The Final Word on Thomas Kinkade

 

Thomas Kinkade

My theological analysis of Thomas Kinkade’s work (“The Dark Light of Thomas Kinkade”) was an attempt to make sense of my abiding discomfort with his work as well as respond to my dissatisfaction with the commentary it has generated over the years. Neither his supporters nor his critics have offered compelling arguments. In fact, a virtue of Kinkade’s work is that it poses a stiff challenge to those advocating “Christian art” and those defending a purely secular understanding of artistic practice, including old saws about what makes a work of art “good.”

It is inevitable, as an art historian and a theologian of culture, that in attempting to follow St. Paul and take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10: 5), I run the risk of over-interpretation, finding theological significance under every aesthetic and cultural rock, some of which might better be kept unturned. Yet it is a risk I am willing to take. Visual images, including works of art, are not passive and harmless. They exert their presence, demand recognition, and shape us, whether or not we are aware of it. They do so because they are aesthetic artifacts of human intentionality, bringing us in relationship to embodied thought, feeling, and action. Last week I suggested that Kinkade’s quaint and nostalgic images, as pleasant as they seem to be, are dangerous, offering a comfortable world that silences the two words with which God speaks to us (law and gospel). The world isn’t so bad, faith isn’t so hard, grace therefore not so desperately sought. Following Michael Horton, Kinkade’s desire to depict a world before the Fall is Christ-less Christianity in paint.

I would like to go even further and suggest that it was Kinkade’s work that killed him. It was not a weak heart or too much alcohol that caused his sudden death at 54 on Good Friday, but the unrelenting pressure that the production and distribution of these images exerted on a man who spent thirty years trying to live up to their impossible and inhuman standard. His emotional life found no creative release in and through his studio work. As he, like each of us, experienced the ebb and flow of life, the challenges, tragedies, and the struggle with personal demons, he was forced (condemned) to produce the same, innocuously nostalgic pictures again and again, fighting on one hand to preserve a brand as the Painter of Light, while he fought to the death his own demons on the other. These seemingly gentle images came to exert a claustrophobic spiritual pressure on him that rivaled anything that Munch, Picasso, or any other modern artist has produced. It is a pressure that, as Luther observed in his commentary on Jonah, “makes the world too narrow” so narrow that “a sound of a driven leaf shall frighten them” (Lev. 26: 26)–a driven leaf or a Kinkade print.

“The best way out is always through,” wrote Robert Frost in “A Servant to Servants” (1914 ). Whether in words, sound, movement, paint, or bronze, artists give form to their  joy and grief, searching out their doubts and questions through their studio work. A painter like Gerhard Richter, a photographer like Cindy Sherman, lyricist and poet like Leonard Cohen, musicians like the Cowboy Junkies, and writer like Toni Morrison, produce work that shifts and changes as they themselves shift and change, and as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 22: 4). Not so for Kinkade. He became a prisoner of a pre-Fall fantasy world that by refusing him creative space to work through his life’s difficulties, destroyed him, over and over, to which he finally succumbed.

Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ, which fascinated Dostoyevsky and horrified Prince Myshkin, is a predella without an altarpiece; a depiction of the dead Christ in the tomb without the resurrection to give it meaning as Holy Saturday. Although his work refused to confront and work through evil and brokenness, our lived reality, Kinkade himself did. It is not insignificant that he died on Good Friday. For Kinkade, as for each of us, our lives are hidden in Christ, who rose on Easter Sunday, reconciling us and establishing the work of our hands (Ps 90: 17). For in fact, every work of art, whether Holbein’s Dead Christ, Munch’s The Scream, Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark, or Kinkade’s pictures, is made in the shadow of the resurrection. An artist once told me that he considers every painting he makes to be a diptych (a two-panel painting). The second panel is always a mirror, scrutinizing him as he paints it.

Icon of the Resurrection

It might be better to think of that second panel not as a mirror, but as an icon, an icon of the resurrection. Commonly called The Anastasis, the image depicts Christ bursting forth from the grave, having descended into Hell on Holy Saturday, “leading a host of captives” (Ps 68:18; Eph. 4: 8-10). The power of the icon comes from Christ liberating the dead from their tombs by taking them (you and me) by the hand. It is this for which Christ came. “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives/ and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4: 18).

Christ also frees our work, including our art and culture making, liberating it to glorify God and serve our neighbor, rather than means for our salvation or justification, as metaphysical transactional leverage. In captivity, “the world becomes too narrow for us.” Christ opens up the world, the world of experience, action, making. He does so because, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “all things were created through him and for him” and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15; 17). And that includes Kinkade’s work, even if he was unable to reconcile the creative work of his hands to his daily struggle as a Christian. In Living by Faith:  Justification and Sanctification (2003), Oswald Bayer writes,

“Justification comes when God himself enters the deadly dispute of ‘justifications,’ suffers from it, carries it out in himself. He does this through the death of his Son, which is also God’s own death. In this way God takes the dispute into himself and overcomes it on our behalf.”

Kinkade and his work engaged in a deadly dispute over justification, which he lost. But the final word on Thomas Kinkade is not his work’s. Nor is it mine. It is God’s, who offers the final Word of liberation and freedom. The next time I notice a Kinkade print in an office or a home, I will now see it next to the icon of the resurrection, reminding me that Christ is at work reconciling “all things” to himself, and second, I will give thanks that the work of my own hands, which in its own way deceives and distorts, judges and condemns me, narrowing my own world, will receive God’s final Word as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • http://www.paulkuritz.com Paul Kuritz

    So many words, so little said. As Hamlet remarked on Polonius pontificating: “Words, words, word.”
    Is Christ lifted up as Mr. Kincade is put down?

