversation of those whose appreciation of such art similarly reflects political statements of one kind or another. Of course, many people who appreciate Tom Petty’s music appear to be those who appreciate his appeal to the stoner culture (in songs like “Last Dance With Mary Jane” or “You Don’t Know How It Feels”) rather than necessarily his traditionalist approach to music as a whole (sometimes reflected in whole albums like Mojo). Ironically, his appeal to the gatekeepers of cultural relevance (in his case, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) may be related to the fact that his pro-marijuana stance comprises his appeal to the forces of decadence, even if they may not appreciate the traditional culture he would otherwise represent.
Nor is the end of the nostalgia for an imagined past that is represented by the sort of art that I most appreciate. I have written often of my deep and somewhat unusual interest in the writings of Jane Austen , and it is unmistakable that the Regency fiction that her excellent novels has inspired, along with many of the adaptations of of her work, represent the nostalgic appeal that her work represents. He works represent in the minds of those who read a book a more innocent era of elegant dancing, witty conversation, and chaste courtship. Let us not forget, though, that Jane Austen was not a prudish traditionalist seeking to restore a bygone era, but rather a woman deeply affected by her time who nevertheless deliberately (and at least somewhat heroically) wrote optimistically about her times while dealing with concerns like the shortage of good men for the good women in her novels, the slave trade (including the sadness of genteel but poor women serving as governesses, as in Emma), the trustworthiness of servants, alcoholism, the legitimacy of novels, hypocrisy, mixed families, illegitimacy, and child abuse. These subjects are dealt with discreetly, in ways that can easily be overlooked, but they are present nevertheless for those who can read even a little bit beneath the surface.
Perhaps our approach to art and life would be improved by adopting an approach more similar to that of Jane Austen as opposed to either Thomas Kinkade or Tom Petty. Jane Austen chose to write about her time period (not the past) and chose to deliberately shape her art according to her knowledge of her contemporary situation and her own worldview in a way that was hopeful and optimistic but also realistic and critical. Rather than seeking a vain escape from the stresses and struggles of her time through either drugs or nostalgia, she chose to write about how a thoughtful and sensitive woman of her time could find some measure of happiness through a certain amount of divine providence as well as her control over her own behavior through the cultivation of graciousness and friendliness and intellect. We have to use the gifts that we have been given by our Creator and the resources and opportunities that we possess to gain the ends that we desire, whether they be some measure of peace of mind, artistic integrity, or loving marriages as well as friendships with others. This is not to say that these goals are easy to attain, but rather they require us to be active agents in our world as it exists here and now rather than seeking to escape from life because we do not feel ourselves up to the challenge. We may have no age of innocence in our past to draw comfort from, few models or examples of successful coping in our personal or family backgrounds, and immense difficulties of our own to deal with, but with immense effort, the encouragement and support of others (many of whom may be struggling against the same matters themselves in their own ways), and with plenty of aid from the Eternal, we may yet make the world a better place in those areas where we reside, despite all that would hold us back or keep us down. Let us ask for, and receive, that assistance, for truly the task is a gravely important one.
 Thomas Kinkade, at least, was not ignorant of the nostalgic element of his art: “I try to create paintings that are a window for the imagination. If people look at my work and are reminded of the way things once were or perhaps the way they could be, then I’ve done my job.”
 See, for example: