by The Juniatian Editorial Board
You have probably have seen a Thomas Kinkade pastel painting at grandma’s house or the dentist. It is estimated that 1 in 20 American households have one of his works, making him one of the most commercially popular artists of all time. The self-proclaimed and trademarked “Painter of Light” depicted and mass produced idyllic landscapes of brightly lit cottages, spatially confusing waterfalls and bridges, and gauchely colored buds of spring.
It was effectively the Hallmark aesthetic outgrowing its card format. His work was dismissed by the art world as industrially produced kitsch that pandered to the same unsophisticated masses that made Kid Rock into a financial success.
Despite the scorn of mainstream art critics, he built a successful empire selling reproductions via shopping malls and mail order. His sales pitch was that these seemingly sentimental pieces represented the values that were being lost in contemporary America: family, home, faith and other folky feelings that are labeled as “inspirational.”
Unsurprisingly, his hit demographic was religious conservatives and the “Country-at-heart” folks who saw him as a misunderstood genius producing works of homespun authenticity in an age dominated by the cynical postmodernism of Jeffrey Koons’ million-dollar, balloon animal installation pieces or other avant-garde nihilists that were somehow out of touch with the real America.
Based on appearance alone, it seemed that Kinkade was the artist laureate of the Fox News audience’s worldview: God, small town life, domestic tranquility and even partnerships with all-American companies like NASCAR and Disney.
But artists are masters of manipulating appearances, and Kinkade was no exception. Former associates described him as a man who screwed franchise owners with dishonest business deals, used his self-professed Christianity as a marketing facade to pull in the pious, and frequented strip clubs and bars.
It was his weakness for alcohol that began to erode his self-crafted reputation as a god-fearing family man. His drunken shenanigans include but are not limited to urinating on a statue of Winnie the Pooh at a Disneyland hotel, repeatedly screaming “Codpiece!” at a Siegfried and Roy magic show, and a DUI arrest in 2010. Ultimately, in 2012, Kinkade died in his sleep in a hazy overdose of valium and booze, living in sin with his mistress after becoming estranged from wife and children.
Even though he had marketed himself as an alternative to the contemporary scene, Kinkade’s life was an unintentionally brilliant piece of subversive performance art. Kinkade, in public and in private, embodied the crass commercialism, posturing piety, mediocre taste, moral hypocrisy and gullible consumerism that America encourages and emulates so well.
It is easy to mock Kinkade and his works from our collective jaded mountaintops. Yet there is something about him, maybe not noble, but at least pitiable, and possibly even admirable. Despite his general lack of talent or personal integrity, Kinkade was reenacting the deep inner longings for consultation in his art that most of the general public and even the artistically literate find lacking in most living painters. Those warmly lighted homes symbolize a yearning for our true harbor in a world that often offers no such sanctuary.
To illustrate the niche he painted in, we can compare Kinkade to fellow American artist Norman Rockwell, who also arguably had the same aim. Both depicted a picturesque image of small-town America, situated in a currently unpopular representation of tradition in Western art. Both were ultimately conservative, although not in the sense that they voted Cruz; in their outlooks, they were suspicious of chaos and uncertainty of the present and desired to return those cherished values of a simpler and likely Romanized past.
The similarities end there. Kinkade’s work is devoid of humanity’s strengths, weaknesses, follies and joys depicted in Rockwell’s works, like the “Four Freedoms.”
We can credit the unrelenting literal and metaphorical use of light in Kinkade’s pastels as the seed for his failures as an artist and arguably as a human being. Any experienced aesthetician or person of insight will tell you that without the possibility of darks and shadows, there can be no meaningful depth in a painting or existence.
In keeping with his American-inspired shallow optimism, Kinkade sacrificed any depth of darkness to fill his pictures with as much luminous fluff as possible. Ironically for a self-proclaimed Christian artist, he forgot that his religion and the possibility for salvation sprung from the broken body of an executed political prisoner on a piece of wood, and all decent Christian artwork (not Veggietales or “God’s Not Dead”) reflects this stark truth.
Perhaps Kinkade’s failure to recognize the reality of shadow in his canvas is symbolic of his own shadows and demons that consumed his life because he was unable to deal with reality and therefore forced positivity, as illustrated in his tacky work. In a society where there is a constant expectation of feeling good, we don’t know how to deal with the ambiguous and melancholy moments that will inevitably dot the landscape of our lifetime.
If there is some cautionary tale from this artistic autopsy, it is that a return to the softness of life is more admirable than contemporary experts will give credit for. Kinkade’s art was clearly very bad, yet its success shows that it satisfied a need for something substantial and humane, however primitive, while the often pointless novelty and shock of postmodern art has not. The consolation of a true home that we seek will not be found in some escapist and infantile image of America , but in the light that comes through the cracks in this present one.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 9 Oped