Kinkade Konservatism Reacts to Royal Portraits  

The right has an iffy relationship with art. On the whole, we have a great respect for art widely understood to be good, particularly antiquities which represent the kind of society we wish to promote. We are sensitive to the loss of decent architecture, decent city and urban design, and we mourn the loss of artists willing to depict goodness and beauty in modern life.

Yet we often gag with disgust when we encounter modern art revealing the true nature of the modern world, if for no other reason than that we are sick of ugliness and chaos. But art is supposed to reveal reality to us. Truth. The world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Those of us on the right who are fed up with modern ugliness and its cruelties must nevertheless remain stalwart. We cannot not allow ourselves to retreat into a kind of saccharine dreamworld, such as those in the paintings of the late 20th-century artist Thomas Kinkade.  Our Kinkade-like daydreams of bygone societies and past comforts only serve to insulate us from the demands truth and beauty make on us, its partisans, in the here and now. Kinkade Konservatism serves no one.

The right’s reaction to King Charles’ portrait by the artist Jonathan Yeo, unveiled earlier this week, highlights the extreme discomfort many in our online right commentariat have with art when it reflects our cold, hard, modern realities back at us.

Look at this painting. 

If you can allow yourself to simply look with your eyes and not with your will—see it with the part of you that is acted upon by outside stimuli instead of the part of you that wishes to mold outside stimuli to your own priorities—it is obvious that the king does not emerge in triumph from this portrayal. His royal person is neither effecting nor imposing upon the circumstances in which he finds himself, but instead is awash, indeed partly obscured, by the rest of the painting.

The color of the obscuring haze, which is more scarlet than blood-red (thank God) mars his person, the darker red of his clothing, the glint of the metal on his sword, indeed nearly every part of his body but the gray of his hair and the top of his head. It is as if a tornado of scarlet (blood? fire? Communism?) has all but engulfed him. The monarch butterfly, which some have suggested is a kind, maternal, natural reflection of either Charles himself or his mother, is being blown off his shoulder into the red storm, not pausing to alight peacefully onto his uniform.

If one simply looks at this painting without immediately launching into somersaults of tortured analysis, one is met with a resolute monarch almost completely awash and obscured by some kind of chaos.

The overwhelming response from observers on the right is either to dismiss it entirely as yet another ugly modern painting—that is, disappointment bordering on irritation that Charles’s portrait would not be at home in a gallery of fine royal portraits—or, absurdly, to proclaim the King triumphant in his pose, and flattered by the artist.

But this is insane. One is immediately relieved of the notion that Charles came away unscathed in this rendering upon viewing the artist’s other royal portraits.

Again, look with your eyes: does the Duke of Edinburgh appear overcome or overwhelmed here? Does he seem engulfed by the surrounding circumstances of his own painting? His face is presented as both stone-like, its facets set against circumstance, and bathed in light. His lower body is misty or obscured, but it does not come across as if he himself is caught up in a whirlwind. The colors are like army fatigues or military vehicles—drab yet sensible—colors of authority instead of blood, uprising, destruction, fire, or frenzy.

I’ve saved the best for last, though. Once more, with your eyes and not your motivation, tell me about this painting:

Again, the color is authoritative, and the colors here are nothing other than drab. Gray, almost dirty taupes and ash, with the Queen appearing as if behind a screened-in porch, underneath its shadows. The light cannot decide where to shine upon her: There is some on her face, some dispersed upon her torso, but the greatest concentration of illumination falls upon her hands, which are elderly, knobby, and clutching at her reading glasses. Her ring is askew and almost dangling from her flesh. Her dress and the chair are obscured and only roughly sketched out, while every wrinkle, especially on her hands, is executed in almost painful detail. “Too Drab to Paint” is what immediately comes to mind. Ashen, dull, and in shadows, she appears to be waiting for something, pulling on the glasses as she looks slightly away from your gaze.

It’s important to remember that artists do not necessarily intend to depict their subjects in positive or negative light, with premeditated calculation. Great art depicts reality as it is, unimpeded by what the artist wishes to say or what the viewer wishes to see. An example of this phenomenon is the author Larry McMurtry’s description of what he was trying to do when writing Lonesome Dovewrite an unflattering depiction of hard times and hard people—and unwittingly, he told a story about characters that people loved, and most readers took as a positive endorsement of the West and its people.

Nevertheless, a portrait of a person is most often an exercise in revelation. It should reveal the subject to others. Now one can conclude that this series of paintings is simply a modern art miss—a lack of understanding of the subjects, or an overly pessimistic or ugly modern agenda obscuring the subjects’ real nature. I would believe this if not for the picture of the duke, which to me does not seek to obscure who he really was with a nod to pointless ugliness, but rather works to reveal him.

Perhaps the king’s portrait is a miss, a lost opportunity, but I cannot believe that it is an endorsement. No plausible rosy analysis can accompany this rosy mess.

Commentators on the right should ask themselves why they rush to obscure the messy reality depicted in this artwork. Why flinch from the reality on display here? What does the right gain by papering over difficult truths with childlike analysis? Do we think art needs our boosterism to flourish? Do we think the monarchy needs our boosterism to survive? If we are to the point where we are willing to dismiss the reality staring us in the face, in the hope of propping up dying institutions, and shoving problematic figures upright … what does that make us? A cheer squad for the problematic, the chaotic, the dingy?

While visiting California’s capitol in Sacramento on a recent trip, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Governor Jerry Brown’s modern portrait hanging among more traditional portraits of other California governors. One of the first of its kind, the picture is immediately annoying to those of us with conservative temperaments, because it appears to be mocking the dignity and authority of the office.

Upon further consideration, however, I had to ask myself: which is more in touch with reality—a stiff, authoritative portrait of Governor Moonbeam, dressed to the nines much like those portraits you can order of your dog in full military regalia, or Don Bachardy’s postmodern portrait of a thoroughly postmodern man?

Those of us who love order, beauty, proper authority, and heroism, need not dismiss our current realities in order to promote the society we want. The king and queen are problematic figures, both of whom fall short of the accomplishments and personal virtues of the West’s heroes. They are, at best, people fitting to the age, at home in the postwar clownworld. They have been playing with the riches and dwindling power accumulated by previous generations of better men. The king appears unmoved and resolute in his scarlet red tornado. He appears content to simply disappear into it, graying and muffled. Where is the lie?

Insofar as these portraits display Charles and Camilla as they really are, they are good art. The American right need not protect us all from recognizing exactly what they are.  Western civilization requires partisans willing to look at our current reality as it is, unobscured by Kinkade Konservatism’s childish projections of the society we wish we had.

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