The controversial art of Thomas Kinkade

It was clear, this weekend, that the major West Coast newspapers didn’t expect the controversial (yes, I used that word deliberately) artist Thomas Kinkade to die at 54 years of age. Thus, the newsrooms did not have pre-written obituaries about the self-proclaimed “painter of light” ready to update and publish.

The key at this stage of the journalism game is the pending autopsy. While his family stated that he died of natural causes, Kinkade also has struggled with a variety of issues — some quite bizarre — linked to alcohol abuse.

The early obituaries where short and usually shallow, which is rare for a public figure as loved and loathed as Kinkade. Here is a chunk of the offering from The Mercury News, which was deeper than the average. Readers learn that:

His paintings are hanging in an estimated one of every 20 homes in the United States. Fans cite the warm, familiar feeling of his mass-produced works of art, while it has become fashionable for art critics to dismiss his pieces as tacky. In any event, his prints of idyllic cottages and bucolic garden gates helped establish a brand — famed for their painted highlights — not commonly seen in the art world.

“I’m a warrior for light,” Kinkade told the Mercury News in 2002, alluding not just to his technical skill at creating light on canvas but to the medieval practice of using light to symbolize the divine. “With whatever talent and resources I have, I’m trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel.”

His Media Arts Group company surged to success, taking in $32 million per quarter from 4,500 dealers across the country 10 years ago, before it went private in the middle of the past decade. The cost of his paintings range from hundreds of dollars to more than $10,000.

The Placerville native, who also leaves behind a brother and sister, was known to dress up like Santa Claus on Christmas, ride a Harley-Davidson and go on painting trips around the world. He would visit studio executives but also got to know all the homeless people in Los Gatos. He read classic books but also enjoyed shooting and blowing up things on his ranch.

The father of four girls and a devoted Christian, his artistic philosophy was not to express himself through his paintings like many artists, but rather to give the masses what they wanted: warm, positive images. … In the 25 years since graduating from UC Berkeley, his official biography says he has printed 1,000 paintings of “cabin and nature scenes, beautiful gardens, classic cottages, sports, inspirational content, lighthouses and powerful seascapes, impressionists, and classic Americana.”

This story, as it should, mentions Kinkade’s recent history of financial insecurity — including a Chapter 11 filing on behalf of his company’s Pacific Metro branch. Then, months later, there was a suspicion of DUI arrest. The Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating some of his investment practices.

For me, the key questions linked to serious news coverage of Kinkade are hidden in that vague, meaningless phrase “devoted Christian.” It is also important to realize that the “tacky” label was tossed at Kinkade by serious Christian artists and thinkers on left and right (a must-read by Joe Carter here). Kinkade was found guilty of cranking out safe, predictable, sticky-sweet art — opium for the semi-spiritual Masses.

Thus, at his “God and the Machine” blog at Patheos.com, Thomas McDonald writes:

Kinkade was a Christian, and his Christianity was just one of the many things that rankled his critics.

Let’s be very clear here right at the outset. Thomas Kinkade was not a bad artist. Thomas Kinkade was an exceptionally talented artist with excruciatingly bad taste. He was a hack, and a tremendously successful one. A hack is someone who sells his talent to the highest bidder, with little concern for niceties like artistic integrity.

Wait, there’s more. McDonald quotes this devastating verdict from Simcha Fisher, writing at The National Catholic Register:

Kinkade isn’t content with shying away from ugliness: He sees nothing beautiful in the world the way it is. He thinks it needs polishing. He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable — or will be, after she loses ten pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. Normal people recoil from such extreme artifice — not because they hate beauty, but because they love it.

Kinkade-style light doesn’t show an affection for natural beauty — it shows his disdain for it. His light doesn’t reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren’t merely trivial, they’re a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn’t just tacky, it’s anti-Incarnational.

Ouch. It would be hard to imagine a more brutal sentence about the work of a Christian artist.

This brings me to my main point about the Kinkade coverage — which I expect to continue. At some point, journalists need to interview the critics and defenders of Kinkade and allow them to offer their viewpoints about the faith content, if there was any, of his art. Also, if Kinkade was a “devoted Christian,” what kind of Christianity drove the work of this Berkeley-trained professional? Why did he do what he chose to do his paint and brushes (and his empire)?