    • Kathy Morse

      Raised in a single parent home Tom often came home to a dark house with no one home which inspired him to paint those warm glowing windows that represented someone was home, someone was there to greet you, someone cared enough to leave the light on. Tom knew the best was yet to come. Thanks be to God Tom is truly home, truly liberated from combating the effects of sin. We are to be pitied.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Thanks for reading, Paul. And writing, your words.

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  • Kathy Morse

    Thomas Kinkade’s paintings reflect his yearning for a better, a perfect place, a place where there is a perpetual warm reunion, the same yearning that God has placed in each one of us. His paintings remind us that the best is yet to come and give hope to the hopeless. I didn’t know him but I love him for not listening to his critics and allowing God to speak to countless people through his paintings.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Kathy, I don’t agree with your description of his work and his intention, but I deeply respect your reception of his work, and perhaps that, when it comes right down to it, is the most important thing. thanks for reading and responding

      • Kathy Morse

        Thanks for taking the time to respond Dan.

        • Daniel A. Siedell

          I apologize for taking so long to reply but I wanted to let things die down a bit. I learned a lot about Kinkade in the process of writing this piece, and have come to respect his particular challenges as well.

  • Jeff Lintz

    Thank you for the thoughtful assessment on Mr. Kinkade’s work. I, too, have had reservations in considering his work art. I’m not sure the pejorative “kitsch” commonly associated with his paintings isn’t correct. What struck me as sad was the potential in style and focus his earliest creations displayed before he became a commercial success. They seemed vibrant and alive as if their fuzzy impressionism were a reminder that the constant motion of wind makes even dead things spring to life. But commerce for its own sake can turn even living things to death and dull every light. And it will sully our focus. Tolstoy wrote that true art brings us closer to God and closer to our fellow man. If Mr. Kinkade’s art brings us closer to a god, it is not the one bruised and bloodied on the cross then resurrected in awesome mystery. Nor the one appearing fearsome, causing to collapse in utter shame John on Patmos. Nor even the one revealed in the flight of a fall leaf.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Jeff, Great thoughts. I’m glad you’re a reader.

  • Kathy Morse

    To me God speaks through Tom’s paintings with a gentle whisper, similar to the way he spoke to Elijah when everyone seemed against him and he didn’t want to go on, in 1 Kings 19. I think his paintings help God’s people to keep a heavenly perspective, that no matter what sufferings we go through here on earth they are only temporal compared to our eternal glories that await us in heaven. And those who don’t know the Lord I like to think his paintings cause them to seek something much lovelier that is outside of themselves or at least they would be motivated to discover why Tom painted them the way he did in which he would point them to the Lord.

  • David K. Monroe

    You said this:

    “I would like to go even further and suggest that it was Kinkade’s work that killed him. It was not a weak heart or too much alcohol that caused his sudden death at 54 on Good Friday, but the unrelenting pressure that the production and distribution of these images exerted on a man who spent thirty years trying to live up to their impossible and inhuman standard. His emotional life found no creative release in and through his studio work.”

    What is your evidence for this conclusion? I see no evidence that Kinkade struggled with “an impossible and inhuman standard” imposed by his paintings of warm, homesteady places. Neither do I see any evidence that he found “no creative release” in his work. He chose to paint in that style and he was wealthy enough to work at his own pace. It makes for a good pulpy novel (man paints pretty pictures while dying inside) but you really haven’t substantiated this. It could easily be that his art did give him creative release and prolonged a life that might have long ago succumbed to alcoholism had he not been successful.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      David, Fair criticism. My only evidence is the twenty-years experience I have had working with artists very closely and knowing the pressure they experience and the pressure their work places on them. Because he was wealthy (he had tremendous financial problems however), he didn’t feel the leisure to work at his own pace. In fact, it is the exact opposite. These are just my thoughts given my understanding of art and how it works and works on the artist. Take it or leave it. If he was doing all the physical labor of making the paintings, I could see the therapeutic nature of his work as important. But he used studio assistants to make many of the works, to which he added “his touch” here and there. Neither the labor nor the touches offered a “creative release” that I argue is necessary for artists. Not necessary for construction workers and art critics, but necessary for artists.

  • http://www.rickmcopy.com Rick

    Agreed. The pieces depict the kind of world you enter when you buy a ticket to Disneyland. Whether he wrestled mightily with the burden of producing mediocre art is sheer speculation (plenty of other artists work in “formula” for years with no more wear and tear than any other person who makes a living from repetitive tasks), but it is telling that his phony world on canvas was mirrored by his deceptive business practices and his projection of a saintly public image that hid dark personal demons. I suppose like many evangelicals he had no chance to be “real” with his art, or in person; the Church knows what it likes, as they say of people with undeveloped taste.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Rick, I agree. I find it slightly ironic and sad that many of the Christians who buy his work and defend it so strongly are precisely the people who would question the salvation of one who engaged in the behavior he engaged in–behavior I might add that is indistinguishable from Picasso or other “anti Christian” modern artists. I guess as long as the images produced fulfill our expectations and assumptions, that’s enough.

  • Lily

    I enjoyed reading this article but thought it would have been more helpful to use examples from Kincaids experience to support the argument of why his life was cut short

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Lily, I tried not to delve into his experience too much–that’s where I drew the line–so the vagueness was intentional.

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