PRINT April 2011


Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade, Sweetheart Cottage III, The View from Havencrest Cottage, 1994, oil on canvas, 18 x 24". © 1994 Thomas Kinkade.

Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, edited by Alexis L. Boylan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. 320 pages. $26.

THOMAS KINKADE’S ART IS EVERYWHERE: An estimated one in twenty American homes owns a print of his work. At the same time, his pictures are nowhere to be seen in the art world, where they are reviled, if not simply ignored. Why? This is not a question of quality per se: It is hardly polemical to suggest that his pictures bear comparison with canonical works of art history. His Jerusalem Sunset, 2006, for example, brings to mind Corot’s Roman scenes. Other pictures—those in which fantasy tableaux are set in utopian American landscapes—conjure up Thomas Cole. Kinkade’s Parisian cityscapes, meanwhile, are close in atmosphere and execution to many second-generation Impressionist works. Nevertheless, for many denizens of the art world, his work does not even qualify as art: It is the ultimate paradigm of kitsch.

Edited by art historian Alexis L. Boylan and published by a major university press, this book challenges Kinkade’s exclusion from the art world’s rarefied discourses. In so doing, it surely counts as something of an event. It features essays by eight scholars and Conceptual artist Jeffrey Vallance, who curated a museum exhibition of Kinkade’s work in 2004 and here writes about it convincingly. Most of the contributors to the volume approach Kinkade’s work with the aseptic gloves of tested and accepted theoreticians and historians of culture: Theodor W. Adorno, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Arthur C. Danto, Fredric Jameson, and Linda Nochlin. Although this means that Kinkade’s work is regarded primarily as a sociological phenomenon, the essays also make plain the hypocrisy involved in the art world’s rejection of it. His paintings, in fact, hold up a distorting mirror to the art world, showing what it (thinks it) desires: a democratic art, a bridging of the gap between art and life, a questioning of the concept of the unique object, not to mention—given Kinkade’s multimillion-dollar success as “Painter of Light™”—a real-world embodiment of Warhol’s dictum that “good business is the best art.”

Yet such ideas, and their immersion in the history of the twentieth century’s avant-gardes, could in many ways not be further from Kinkade’s own take on his work. “I always strive to celebrate the beauty in nature and the best of humankind,” he has said. “Artists, traditionally, have always promoted the concept of the ideal within society.” There is nothing hard-edged or radical in his work; he does not practice first-, second-, or third-degree irony. In one of the essays here, Anna Brzyski suggests that this is the heart of the problem. “If Kinkade winked,” she writes, “if he gave us an indication of ironic detachment, criticality (on however minimal a level) or even campy complicity, which would create a possibility that his practice functioned as representation and not the thing itself, and that he was, in fact, one of us, instead of one of them, he could be celebrated as one of the most significant artists working today.” Instead, his paintings are openly sentimental and nostalgic. They are meant to be as easy to love as a birthday cake, or fireworks.

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that myriads of people do love his work unrepentantly. Yet almost without exception, the writers here are a little squeamish when it comes to granting any validity to the aesthetic judgments of the public. Even if we are not saying that we love Kinkade’s work ourselves, we would argue that a training in academic art history does not put one in a position to dismiss the sincere emotions of millions of people who do love Kinkade’s art. Rather, their claims need to be taken seriously and, even more, granted respect. And if one accepts that everyone is entitled to judge for him or herself, one must also face the problems raised by the inherently patronizing notion of kitsch (many of which stem from Clement Greenberg’s essay on this subject, which is cited several times in the volume under discussion). As Monica Kjellman-Chapin writes, “Kitsch . . . seems almost too facile a label for the Kinkadian painted print. . . . Kinkade’s products are not inadequate in the way kitsch is usually perceived; they present themselves as more, as better.” Ultimately, she sees a dialectic at work: “Kinkade needs kitsch in order to partake of and try to participate in its elevated Other”—art with a capital A.

Perhaps the primary benefit of this book lies in the skill with which it teases out the vagaries of the art world’s love-hate affair with its own significant Other: mass culture. Kinkade is, notoriously, a Republican and a born-again Christian, and several essays here offer a salutary reminder of the persistent distance between the art world and “mainstream” America. In a telling anecdote, Seth Feman describes the circumstances of Kinkade’s religious conversion. In 1980, Kinkade was in the middle of sketching a nude model when “the sorrowful face of Jesus materialized before [his] eyes.” Soon after that, he discovered how to mass-produce, and then to market, his art, apparently as part of a proselytizing mission. “Consumption,” Feman writes, became “a doctrine of salvation.” Is this, perhaps, another instance where Kinkade and our contemporary art world are much closer than we can bear to admit?

Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier are currently writing a jointly authored book, Art Outside The Art System.