In honor of my recent 31st birthday, my wife, Amanda, and close friend, Raven, held a Thomas Kinkade-themed party.
This event was as magical and classy as you could ever imagine. Printed pictures of Kinkade’s pleasant paintings lined the walls of our dining room; tucked inside a water-filled wine bottle was a bouquet of paintbrushes; and on the door to the kitchen was posted a photograph of the man himself — the setup of what would prove to be a lively game of “Pin the Price Tag on Thomas Kinkade.”
The party was a marvelous surprise — both funny and just a tad bit disrespectful to a beloved artist who was found dead in his home just a few weeks prior. But make no mistake: Although at first blush the “Thomas Kinkade Farewell Birthday Party” may seem to be a fine bit of Hipsterish irony, I assure you my respect the self-titled “Painter of Light” runs deep. No irony in that last statement…or this one either. Seriously.
Kinkade was the subject of a fascinating piece of feature writing by journalist and author Susan Orlean called Art for Everybody. You can read it here. In it, she dissects the man’s tumultuous and intriguing relationship with highbrow art critics. Throughout the article, Kinkade fulminates against the negative critical attention he garners, essentially calling his dissenters stuffy, stuck up and shit-filled. Because he was — well, still is — arguably the most commercially successful painter in the history of mankind, Kinkade argued that he was, in a way, also the greatest painter of all time.
Here’s a little something from the article:
“I have this certain ability to have in my mind an image that means something to real people,” he said, sitting on a sofa across the room from the easels. “The No. 1 quote critics give me is ‘Thom, your work is irrelevant.’ Now, that’s a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here’s the point: My art is relevant because it’s relevant to ten million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. Because I’m relevant to real people.” He sat up and started to laugh. “I remember that quote, man! It was a great quote! It was ‘The Louvre is full of dead pictures by dead artists.’ And you know, that’s the dead art we don’t want anything to do with!” He laughed again and slapped his thighs. “We’re the art of life, man! We’re bringing the life back to art!”
Kinkade seems to adopt an “Us versus Them” kind of mentality when speaking of how his work is perceived critically. Check this out:
“The fact is we have a grassroots movement emerging in my art and in the country, and there’s ten million people out there that if I give the word will go out and picket any museum I want them to,” he went on. “I won’t give the word, but they’re dying to have an art of dignity within our culture, an art of relevance to them. Look at someone like Robert Rauschenberg. What’s his Q rating? How many people have his art? A hundred? Where is the million-seller art? What about the craftsmanship of expression?”
OK. So, if millions of people loved the man’s work, who were a couple of elitist art critics to call what he did commercialist fluff?
Except, of course, that it is commercialist fluff. Kinkade made himself fantabulously wealthy by building a brand — an adored collection of feel-good puff pieces designed to be placed in dens and bedrooms around the world. We have a print of his, “A Light in the Storm,” that was given to us a wedding gift; it hangs above our bathroom toilet, something for me to stare at and ponder as I urinate. It’s nice. Still no irony. Seriously.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Kinkade’s work, however, is that a good chunk of it isn’t even his. As part of this Death Star of a brand he built, Kinkade would often paint a piece and then pass it on to a small army of trained painters who would then reproduce it en masse. These official fakes would then be numbered and sold inside one of the hundreds of Thomas Kinkade Galleries scattered through malls all over the United States. When a person with some extra coin to blow purchases one of these pieces, they are given the option to have a staff painter “personalize” the painting. A splash of Kinkade’s signature light might be added here or there — wherever the customer requests — giving each piece a unique touch. It’s the Burger King of the art world.
Clearly, this is not “art” in the sense that most pretentious triple-major college dropout intellectuals like to think of it. There’s nothing deeply personal about Kinkade’s work — no heartfelt expressions of inner turmoil or biting commentary on the insipidity of modern society. Nope, just pretty pictures of cottages beneath towering mountains, gentle streams flowing through snow-brushed pine trees nearby. Sometimes, there are even Disney characters.
Kinkade created a feel-good, moneymaking machine disguised as artwork. Of course the critics hated it.
