Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Conversation by Email

These emails have been copied verbatim in the order that they occurred with the exception of changing the names.  

Subject: Navigating the Art World

Hello Professor Krapf, 

I am an MFA student at UP and will be teaching Navigating the Art World this summer.  I understand you are currently teaching the course.  Would you be able to meet with me and give me a little more guidance toward teaching the course?  Best practices, resources for the students and myself, how you think the course might best be compressed and organised in a summer term, etc.

Thank you very much, 

Michael Merry


Subject: Navigating the Art World

Hello Michael-

I offered ART321 during Winter Term and it was tough covering the 14 week syllabus content in 5 weeks.

I will send you copy of my ART321 syllabus however I think you should seek mentorship form Chair Hester on how to teach the course.

I do not have time to meet with you as I am under a show deadline for a June 1, 201 opening.  

If your summer course is offered in second session I might be able to consult with you.  I did not receive notice that ART329 was to be offered.  Perhaps the ART123 Approaching Paintings would be a better summer course offering.



Subject: Navigating the Art World

Hi Val, 

Ok.  That winter term syllabus would be appreciated.  

Thank you very much, 



Subject: Requests for Art 321 Info.

Hey Michael-

You may be MERRY but I am not.

I do not have electronic copy of that Winter Term syllabus as it was on my UP computer which went down in the middle of F10 and has not been repaired.  I have no ability to get anything off the hard drive.

I can only give you my S11 syllabus because that is what is handy.   I do not have time to hunt around for other back years copy.  I must submit my syllabus  for ART321 to the Art Office each semester I teach and they should be able to give it to you-- especially if they assigned you to teach it!  Are they telling you to contact me?

I was not notified of ART321 being scheduled in Summer Session.  Did you ask to teach this ART321 class?  I want to know more about who assigned you to teach it.  I know nothing of your background but the course description clearly states the course problems include both 2d & 3D creative problem solving. I do not recognize your hotmail email.  Are you even a UP Grad student?   If so in what studio concentration?   WHo are your MFA advisors?   Perhaps they could mentor you as I do not have time to do this on short notice.



Subject: Requests for Art 321 Info

Hi all,

Michael Merry is indeed a grad student , and Val I am one of his advisors, I've never taught 321 nor do I have a syllabus. Michael is a painting concentration grad. Please give Michael any insight that you have about 321, I am available to help. Is there a syllabus in the office to consult? 


Subject: Requests for Art321 Info

Professor Krapf, 

I'm sorry if I bothered you or wasted your time.  


Michael Merry


Subject: Check This Out

Hey Man, check this out!  

Scroll Down.



Subject: Requests for Art 321 Info

Hi Val,

Michael Merry is a first year MFA painting student.  I am one of his advisors  - as are Amanda and Patrick.

Sounds like Michael needs to get the syllabus from the office, he is teaching Intro to Print this semester and I believe he is capable of teaching 321 - both the 2d and 3d.




Subject: Thanks for your help.

Hi Vanessa & Patrick, 

Thank you for the emails.  

This doesn't look like an avenue I care to explore any further.  I'll figure it out.  

Thank you again, 



Subject: Clogged Channels


I am not faulting you- but feel strongly that some of this communication should have come from the Art Office when they solicited you to teach.

The channels are clogged. 

However I will tell you that I clearly did not recognize who you are from your email address.  I bit of background on yourself might have provided a smoother introduction.

I would have still said I do not have time right now.  Ask the Art Office for the electronic syllabus and then ask me again at the end of the S11 term.

I feel strongly that W term and Summer Session should not offer the same 3 credits if the same amount of work cannot be produced.



Subject: Requests for Art 321 Info

Hello Val and Michael,

Congratulations on your upcoming show, Val, if it is in the area I hope to be able to attend.

This is the first that I am hearing about this class, but I am more than happy to help you, Michael, in any way I can. As Val has pointed out, the syllabus for the course is in the Art Department office, let's get a hold of a copy of that to begin with and then meet to discuss your ideas for teaching the course. 

Again, good luck with your show, Val.




Subject: Apologies

Hi Michael,

My apologies for Val. She has had a difficult time of it for the last decade or so at UP and as a result just oozes bitterness. Just shrug it off and I'll be happy to help you with the class.

Thanks for your help with the poster, by the way (I was a total jerk and forgot to thank you earlier today).



Subject: Apologies

Hi Amanda, 

No Problem.  

I figured out the bitterness pretty quick & just told her I'm sorry for bothering her.   