I have my own opinions and they are based, in part, from my one encounter with Kinkade, which was not in a journalistic context. I was not able to ask him pointed questions and record the answers. I will simply say this, speaking as an Orthodox Christian who grew up Southern Baptist (it would be hard to name two traditions with more radically different approaches to art): Kinkade was, simply stated, not very interested in religious art. He was, however, interested in selling his products to a certain kind of vaguely religious set of clients. He knew what worked. He knew what these consumers said inspired them. Thus, that’s what he wanted to create — period.

This slice of the Associated Press report on his death points toward some interesting subjects for discussion.

Bridges are a frequent subject, as are steps or grassy inclines leading through gate images. Some of his paintings are visual depictions of Bible verses, such as “A Light in the Storm,” taken from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.”

A biography on the website said Kinkade rejected “the intellectual isolation of the artist” and instead, made “each of his works an intimate statement that resonates in the personal lives of his viewers.”

“I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy,” he said.

Bridges. Gates. Streams. Cottages. Lighthouses. I think that it will help if readers cruise around a bit in the following simple Google search and focus on the subjects and images that are missing from Kinkade’s work (as opposed to this collection by another troubled artist who was a Christian).

It will take serious journalism to get any of these subjects into the framework of daily journalism. Journalists who attempt to do so should brace themselves for lots of angry telephone calls and emails.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Here I was all ready to link to Simcha’s post and I find out that tmatt reads her blog. That’s just awesome!

  • Sabrina

    I get it that an artist will have his or share of detractors, but I must admit I was very shocked at the swift and immediate negative reactions to the news of Mr. Kinkade’s death. The West Coast newspapers and some of the East Coasts ones basically indulged themselves in a grave kicking fest! Absolutely shameful the way some of the bitterness and viterol just exploded like Mt. Vesuvius. Sincha’s posting at the National Catholic Register was one I found particularly offensive. She just went out of her way to be hateful. If a person’t doesn’t like Mr. Kinkade’s work, fine, but at least have the decency to wait away before attempting to deconstruct the man or his art. There are people who are grieving and the last thing they need to see a lot of trash out there. I wonder how those reporters would feel if someone attacked someone they care about in the same vicious manner?

  • Jerry

    An artist is often disparaged and denigrated in his lifetime. It’s an old, old story. History will judge his work.

    To the main points: Caravaggio lived at a vastly different time and so I don’t think a comparison is meaningful. Second, Kinkade did paint a few conventional churches as a search thomas kinkade paintings jesus shows. But I also think it’s failure of artistic imagination to insist that a painter or other artist must have specific images in his or her works to prove his religious bona fides. That smacks of what we used to call “socialist realism”. Instead of that, we have his “Garden of Prayer”:

    “In my heart, gazebos are truly peaceful places. They seem to exist apart from the world and beacon all of us inside the confines of the small world they capture…To my artistic eye, this gazebo is a perfect place for those seeking a time of reverent renewal and a moment of solitude to be with their God. The trees soften the light to create harmonies of shadow and color enhancing the viewer’s experience. One can smell the fragrant floral aromas gently drifting in this small sanctum of solitude. The birds happily sing in the trees as if they were a church choir praising the creator and thanking Him for the grace given to this heavenly garden. The spirit of our Lord fills every moment if we take the time to simply look, listen and allow His presence to fill our hearts and provide guidance. Join me in the Gazebo of Prayer where we can connect with providence often lost in hectic, everyday life. God Bless.”

    http://www.thomaskinkade.com/magi/servlet/com.asucon.ebiz.promo.web.tk.PromoServlet?promoAction=nr&abbr=gazebo-of-prayer

    May Kincaid rest in peace.

  • Tony Kapinos

    Sabrina- You do realize that Simcha wrote what she did well before Mr. Kinkade died, right?

  • SouthCoast

    “…it has become fashionable for art critics to dismiss his pieces as tacky.” I am neither fashionable, nor an art critic. However, the paintings are tacky. That being said, may I also say, with no irony or snark intended, may light perpetual shine upon him.

  • J.W. Cox

    I agree with the statement “It will take serious journalism to get any of these subjects into the framework of daily journalism.”

    But in the case of Kinkade’s work, serious journalism would be a waste of effort. His work doesn’t merit it; and the alleged “controversy” around his Christianity and the alleged antagonism of the Art Establishment towards it seems a tempest in a tea pot, to me.

    Fisher’s critique of Kinkade as artist is particularly apt. She’s clearly been reading, and absorbing Benedict XVI’s insights about art and faith (see “The Spirit of the Liturgy”, written when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger).

