So-called painter of light Thomas Kinkade died recently. I'd always thought of Kinkade as a kitschmeister and con artist. I still do. But millions of people do not share that sentiment. Kinkade's products adorn the walls of many homes, and he raked in millions during his lifetime.
San Ramon artist Bill Carmel, a much more thoughtful and art-knowledgeable person than I, has an incisive, nuanced take on Kinkade and his work. Carmel's assessment appears below.
It was 1988, and I was walking in Walnut Creek's upscale Broadway Plaza mall when I saw the Kinkade Signature Gallery, cleverly designed to look like an upscale, gated community clubhouse. I entered to take a closer look. The paintings displayed a slick realistic genre technique, good use of design principles, and professional exhibition, complemented by marketing brochures. And then, much as a flame captures a moth, that light in the cottage windows caught my attention. Next, I saw the edition numbers and the light in the bulb over my head went off: I realized I was in a marketing cocoon. I was flabbergasted at the apparent infrastructure expense and the expertise of the presentation. And the place was crowded with people admiring and buying the work. That was my first, and last, Kinkade exhibit experience.
I had no problem with the work, other than it felt cold. It wasn't the subject matter. I generally like genre and folk paintings. It meets my professional minimum requirements to be called "art." My personal and professional definition of art is the representation in visual, verbal, and aural media of a great idea, with quality of craftsmanship included. It just so happens that light is one of the great ideas of painting--all identifiable imagery is made visible by an implied source of light and its reflection off the surface of a form. I liked that symbols and metaphors were incorporated into the work (I read the glossy brochures). I have to admit that I was somewhat put off by all the religious references, the ideological hieroglyphics.
I get it that these hieroglyphics glorify a complete worldview to a conservative fundamentalist--which is how, as far as I can tell, Kinkade represented himself. And just like the paintings and sculpture made by Soviet Realists of the '50s and '60s, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, the works are designed to be seen, understood, and appreciated by true believers--they are propaganda.
There is something else that I find particularly unsettling about Kinkade and the Soviet Realists. The "look" of the work is really "nice." Nothing clashing, nothing dissonant. Kinkade wanted his work to be restful and peaceful. The feeling I get, however, is not peaceful. The windows in the buildings are well lighted, but nobody's home.
There is something missing in Kinkade's idyllic, fundamentally positive world. . . as for Soviet Realism. I have the feeling that both resort to a conservative aesthetic language in the name of reaching the common man and giving the middle finger to effete intellectuals. Their saccharine wholesomeness gives me the sense of a more complex reality that is suppressed. Just as the beaming workers and fatherly leaders of Soviet painting and sculpture were in denial of the terrors of an authoritarian police state, Kinkade's pastorals appear to be some kind of flight of imagination meant to stave off the dark and troubling realities of a contemporary America.
And then there is the commercial "success" of Kinkade. The man and his work generated hundreds of millions in sales. His vast empire reaches an unprecedented audience with his products of luminous Americana. Even though Kinkade's paintings are ideologically conservative, I must give the guy some credit, ultimately, for being his own kind of artistic radical, not unlike Andy Warhol. Kinkade's practice--producing serial lines of "paintings" that were actually prints; charging customers more for different levels of texture and highlighting; and even, in a crazy attempt to maintain intimacy with his audience, embedding his own DNA in the canvas for a special price--makes him strangely in tune with the major art of his time. Some examples:
- Tinet Elgren (menstrual blood as painting media, on paper and canvas)
- Mark Quinn (blood used as sculpture medium. Frozen self portrait)
- Andy Warhol (urine used to oxidize large copper plates)
- Andres Serrano (urine for the work titled "Piss Christ")
- Pierro Manzoni (canned feces)
- Peter Voulkos (hair, nail clippings, saliva, urine and feces used with glazes for raku ceramics)
I can't ignore that as a businessman, Kinkade defrauded his franchises (numerous successful lawsuits were filed against him), treated his employees like slaves, and misrepresented his products to the public. But let's put that aside for a moment.
What may be most galling to his fans, and most awesome to me, is the way he followed Warhol's dictum that "good business is the best kind of art." Kinkade was solidly up front with this concept of commercialization. He also resembled Warhol in these ways: Warhol made serial production legitimate (Kinkade used stencils and assembly lines to produce his "original paintings"), tied his aesthetic values together with commercialism, and self-consciously built a subculture around himself that reflected his values. Maybe Kinkade's greatest achievement was to have found an artistic model that made Warhol's business model for art acceptable to the evangelical community that generally thinks contemporary art is a left-wing plot--or at least the work of emotionally tortured, sexually perverted, effetely intellectual, anticapitalist, and anti-family-values liberals. For this, I salute him. I wish he could have done it with better ethics.
There will always be a place in the art marketplace for all kinds of art, and that is as it should be, whether you or I approve of it. The lowest-common-denominator work will always have appeal and sell. Peter Max and other artists devised styles and that catered to the pop culture of their era. We have contemporary figures such as Damien Hirst and Olafur Eliasson who embrace their role as boutique industrialists. Now Max's work is regarded as kitsch. And so I won't hold my breath while the world comes to terms with Thomas Kinkade and the parade of jokers who pretend to be artists. I'll just enjoy this chocolate breath mint…
Examples of artists I consider better artists and make better paintings than Kinkade:
An example of an artist who used religious symbolism and themes in his art. His world view, however, was balanced between light and dark and carried the full range of attributes that life offered in his culture and time.
Pieter Bruegel the elder
This artist used religious symbolism and realistic renderings in his depiction of village life in his time and culture. Cultural realism, versus the fantasy of Kinkade.
Ernest ("Ernie") Barnes ("Big Michelangelo")
Stylized figures. Religious themes in his murals, especially. Implied motion is central, compared to static Kinkade. And he is inclusive, showing the full range of the human race. Nowhere in Kinkade is there anything but Caucasians.
Other genre painters expressing religious themes in paintings and murals (because Danville Express limits the number of URLs one can have in a posting, I had to delete all the links to these artists--JB):
- Diego Velazquez
- Johannes Vermeer
- Louis Le Nain
- Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
- William Hogarth
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- Gustave Courbet
- Edward Hopper
- Thomas Hart Benton