I had the syllabus from the website.  The class, as she teaches it, looks very dense.  I was asking about any additional resources she uses and a little advise about how to compress the class into a shorter term and still meet the objectives.  

Anyway, I can figure it out.  If you can spend a few minutes looking at it with me I would appreciate it.  

Thank you very much.  


Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light

Thomas Kinkade[1], Painter[2] of Light[3]

Michael Merry

With this piece I am parodying David Foster Wallace[4].  Before this class[5] I had heard of but was not familiar with DFW[6].  I have enjoyed reading his work and emulating the style which can lend itself a kind of alchemical quality. 

I thought I would write about Thomas Kinkade who is a contentious figure in the art world[7].  He calls himself the world’s most collected artist and has made a fortune[8] by combining Christian ideals[9] with a tiered pricing[10] scheme to sell[11] his paintings in dedicated mall shops[12] and on QVC[13][14]. Kinkade’s work is also available on gift cards and many other forms of merchandise sold through Hallmark and Wal-Mart[15].  A feature film[16] has been derived from his work and it’s stated ambitions[17].  However, to the postmodern[18] viewer, steeped in irony[19], his work is seen as a parody[20] of itself and of the ideals[21] it aims to invoke[22]

[1] Thomas Kinkade is a painter with a large and loyal customer base among the middle class.  He also has a large number of fans among members of the lower class who would like to believe that they are members of the middle class.  These people want to have enough income to buy his work so as to display the fact that they have enough income to buy his work.  He is something of a household name, especially among housewives in suburban, rural and other areas of diminished cultural sophistication.  Kinkaid achieved this by adhering to two American ideals.  1: Talking a good game about hard work and self-reliance.  2: Tiered pricing.   

[2] Kinkaid’s work is sold as editioned prints.  It’s hard to understand what they look like if you haven’t seen them.  Imagine a high quality photograph of a painting in which you can clearly see the artist’s brushstrokes.  A clear gel-like medium is brushed onto the prints to make them seem like they have the impasto surface of real paintings.  The result is a print of a painting with one set of brushstrokes in the painting and another set of unrelated, clear brushstrokes sort of floating just above the image and affecting the way light hits the surface.  It’s visually kind of bizarre. 

[3] The ability to accurately depict the play of light and especially to make light seem to radiate from the painted surface has been the stock-in-trade of many painters at least since a middle class emerged in the late Renaissance.  Many in the new and growing class were eager to display their wealth and saw owning paintings of things that they aspired to own as a sort of next-best way to associate themselves with classes who could afford to own the actual things.  Artists responded and it soon became clear that the market, especially in Northern European cities and especially in Amsterdam, was biased toward visually dramatic effects of light.  Within a few years the paintings lost their status as stand-ins and became commodities desired over the things themselves. 

Kinkade however, calls himself the "Painter of Light" because he sees his paintings as tools that can inspire viewers to greater faith as Christians. "Light is what we're attracted to," he says. "This world is very dark, but in heaven there is no darkness." Christianity Today

[4] In addition to parodying Wallace, I’m emulating the format of The Best Creative Non-Fiction by employing a digressive little preamble.

[5] Creative Non-Fiction with Ben Yagoda. 

[6] Not the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, which I was familiar with before taking Creative Non-Fiction, but the late author David Foster Wallace. 

[7] Alluding to the art world as a definable community is disingenuous.  Sarah Thornton’s description of “a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art” is as good as any other.  She hints at the cliquishness, taste, and subjectivity that make the art world confounding and fascinating. 

More to the point, Thornton’s description of a network held together by “a belief in art” allows us to contextualize the mixed feelings surrounding Kinkade’s work.  There are many in the arts who would like to believe in an idealized role for art in our society, something along the lines of art existing for it’s own sake or for the enlightenment of human kind.  Being profitable or collectable is not part of this equation.  On the other hand, there are many in the art world who make a living, some of them have amassed large fortunes, through the buying and selling of works of art.  These speculators pay lip service to the art-for-art’s-sake camp but operate more like stock brokers implementing marketing strategies, hyping their goods, developing five and ten year outlooks, and networking to get insider information.  

[8] Between 1997 to 2005 Kinkade accumulated over $80 million. 

[9] Thomas Kinkade travels as part of an ongoing “Share the Light Tour” and with his brother Pat on their “Heritage Tour” sharing his message of home, family, faith in God, the celebration of nature, the celebration of romantic moments, hope and a simpler way of living.

