Thomas Kinkade has been an easy target for art critics. But my decision to write about his work, with “The Dark Light of Thomas Kinkade” and the “The Final Word on Thomas Kinkade,” was an attempt to explore a different path toward understanding the challenges that it posed to my work as an art critic and as a cultural theologian. I spent last week responding to nearly two hundred comments from my first post, most of them very critical of my approach and my conclusions. I posted a lengthy summary in the comments section, but upon further consideration it seems appropriate to devote an entire post to my assessment of my critics, in large part because they will be of crucial importance to my approach to theology, art, and culture here at CULTIVARE.
Most critics of my approach to Kinkade do not believe that art of any kind (Kinkade’s or Edvard Munch’s, popular or high art) should be anything but pleasant decoration, a nice but not necessary addition to the comforts of one’s life, and a kind of visual propaganda of the soul. Art is assumed to be an extension of leisure, the equivalent of taking off one’s shoes, loosening one’s tie, and pouring a martini after a tough day of work. Nothing more, nothing less. Many of my commentators don’t like Kinkade’s work. But they disliked my heavy analytical focus even more. Investing Kinkade’s work (or the work of any artist) with strong theological or philosophical content was to their mind the manifestation of an academic disease, or, according to some of my more nuanced observers, evidence that I need to “get a life” and “climb out from under my rock.” Most of my critics resented that I treated art and visual imagery as worthy of philosophical, theological, and aesthetic scrutiny.
But I do not see art as an extension of leisure or commerce, conspicuous consumption or entertainment, a practice that lies outside the reach of theology. In fact, I follow Tolstoy that art is one of life’s necessities, and thus requires theological attention and philosophical scrutiny, primarily because it emerges from a theological and philosophical understanding of life. Art is the result of human intentionality, and thus infused with theological content because human action is itself infused with theological content. And this work “works” on the human intentionality of the viewer, activating his or her theological commitments. It is my conviction that art is made to be taken seriously. A critic’s responsibility is to determine what taking art seriously means, for that work of art, or that artist. (What makes writing art criticism compelling is that critics are offering many different ways to take that work of art or that artist seriously.)
My alternative to Kinkade’s work, contra my critics, is not art that is disgusting and gross, which gives adults and children nightmares, but art that is real, honest, and begins with our fallen sinful condition and works with it, within it, through it, not in denial of it. But Kinkade’s work masquerades as art, comforting consumers with the (false) reality that you can enjoy art without effort, without it changing you in some way. Art is an intensely personal experience, but it is not whatever you say it is.Yet most of my critics are resentful of anyone, much less an art professional, telling them what art is, or complicating what art is, especially if what most people understand by art was learned in 5th grade art class. (For an essay on this subject, see my “Art After Fifth Grade.”) However, it is my conviction that art, like any cultural practice worth participating in and taking seriously, needs to be learned, including its history and tradition, which is the context within which both artists and critics work. The responsibility of the critic is to make distinctions, offering the reader opportunities to see art, and the scope of human action, differently. Art and cultural critics write to understand, and they presuppose a reader eager to experience the wonderful, infuriating, and inexhaustible complexities and implications of culture making.
Many of my critics disapproved of my theological approach to Kinkade’s paintings, wincing at my constant focus on human frailty, sinfulness, brokenness as the starting point for thinking about art and the Christian faith. In the process, they actually proved my theological point that Kinkade’s work was successful precisely because it denied the power of God’s two words, law and gospel. In fact, many of my critics thought it was un-Christian to critique Kinkade’s work, going so far as to question my own faith commitments, or at least presuming that my criticism of Kinkade’s work meant that I was impugning his faith. Although North American evangelical Christianity is obsessed with “transforming” and “redeeming” culture, but that often results in cheap and inferior knock offs of the real thing. It offers “Christian alternatives” to secular culture without doing the hard work of actually moving into the Babylonian neighborhood of art and culture, learning it, and seeking its good (Jer 29). Kinkade built his empire on precisely that transformational and redemptive logic that insulated Christians from dwelling deeply in the world of art and culture.
Most of my critics not only wanted visual images that didn’t cause them to think too much or feel too much, but a theology that didn’t dwell too much on brokenness, sin, and all that depressing stuff that can really get one down. We North American evangelicals like our Christian religion useful and preferably, of the do-it-yourself variety. Christ, if he is named, is my fixer, my life coach. But as I observed in my first post, where can grace be present if things are really not so bad? If things aren’t desperate, grace doesn’t have a chance. Great artists, poets, musicians produce work that acknowledges our brokenness and the world’s injustice and in spite of that they produce work that seems otherworldly, that is saturated by grace and mercy. I was also criticized for not extending to Kinkade and his work the grace I was writing about. Yet I doubt that criticism, judgment, discernment, and the willingness to provoke, question, and query, all aspects of the critical spirit, is antithetical to grace.
But in the minds of many of my critics, grace is akin to cutting someone some slack, lightening up, backing off, or easing the standards. But that is not at all what grace is. It is the last hope at the end of our rope; it presupposes that we have been crushed by the legal, transactional schema of the world, suffocated by the stifling narrowness of a life consumed with achieving justification and recognition. Grace doesn’t say, “we’ll let it slide this time,” with a wink. It actually comes to us and frees us because of the active work of Christ. Grace allows us to cling to the promises of God that he will save us, even if everything points against it. It is the feeling–a feeling that there is still hope in a dark and desperate world. Because grace is also disruptive, radical, uncomfortable, it can hurt, as it kills our pride and self-justication. And so art, literature, film, and music can often produce that whiff of something alien, or slap in the face that knocks your glasses off and messes up your hair, which comes from beyond the hills (Ps 121), invading the hostility and narrowness of this world with what Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer calls “breadth, breath, and liberation.”