But Kinkade wasn’t wrong when he called those critics out for bashing him. Just because what he created was designed to generate money doesn’t inherently make it “not art.” You find me the artist who wouldn’t love to live comfortably off the proceeds of his work and I’ll slice off my left nipple (that’s my favorite one). If I write a short story in hopes of selling it (which I won’t), does that mean my story has no artistic merit? Let’s not forget, there’s a fine line between art and “commercial art.” Most art is at least somewhat commercial. Abbey Road? Commercial. Hamlet? Commercial. Twilight? Commercial. Hell, even the Michelangelo’s doodles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were commissioned. Unless given away absolutely free, art is nearly always a commodity. Heck, even if it isn’t created for money, art is still arguably a commodity of a different type — designed to generate response or praise or attention or something else the creator deems desirable. I know there are artists out there who create for the sake of creating alone, but most want something in return, tangible or otherwise.
Which brings me back to why I like Thomas Kinkade. It’s certainly not because of his artwork, although I do kind of genuinely like all that Disney stuff he made. No, I like the “Painter of Light” because he openly says he doesn’t give a shit what critics think about him, but clearly does.
“It’s irritating,” he said. He cocked his head and grinned. “I’m thinking of starting this program of loaning a few of my paintings to some of these critics and let them live with them for a year or two and see what they think then. Because art really grows as you live with it. See, I have faith in the heart of the average person. People find hope and comfort in my paintings. I think showing people the ugliness of the world doesn’t help it. I think pointing the way to light is deeply contagious and satisfying. I would want to argue that I’m not an antagonist to modernists. I just believe in picture-making for people. I’m a firebrand. I will sit down and debate the grand tradition with anyone. I am really the most controversial artist in the world.”
Kinkade’s comments speak worlds about how uncomfortable he was with himself as an artist. He’s conceited as fuck — and really has a right to be because he’s sort of in the right. His work makes people happy, who cares if it ain’t art to a few of stuffy stuff-ups? I’ll tell you who cares: Thomas Kinkade cares. He wouldn’t even be talking about how much he doesn’t care what critics think if he didn’t care so much about what critics think.
I think it’s an attitude many writers share, actually. There’s a fine line to walk when trying to create something of personal artistic vision that’s intended to be sold. Reading over what literary agents and publishers want from the books they represent or purchase, I’ve yet to see a single comment about how much they want to read something of “deeply personal creative vision.” Agents don’t want query letters dealing with motifs or inspirations: They want to know what the damn plot of the book is. What’s do you mean it doesn’t fit into one genre? That’s bullshit. You can’t sell what can’t be neatly boxed.
And you know, that’s something I can totally understand from a business perspective. Nobody wants to buy a three-hundred-page non-linear personal diatribe about the evils of government; or random notes banged out on an broken piano because that’s how the musician feels on the inside; or a bunch of splotches on canvas that supposedly represent the artists’ childhood struggles; they want good stories, awesome riffs and pretty pictures — something that entertains while it enlightens:
By then, it was midday. Several more paintings had been highlighted and taken away by their owners; Glenda was now sitting with a man and a woman, meek and awkward, their new painting, “Clocktower Cottage,” on the highlighting stand.
“Is this your first Kinkade?” Glenda asked. They nodded. “Well, congratulations. Let me tell you a little about what is here. This is about the changes of time. You see, everything changes. The sky changes, and the clouds change, and life changes.” They leaned in so that they could follow Glenda’s finger as she pointed to details in the picture.
“Do you see this?” she asked, resting her finger on the clocktower. “Here the clock says five-o-two, which is Thom and Nanette’s wedding date. And here are the initials ‘NK’ — that’s for his wife, that’s how he honors her. It’s his love language for her.”
They were transfixed now. Glenda took a brush and dipped it in the green paint, and then with quick, short strokes dappled the underside of a tree. It was just a touch, but the tree suddenly stood out from the other trees, and it seemed newly bright and full.
“Wow!” the man said. He glanced at his wife and then back at the picture. “I hadn’t even noticed that before.”
People always want the best of all worlds. Folks, that’s a tall order for any artist, be they writer, musician or painter of light.