[10] Tiered pricing is the most American, the most pervasive, and the most insidious of pricing schemes.  The American dream tells us not only that if we work hard we can all have more and nicer stuff but that we ought to be working hard to acquire more and nicer stuff.  Not to do so would be un-American, unpatriotic, and maybe even un-Christian in some circles.  We the people are psychologically trapped in an ongoing cycle of achieving goals only to replace them with new loftier ones. Validation and satisfaction is always just out of reach.  Because of this we lose the ability to think rationally in the face of tiered pricing. 

Tiered pricing is a marketing scheme that involves an entry-level product, a gateway product. When we go to buy this thing we will see a nicer one nearby that costs a little more.  And there are a few more that are each a little nicer and their prices are each a little higher.  Not large price increases, just enough that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal but that it kinda is.  These nicer, more expensive ones don’t do a better job, they just have some added features.  American car companies pioneered and perfected this approach after the Second World War. 

When the war ended America had become the economic engine of the world.  Everyone had a good job downtown, Ike initiated the interstate system, and the white people invented suburbs where they moved to live in homogenous communities of bungalows and ranch style homes.  Huge numbers of people needed cars to get them from those new homes, over the new road and to their new jobs.  This was great for the automakers except that customers were buying one car and hanging on to it for several years.  Auto manufacturers would unveil a redesigned and improved car every five to seven years and there was no reason to replace a well functioning vehicle in the mean time.  Their solution was to entice the customer to trade-up. 

Rather than bringing out a completely redesigned vehicle every half decade or so, carmakers began adding a few new features to their cars each year.  These features were adopted from more expensive cars in the manufacturer’s line adding to their appeal.  For example, if a set of giant fins attached to a Cadillac was out of your financial reach, a couple years later you would be able to buy a giant set of fins attached to a Chevy Bel Air.  Before long consumers, with an unconscious drive to acquire more stuff, were purchasing a new car about every two years.

[11] Kinkade paints “masterworks” which, as far as I can tell, are not for sale.  But copies are available as editioned prints on paper or canvas, either framed or unframed and in a range of sizes with corresponding price points.  A basic 10.5”x12.5” print on paper sells for $89.  Some of the prints have “light effects” painted on by “highlighters” or “master highlighters” that add to the illusion of light and to the idea that these are original works of art.  These are then sold at incrementally tiered prices.  Various features may be added, a little doodle on the back for example, to make them more valuable.  Prints with the artist’s signature on them come at a premium.  Those highlighted by the artist himself are priced at the top of the tier for $60,000. 

Recently a developer opened multiple Thomas Kinkade themed villages in Vallejo California where, starting from the mid $300’s, you can own a turnkey faux English country house chock-a-block not only with his paintings but wallpaper, upholstery, lamps, placemats, coasters, rugs, switch plates, doorknobs, faux antique furniture and anything else the kitsch-tank can think of.

[12] Kinkade sells his work in dedicated stores designed to re-enforce the branding of his paintings.  The entryways suggest The Shop Around the Corner and the interiors comfortable old country homes, maybe in Ireland or Cornwall, where people wear flannel pj’s, drink warm cider and believe in Dickensian endings.  There are multiple rooms with light-up electric fireplaces, faux antique furniture and a lot of woodwork.  The lighting is low and sets a cozy mood, the opposite of what you expect when you go to look at a painting. 

[13] The acronym QVC stands for Quality, Value and Convenience.  QVC operates a cable television channel and a website that allows consumers to make purchases from home.  While the programming is not slick enough to be described as spectacle, it employs strategic lighting, attractive models, “expert” and celebrity guests, and regular hosts who lend a sense of familiarity.  The result is an aesthetic somewhere in-between morning talk shows and telethons. (There’s a sort of hanging expectation that one’s favorite crooner may make an appearance in the next segment.)  I can imagine this attracts certain types of viewers and inspires them to eagerly part with their money. 

[14] While the products sold via QVC are fairly described as quality items, (Sears was one of the first companies to sell on the network) no serious artist or collector wants to see art marketed and sold in this way.  Such a format is seen as pandering to vulgar consumerism, (Vulgar in the sense that the obscenely wealthy use to invoke the idea of seething masses of unwashed peasants who are forced concern themselves with making a living) negating any aesthetic experience of the work of art and placing all emphasis on the nature of the art object as a commodity. 

