Thomas Kinkade – Artist for the People

April 11, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, the “most collected,” “most successful,” most this-and-that artist of America today died a few days ago.  I come here neither to bury, praise, or damn him, but only to mull over the curious intersection of aesthetic and cultural issues that his work occupies.  His paintings bring to mind Walter Benjamin, of course, whom I have belittled in an earlier post.  I should read his work again since I refer to it so often: perhaps I would have a more favorable opinion today.  At any rate, Balzac may have said it best when he foresaw the pickle of modern art in the advancing machine age:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.

And products a-plenty we have by Kinkade!  I believe he rarely sold his original oils, but the reproductions, the franchises for furniture, dinnerware, galleries, pillows, and other items are a business with annual revenue in the many tens of millions of dollars.  He is an artist who is scorned by the ‘critical establishment’, although he claims the hostility is a one-way thing: he loves Franz Kline and Rothko.  The word ‘kitsch‘ comes up frequently in evaluations of his oeuvre.  (Beware, one man’s kitsch is another man’s living room!)

The image at the top is typical of a large number of his paintings, a serene landscape, while others are religious, genre, or even sci-fi almost surreal. One of the few art critics sympathetic to his work quips that he is a ‘conceptual’ artist because his work is driven by his desire to give visual form to his ideas and values:  Christianity; family; patriotism, among them.  Other academics cite the eerie similarity of his career to that of Andy Warhol, who referred to his studio as The Factory, and who made no qualms about blurring or completely rejecting the line between Art and Commerce. (see Heaven on Earth)

Kinkade’s art is a perfect target for the satire of Komar and Melamid, purveyors of ‘nostalgic realism,’ who also did a market resarch project to determine what paintings people want, and created images to meet the need.  Kinkade, judging by his commercial success, has the talent to sniff out what people want and need on their walls without the benefit of professional pollsters.  He acknowledges this, and is proud of it.  As far as he is concerned, what is the point of artists having contempt for the taste of most people on the planet?  Doesn’t he have a point?  It’s just that I would rather look at older art, skipping the contemporary stuff, instead of Kinkade’s art.  But let’s look at a few…

The two images below are very typical of his work, and I cannot bear to look at them.  I find them simply ugly, boring, meretricious, and profoundly irritating.  They are chock full of symbolism according to Kinkadists.  So are Renaissance landscapes and action scenes.  I was just looking at an engraving by Durer of Adam and Eve that Panofsky analyses in terms of the animals signifying the four humours of the body, among other things.  Personally, that rather arcane aspect of art history never interested me.

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The seascape below on the left, the style is that of the bulk of his work, strikes me as soporific.  I feel I’ve seen it in countless waiting rooms.  Not painful to see, but nothing interesting.  The one on the right is simply weird, and not too exciting given the terrifying nature of the monster.  It’s a bit too literal for me. [Note:  comments by Sledpress lead me to wonder if this is not actually a Kinkade.]

Okay, with these images below, we have evidence that Kinkade can certainly paint.  Both are rather attractive, though I find the one on the left to be a visual cliché for calendars and more office waiting rooms.  It is very much in the style of Andrew Wyeth, I think, and boy, is he popular!  I like the one on the right, but it is unusual in his catalogue. Technique is only part of being an artist, though a part too much scorned in the modern era.  On the other hand, as professor once remarked to me, we have Bougouereau, who we might call a great painter, and a lousy artist.

Below, a workmanlike urban landscape: glowing, unremarkable, and dull; a rural scene in Guatemala that captures some sense of the place, almost plein air impressionistic – pretty good, but atypical of his production.

The image on the left below is pretty good:  I happen to have a weakness for that type of color and light.  Kinkade is called, or refers to himself as The Painter of Light, a monniker that the Impressionists would have been happy with.  So too would the Luminists of the turn of the 20th century period.  The image on the right by Maxfield Parrish shows Kinkades stylistic pedigree, I think, but he would never include figures in such a bewitching state of languor.

The Whitney Museum of Art in NYC scorns Kinkade, and the hostility is returned.  He’d like to build his own museum (an anti-art museum, to his critics) right next door.  But as Heaven on Earth points out, The Whitney began as an institution championing American Regionalism – Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, etc. – against the effete strains of European modernism, an art historical irony.  Kinkade has affinities with this sort of art, as shown by his American slice-of-life image of the Indianapolis 500.  Reginald Marsh painted crowd scenes of American’s at play, but he was very prone to showing sex and violence, not in Kinkade’s line.

So Kinkade gives people what they want, and what they want is based on their unchallenged preconceptions.  Does art always have to be new?  Must it épater le bourgeois always?  (And are Kinkade’s buyers actually the same group as the bourgeois  so reviled by the avant garde?  One critic locates his market square in the working class, whatever that is these days in America.  That’s a nice culturo-politico irony too.) Where is it written that art must challenge the ideas of the day?  That’s a prejudice of the avant garde that developed during the 19th century and that is shot through with intellectual and political elitism, even when it’s directed at championing what it sees as the causes of the masses.

Much of the “great art” that is universally applauded by the cognoscenti, even as they condescend to it from the pinnacle of today’s art, was produced exactly as Kinkade’s was.  That is, for patrons who knew what they wanted, and wanted nothing else. Much of the art then was boring, and we don’t see it in museums:  we see only the best of it.  Think of all those Dutch still-lifes and landscapes: they aren’t all masterpieces!  Some of them seem to have been churned out pretty much by the numbers.  Kinkade simply adapts that approach to the age of consumerism, and broadens the reach of his patronage to include everyone!

Behind the critical disdain for his work is usually an intense strain of snobbism and elitism, and a failure to acknowledge that these days, we are all part of a market, a lifestyle segment, a target demographic, even if we don’t embrace the fact, even if we are acutely aware of the fact, even if it is a very small and select group after all.  Scorn and ridicule are out of place here.  If people like this stuff, then…so what?  If you find it boring, spend your time and money elsewhere.  Is there anything new under the sun here that should get you all hot and bothered?


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