Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade died on Good Friday -- the best day to go out, I suppose, since it puts one in the best company. Kinkade is an interesting figure, and, I fear, quite representative of our day. He was an extraordinarily talented artist -- all of his early work is brilliant, and shows him to have been someone who could have been one of the great painters of the day. But he never became one of the great painters of the day because he then spent decades not honing his art but giving people exactly what they wanted (which, unexpectedly, was paintings and prints of impossibly bright and surreally lit cottages) and making large profits from it. Commercially he is perhaps the single most successful painter in history; and he did it by not simply being kitschy, but being an endless torrent of mass-produced kitsch. And he didn't just sell paintings; he sold prints of paintings, slightly painted prints of paintings, factory-made prints of paintings that were touched up by the painting of other artists under Kinkade's direction, etc. Real Kinkade paintings are tens of thousands of dollars; but Kinkade made it so that everyone who wanted could have a sort-of-kind-of-Kinkade almost-painting in their dining rooms at very cheap prices by mail order or through Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises. There's actually something quite ingenious about it; nobody did the business of art, the capitalism of it, better than Kinkade. Very likely nobody ever will. And this must be pointed out, reiterated, and reiterated again: All Kinkade did (and he did it deliberately, and was very explicit about doing it deliberately) was treat his paintings like authors in our society are expected to treat their literary works and like musicians in our society are expected to treat their music.

The best posthumous discussion of this rather controversial man is at "God and the Machine".


  1. Cat Hodge3:36 PM

    I remember, several years ago, when Kinkade licensed his name and trademark style to a housing development in California. Many people yearn for the close and homey atmosphere of ye olde cottage, but modern residential regulations don't necessarily allow for the construction of a self-sufficent village in current suburban settings. I searched long for an article about the housing venture that was less self-consciously snarky than this Salon write-up (how wearing it must be to be contractually required to write so unpleasantly!) but even the website for the community, Hiddenbrooke, has lapsed. Apparently it's easier to market a ready-made fantasy in paint than a drywall-and-concrete facsimile with all the cost and maintenance that entails. 

    Come to that, I live in a house that looks a bit like a Kinkade painting (though the roof is slate, not thatch) and the cost of maintaining such authenticity (down to the cloth-covered wiring and two-prong outlets and drafty corridors) numbs one to the aesthetic charm of the whole. My house is never lit up like a Kinkade painting because that kind of wattage would blow the antiquated circuits. But unlike Kinkade's cottages, the house is more beautiful for fuifilling its true purpose: to be a real home, with all the utilitarian and prosaic mess entailed by the function. Kinkade's overly-romanticised cottagescapes, in which he does all the emotional work for the viewer, remind me of C.S. Lewis's passage in The Four Loves about the counter-productive aspect of Nature-worship:

    "Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sancify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some poky little church, or (it might be) going to work in an East End parish. But the love of her has been and valuable and, for some people, an indispensable initiation.

    "I need not say 'has been'. For in fact those who allow no more than this to the love of nature seem to be those who retain it. This is what one should expect. This love, when it sets up as a religion, is beginning to be a god -- therefore to be a demon. And demons never keep their promises. Nature 'dies' on those who try to live for a love of nature. Coleridge ended by being insensible to her; Wordsworth, by lamenting that the glory had passed away. Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you."

  2. branemrys5:05 PM

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the point about Kinkade trying to do all the emotional work for the viewer, and thus missing the practical and everyday beauty in a search for some surreal fantasy-beauty.

    I think of it in terms of Dorothy Sayers's triangle: in every productive activity there is a trinity: Idea (which is unfolded in the work), Energy (which is all the skill and craft that goes into the work), and Power (which is its ability to touch the emotions of those who behold it). Perfect art would be a purely orthodox trinity: Energy proceeds from Idea, Power from Idea and Energy, where all are coequal and one with each other. Human beings can't achieve that; all our trinities are at least slightly scalene, and many are seriously so -- either overly dominated by Idea (Sayers calls such works father-ridden), or by Energy (son-ridden), or by Power (spirit-ridden). And Kinkade is spirit-ridden through and through: Idea and Energy are repeatedly sacrificed in the attempt to achieve Power, emotional effect and force, to ratchet up the intensity. And I think it's in this sense that Kinkade represents a bad side of our culture: people want the force of Emotion without the hard work of Skill or of Understanding. In small doses that's fine, but Kinkade took it to another level in painting. He would not have been able to be so successful if he had had no Idea or Energy, no thought or craft, but -- seriously scalene.

  3. Cat Hodge8:52 AM

    The Mind of the Maker! How delightful to see it referenced. There's so much one could say about Sayer's trinitarian vision of the nature of creativity, but as I took up the book to reference it I started to read it, and now I can see I'm going to spend my whole day being drawn deeper into re-reading. 

  4. branemrys10:58 AM

    It is definitely one of those books that has layers that are appreciated anew at each re-reading.

  5. Martin T.1:30 PM

    As a slightly off topic note I see HDR photo's are all the rage now. They look like Thomas Kinkade photos to me. Here's an EG from a popular photographer. Thank God he's not christian or I'd have to blast him for being a hack ;) 


  6. branemrys2:32 PM


    That photo does look a bit surreal.


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