[15] Many collectors of Kinkade’s work buy under the assumption that it will increase in value over time.  Antiques Road Show may lead a person to think that they only need to wait a few years and they’ll be gloating down at the rest of us from their own Xanadu.  However, as we have seen in examples ranging from Tickle Me Elmo to Gone With the Wind commemorative plates to Beanie Babies, nothing produced in large numbers will increase in value any time soon.  Buying a Kinkade is probably a lot like buying a new car and seeing a twenty percent depreciation as soon as you drive it off the lot.  A collector’s great-grandchildren might be able to see a measurable profit, but I doubt it.  To be worth anything these items are going to have to become rare (a scenario that I would not be unhappy with) bits of Americana indicative of the zeitgeist of an era.  The quantity (not to mention quality) and diversity of Kinkade’s merchandise suggests that a small eternity will pass before anyone gets rich by selling off their collection. 

[16] In 2008 Kinkade self-produced a semi-autobiographical movie Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.  It is a celebration of his most popular painting of the same title.  Taken in context with his general marketing tactics the movie seems to be little more than a sales and promotion vehicle. 

However, the movie stars Peter O’Toole, who’s work on the film we might ascribe to mental faculties declining in old age, and Marcia Gay Harden who is harder to explain away.  Including the Kinkade movie, she has played in six films in which art is an essential part of the story and she has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of Fine Arts.

[17] Kinkade states that his “mission as an artist is to capture those special moments in life adorned with beauty and light.   I work to create images that project a serene simplicity that can be appreciated and enjoyed by everyone.  That is what I mean by sharing the light.” 

I imagine that Kinkade’s description of himself as having a mission to share the light must have a familiar ring for Christian evangelicals whose rhetoric emphasizes each individual’s mission to use their God-given talents to share the gospel. 

[18] The postmodern era may be described as an era without overarching narratives.  In the modern era events and meanings were contextualized in relation to hegemonic narratives and ideals.  An example would be the American dream as a fulfillment of a manifest destiny defined by previous generations.  Or the way the NAZI’s whipped Germany into a lather with their master race schtick.  (NAZI artwork has some things in common with Kinkade’s.) 

The implication is that Kinkade’s audience may have an anachronistic sort of world-view under which his artwork itself is less important than its association with the narrative contexts with which it is complicit.  Owning the work is a sign of a one’s ongoing identification with a particular way of looking at the world.

[19] Irony is a subversive rhetorical strategy and is a fundamental characteristic of postmodern thought.  The postmodern viewer expects that a work of art should employ irony to cause the viewer to question the validity of modernist narratives.  An example would be to undermine a pictorial style by overdoing it to the point of ridiculousness.  

[20]A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent cosiness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire. The cottages had thatched roofs, and resembled gingerbread houses. The houses were Victorian and resembled idealised bed-and-breakfasts ...” Joan Didion.  The Guardian

[21] Kinkade’s style is heavy handed to the point of cartoonishness.  The postmodern viewer automatically understands this as an ironic gesture.  Since Kinkade is evidently sincere in his idealism and apparently unaware that by overdoing it his work is undermining itself, his work reads as a parody of itself. 
[22] A few months after this was written Thomas Kinkade died of an overdose of alcohol and valium.  In the days following his live-in girlfriend / personal assistant reported that the relapsed alcoholic Kinkade had “been drinking all night and not moving” and died in his sleep “very happy.”  She then also reported that she had been collecting defamatory information for several months in case of just such an opportunity to tear Kinkade down and personally devastate his wife.  She must have gotten a share of the loot as that information never became public. 

It also became more widely known that Kinkade’s distribution company was on its last legs as it had lost several suits by those franchisees who had opened all those stores in malls across America.  Among the substantiated accusations was that the franchisees were not told that the company was going to undercut their profit margins in favor if its own at every opportunity.

Roll Tide, An Accounting

For those of you who are not in the know this text contains hyperlinks to bring you up to speed.  You'll want to start with this ESPN documentary.    

When I was not quite five years old my dad took a promotion and moved us from Minnesota to Alabama.  On the first day of kindergarten, a little girl marched up to me and asked me Are you for Bama or Awbrun?  I had no idea.  She made it sound like a big deal.  A really big deal.  I don't remember what I said.  Maybe I just said I didn't know.  I do remember that it was the wrong answer.  I got kicked in the shin.  At recess a rock flew from a pack of girls past my head.  On the bus home a girl from another grade pinched me hard under my arm.  The next morning she tried to give me an indian burn.

The Girl who lived across the street from us had a little black poodle named Bama.  When Bama got hit by a car she got another dog and named him Bama.

On January 26, 1983 my dad and I were doing something out in the yard when we saw our neighbor, Mrs. Norwood, walking aimlessly in her yard.  A couple weeks earlier we had found a neighbor with Alzheimer's wandering the neighborhood and I thought that was what was happening to Mrs. Norwood.  She was staring into space in the same way.  I followed my dad across the street.  He said her name, Marci, and tried to take her arm.  She backed away He's Dead...  

