Making Art Great Again

Remember Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light™”? He ripped off the term from JMW Turner and trademarked it, but was more often called “that mall artist.” His achievements, for a decade or more, were impressive—starting with getting “art” into malls for purchase by ordinary folk, who bought it in unprecedented numbers.

Joan Didion wrote in 2003 that at the turn of the century there were 248 Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries in the United States; California alone had 78, “four for example in Monterey and another four in Carmel, two exits down Highway 1.” She said 450 people labored to make (as many as 500 per day) canvas-backed prints and sell them, for as much as $15,000. A manager at one of the galleries told Didion he sold some customers dozens of these reproductions, and that people who bought them brought “a sizable emotional weight” to their relationship with them. Original paintings went for as much as $300,000.

Thomas Kinkade (TK) died in 2012 at the age of 54, from alcohol and drugs and after a number of troubles, if you ever thought to wonder where those stores went. The Thomas Kinkade Studios website shows only 38 Signature Galleries around the country now. Look on eBay for TK now, and it is nearly impossible to tell what is print, what is original oil, and what is forgery. Prices are mostly in the cheaper-canvas print range, but one item is selling for a quarter-million dollars and is said to be original and authenticated.

Of course it is and always was crap art, non-art, hackwork. Didion said, “A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.”

TK himself said all those light sources “represent God’s presence and influence.” He often signed work with an ichthys, the Christian fish symbol, not his own name. He made himself out to be religious, even devout, and his work to be full of wholesome values.

A few art professionals would defend the work, or at least mount a show of it. Jeffrey Vallance, an artist then teaching at UCLA, organized an exhibit on TK’s extended oeuvre at Cal State Fullerton in 2004.

“I’m just assembling the work,” Vallance said. “I want people to come in and like it or not for their own reasons. People are divided. You have the true believers and then you have all the scoffers. For both of those groups, this will be the first time they can see the work and make their own judgments.” (“Even by the flexible standards of contemporary art, Vallance’s world view is, shall we say, askew,” the LA Times said at the time.)

There was a crappy TK movie (with Peter O’Toole, of all people), and a crappy co-written TK novel (a “shamelessly money-grubbing little bait-and-switch…the publishing equivalent of Kinkade’s paintings, which are sold to the public in the form of mass-manufactured prints customized by ‘master highlighters’ who apply a few dabs of real paint”), a TK housing development, and a line of TK La-Z-Boys. Stupid Bill Turner dying in squalor! Hahahaha!

Of course there were the unfortunate incidents that sometimes come with sudden riches. TK peed on Winnie the Pooh at a Disneyland hotel to spite dead Uncle Walt, in what TK called “ritual territory marking.” His company defrauded franchisees and went bankrupt. He cussed and heckled people, was arrested for DUI, and groped a woman’s breasts in South Bend in 2002.

“Kinkade testified in a deposition that excessive drinking and ‘some normal rowdy talk’ had taken place, but when confronted with the groping allegation, he denied touching the woman. ‘But you’ve got to remember,’ he said, ‘I’m the idol to these women who are there. They sell my work every day, you know. They’re enamored with any attention I would give them.’”

After he died, the Guardian said acerbically, “Who could have imagined that behind so many contented visions of peace, harmony and nauseating goodness lay just another story of deception, disappointment and depravity, fuelled by those ever-ready stooges, Valium and alcohol?”

Laura Miller, writing in Salon on TK’s death (where she had written the scathing review of “his” probably ghost-written novel a decade earlier) says,

 

My conversations with these victims [people who invested in TK’s galleries] made me uneasy. Was there some relationship between the franchisees’ naivete, perhaps even their willful self-delusion, and their terrible taste? Was it hopelessly snobby to wonder that? What about Kinkade himself? He seemed to be at best a hypocrite and at worst a crook. Was there a meaningful connection between his bad conscience and his bad art? German thinkers of the 1930s would have said so, and they had plenty of opportunity to observe bad fascist art up close. Hermann Broch maintained that someone who chooses to make kitsch is ‘ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil.’ The novelist Milan Kundera believes kitsch to be the natural expression of totalitarianism. That’s a lot of moral weight to place on a bunch of garish cottage paintings, but Kinkade was always the first to present his work as a form of ideology.

 

At the time, she called TK “the George W. Bush of art.” (Oddly, that was the same year W sought out someone to teach him to paint.) Now we might have a different comparison, if we wished to discuss bad conscience and selling an image by nostalgia.

The Guardian said, “Kinkade’s death went largely unnoted in the art world. There were no lengthy obituaries in the quality press, critics did not line up to extol the beauty or the influence of his art. Maybe they missed a trick. For while Kinkade’s work is at best humdrum and technically adequate, its popularity tells us something about his public, about a desperate yearning for nostalgia that pervades parts of American life, a return to the safe glow of some imagined past.”