  • K M Gavlas

    I think most art critics miss the point of Mr. Kincaid’s paintings. He wasn’t painting reality or even attempting to do so. He was painting fantasy/mythology. His work was to show us how many feel about higher/spiritual things. Like the Elysians fields, his ideal isn’t of this world, but takes elements from it in a stylized form. The question is not is it good art, but rather did he do what he set out to do? Many who love his paintings would say yes, and if it moves them towards faith and hope, that’s fine. It’s like some of the garishly painted statues in some cultures that many Northerners, especially Protestants find distasteful. It either lifts your heart and mind to the sublime or it doesn’t. It’s really a matter of personal interpretation, IMHO. :)

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Kinkade’s comparison of himself with Rockwell is galling on so many levels, not the least of which is that the Wikipedia article has no difficulty characterizing the latter as a “not very religious” Episcopalian. I await the breathless expose revealing Kinkade as a dedicated member of the UCC.

  • Sheila

    I am in no position to judge his work, but I distinctly remember saying to myself when I first saw his work, “I wish I lived there”. I bet most of us have said that.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Jerry, at Hood College there is a huge pergola at the center of campus in which one is not to say harsh words (among several other taboos). And there is a gazebo at one end of the Bishop’s Garden on Mt. St. Alban, which indeed can be a very prayerful place. Certainly, a week from now at Hood there will be “fragrant floral aromas” because the structure is engulfed in wisteria, and there is solitude to be found in the Bishop’s Garden if one goes during the week or when the weather is adverse. But not to put too fine a point on it: the way in which this isn’t about any real gazebo (which are often made to be seen and not inhabited anyway) is precisely what makes this hackwork. I would also note his wildly dishonest painting of Cape Hatteras Light which places it right up against a rocky New England shoreline instead of in the middle of a grassy expanse half a mile from shore. One wonders about the substance of his Christianity, and I wonder how much criticism in the more serious secular journals will step up to the question.

  • K M Gavlas

    @C. Wingate. Is it really important that the lighthouse be depicted precisely as it exists? Art isn’t necessarily about accuracy as it is about conveying a feeling/a sense of what makes someone love a person/place/thing (as in still art). Most people do think of lighthouses as being on rocky outcrops not on grassy plains. It really doesn’t matter for there must be thousands of photos of the real thing, and historians aren’t going to use Kincaid’s picture for a reference. If it moves the viewer to love of the sea and the Creator who made it, I can see no harm in that. :)

  • Jack

    Aren’t you glad that Thomas Kinkade didn’t try his had a traditional Orthodox iconography?

  • http://otrclassics.blogspot.com/ Doug

    I see nothing missing from his work and I love Kinkade’s stuff

  • http://www.chillyguess.com Joseph J. Wan

    Um, it might be kitsche and he has some seriously mental issues, but what’s wrong with drawing cottages? So long as they are done WELL…

  • Howard Richards

    @Sheila

    No, I’m afraid that if I lived there, I would feel about it the same way that Igor and even Duckula felt about the Planet Cute.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I interviewed Thomas Kinkade in December 2008, and we visited about his faith. I’ve posted the interview at http://www.biblebeltblogger.com

  • Miriam

    I have seen some of Kinkade’s early works and they were lovely.

    Truly, I could not abide his ‘painter of light’ series. I had to beg my sister to please~don’t give me any more Kinkade plates. Thanks but no thanks.

    Had to use the excuse that I have too much stuff.

  • Brian

    “He would visit studio executives but also got to know all the homeless people in Los Gatos.”

    To me, this would point to his identity as a Christian. I like his paintings. In the world of painting and music, there is much vulgarity. His works seem to have avoided that, and perhaps that is one of the things that attracts people to his work.

  • Warren

    Kinkade did paint some good pieces. Just not the stuff with which people are most familiar. Some of his earlier works are very well composed. His kitschy fare, by contrast, is as saccharine as saccharine can get. There’s no arguing taste, but that doesn’t mean Kinkade’s most popular stuff will achieve lasting recognition on the basis of its artistic merit. And neither will the vulgar crap masquerading as art in many modern art galleries.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Counterculture filmmaker Ralph Bakshi wrote a touching tribute to Kincaide, who worked with him on one of his early films… LINK

  • Howard Richards

    @Brian

    You are confusing vulgarity with obscenity. Kinkade’s work is the very embodiment of vulgar: it was not of the best quality, but it was very popular.