Who's dead? 

The Bear.  

A little later we saw another neighbor, Mrs. Silas, wandering in her yard with the same lost look about her.

Paul Bear Bryant, who earned his nick name for wrestling a bear when he was thirteen years old, played for Alabama against Vanderbilt with a partially broken leg, helped the Crimson Tide win the 1934 National Championship, was selected in the fourth round by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1936 NFL Draft (although he never played professionally), took a break from coaching to serve in World War Two, coached the Crimson tide for 25 years, won 6 national championships, won 13 conference championships, died 28 days after coaching his last game and was posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.

A friend who grew up in an Auburn household told me that when he decided to go to Alabama because it had a better department for his intended major, his mother stayed up nights worrying and tried to talk him out of going because Baby, those people just aren't like us.

After she read this my friend Sandy told me that she knows of a preacher in Oregon who ends every prayer with the words Roll Tide and Amen.  

A lot of people from Alabama end the national anthem with a strong Roll Tide! whether they're at a football game or not.

At a party at the University of Alabama I met a pretty girl with that hypnotic Old South / old money accent.  Her name didn't stick with me, but I remember that she was getting an MBA in marketing and seemed smart and likely to succeed.  I asked her what kinds of things marketing grads wrote about for their thesis.  Hers was going to be about Bear Bryant.  After an awkwardly held back laugh, I asked her something about how that would affect her job prospects.  She told me she was going to work for the university's athletic department and specifically for the football program.  She said this as if there was no question that it would happen.

A guy who worked in the kitchen in an Italian restaurant where I was a waiter had more or less the same dream.  He got a degree in something to do with coaching, graduated and applied for the only job he had ever wanted.  When the university didn't hire him to coach he said They'll be another, stayed in Tuscaloosa (so as to be near the team) and kept making pizzas.  As far as I know he's still there holding on to the hope that he'll someday get the call to lay down his ladle and come coach The Tide.

When I was working in an upscale restaurant in Oxford, England a guy from Alabama who had met my roommates in a pub jerked open the restaurant's the front door, yelled Roll Tide Baby! as loud as anyone ever yelled anything, and walked toward me expecting a high-five.

About a month after that, in a pub in Belfast, I heard a Celtic band play the Roll-Tide-Roll version of Sweet Home Alabama.

A year or so later I was working in Birmingham, about sixty miles from the University of Alabama.  The basketball team was in the sweet sixteen.  When I got to work, someone had set up a TV in the kitchen.  This was a big deal because this was at a corporate chain restaurant and represented a huge violation of rules that were sometimes followed to absurd lengths.  Hardly anyone came in to eat.  About midway through the lunch shift someone turned on a football game.  Not even registering that it wasn't football season, I assumed that this was just what was on the sports channel before the basketball game.  It turned out that we were not going to watch basketball and that this wasn't exactly a football game.  It was the A Day Game.  (Every football program has spring training which ends with the offensive and defensive squads scrimmaging against each other.)  When I asked about the basketball game nobody knew what I was talking about.

When I was dating Linda, my wife, she would have me over to her parents' house for dinner and to watch the game on Saturdays.  One year we watched the Tide struggle against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.  Every few plays my father-in-law would jump out of his chair and yell C'mon Bama!  After a while he was pacing and then at a commercial break he took off running upstairs and came back wearing a ratty old Alabama shirt.  Had to put on my lucky shirt.  Alabama won.

My wife's grandfather, R.P. McDavid III, was a close friend of Bear Bryant's and they are buried next to each other.  When The Coach was coming over for dinner the boys were sent out in the front yard to throw a football around so he would know he was in the right place.  It's not exactly public knowledge that when the Miami Dolphins tried to hire Bryant away the first person he called was R.P.  A little old lady who's a regular at a place where I worked likes to talk about the glory days of Alabama football and things that The Bear (pronounced Bea-h) said or did.  When I told her who my wife's grandfather was she said Oh yes, I remember McDavid.  He kept The Bear in Bama.  

Two days after Alabama hired Nick Saban away from the Dolphins and made him the highest paid coach in college football, I overheard a mother with a new baby telling a friend that the baby's name was Saban.

My wife and I don't live in Alabama anymore.  When we moved away I looked forward to not having to think about football every other minute.  Although I've never been a real fan, last night there were a lot of people in our living room watching the Tide skunk LSU in the championship game.  My wife demonstrated how Roll Tide could be used in place of just about any word in a sentence and that simply saying Roll Tide Y'all brought a feeling of warmth and togetherness to any situation.