  • Howard Richards

    One thing that no one seems to be commenting on is the role of human figures in Kinkade’s paintings: they are an afterthought. The buildings are the focus of his paintings, and the people in his scenes are a bit like the humans drawn in the foreground of an architect’s sketch.

    For all the attempts people make to explain his paintings as a new and idiosyncratic kind of iconography, the difference from real icons could not be more pronounced. Buildings are present in many icons, but they are certainly not the focus of interest. Icons are an authentic Christian vision of the ideal, so the emphasis is firmly on persons.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Mr/Ms Gavlas, there is inaccuracy, and there is patent misrepresentation. I don’t know what “most people” think about lighthouses; people from the seaboard states south of NYC tend to think of them as standing on sandy barrier islands or in the water, because that’s the reality of lighthouses in those parts. Hatteras Light isn’t a cozy beacon on a picturesque coast, and Kinkade painted it as though it is, without the slightest admission that it doesn’t really look much like this in its real location. There are plenty of real lights in locations that are really like this, and he even painted a couple of them, with greater or lesser accuracy (the pink flowering tree on the Split Rock Light painting is a bit of a liberty, but otherwise the setting is rendered faithfully); but people know the name Hatteras, so he borrowed it and its general outline, and then tarted it up a lot.

  • Jenny

    Wow, there are some cranky people busily voicing their opinions and expressing themselves as freely as did Mr. Kinkade did with paint, brush and canvas. Were any of Kinkade’s works of actual places? What about works of Salvadore Dali. Whether or not anyone likes the work is very subjective. Obviously, if one in twenty households has a painting of some type of his work then he was succssful in tapping into a need of many. Art is like wine. Some prefer sweet and some prefer dry while others prefer a nice wine vinegar to toss their salad. If you don’t like it…walk away. If you do like it … enjoy.

  • K M Gavlas

    @C. Wingate. Well, a good many people don’t live south of NYC for whom lighthouses do rest on rocky outcrops or islands at sea. :) The point is–it doesn’t matter. Kinkade isn’t interested in real lighthouses in real locations, but in rendering an artist’s interpretation of a lighthouse. It may be good art or bad art, but it’s just a representation of a concept. I don’t see that it matters for those who enjoy his work.

    And I think the people in his pictures are representative of all people and not meant to be any particular person(s). It’s the light in the windows warming them and the scene that was his focus. I doubt he had any idea of doing icons of any sort, so we can rest our minds about that, I’m sure. ;)

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Gavlas, I don’t think that’s true. Jenny, all you have to do is look on his website. Some of his work, especially a lot of his much earlier stuff, depicts real locales in something that could be called a realistic way– more typically a kind of 20th century impressionism, but the point is that it gives an idea of what you would see if you looked at the scene at the proper place and time. A lot of other paintings depict patently idealized and romanticized scenes; most of the lighthouse paintings on his site fall into this category. But there are some cases that straddle the line with varying degrees of falsification, ostensibly real places that are really to some degree or another actually his fantasy version. So someone who doesn’t know the Hatteras Light, he goes to the website, and he gets a copy of this painting, completely unaware that he isn’t really getting a picture of that light, but rather a fantasy version that panders to a certain romanticized image of lighthouses and the sea.

    It’s not just a representation of a concept, and I’m really quite surprised that someone identifying as a Christian could use such language. Nor is subjectivity an adequate defense. I can criticize the painting in question on its technique anyway (there’s a lot of distortion, for example), but really I’m not criticizing the painting so much as I am the artistic transaction going on in it. It’s one thing to prefer Manichewitz to premier cru Bordeaux; on one level that’s inarguable, though preferring the first having never had the second should be of no weight to someone who can afford Bordeaux. The problem I see here is that Kinkade sold a lot of jug wine on the premise that it deserved to stand on the shelf as equal to true Bordeaux, when it’s pretty clear that he knew it wasn’t. He could have painted an accurate and affecting image of Hatteras Light; some of his work that shows he could. But he didn’t; he pandered.

  • K M Gavlas

    I did write that his art isn’t necessarily good art. I’m only defending an artist’s right to paint whatever he wants however he wants to. There’s nothing unChristian in that. I think he knew exactly what he was doing but didn’t care what the critics might say. And that was his option. It made him a rich man and it pleased his customers. That’s not necessarily good ethics, but it is good business. :D