I almost dropped the April issue of ARTFORUM when I scanned the table of contents. Almost lost my grip on it. ARTFORUM is a big, glossy magazine that will hurt you if it lands just right on the top of your bare foot. I quickly tire of holding it and move to the kitchen table to read it. Let the kitchen table hold it.
The table of contents promised an article entitled Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier on Thomas Kinkade at page 75. When I turned to page 75, I found that was not an empty promise. An article on Thomas Kinkade in ARTFORUM. I could not believe my eyes. I found that Duke University Press has recently published a book entitled Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall edited by Alexis Boylan. This book allegedly consists of essays on Thomas Kinkade’s work by eight legitimate scholars—art theoreticians and cultural historians—and an art curator.
I also learned that an estimated one out of every twenty American homes has a Thomas Kinkade product hanging on one of its walls, which actually did not surprise me. This means that probably some of you have a Thomas Kinkade product hanging on one of your walls, in which case I can only say to you, bear with me.
Thomas Kinkade is The Painter of Light™. Prints of his paintings are sold in malls, in Thomas Kinkade galleries, over the internet. I think he got his start by hiring Mexicans to sell his work out of the beds of pickups along the side of the highway. In any event The Painter of Light™ is now an empire.
Through the years I have read several articles on Mr. Kinkade and his work. I could not help myself. You know how sometimes you simply cannot resist picking a scab? The man is a marketing genius. His products were held out as a way for people of modest means and no expertise to invest in art. Potential customers were persuaded that if they purchased one of his works, it would undoubtedly appreciate in value while it hung in their double-wide. For an additonal fee, arrangements could be made to have your Thomas Kinkade “personalized,” by which I understood that some additional glitter would be strategically glued to it somewhere so that your product would truly be unique.
The articles that I read were for the most part neutral, reportorial. I did not remain neutral. I became convinced that The Painter of Light™ was just another in a long line of hucksters victimizing the dumb-assed consumers of America. I was never shy about voicing that opinion either because, let me tell you, I was sincerely disgusted. I must be honest and admit to you that in those days it did not help matters with me that Thomas Kinkade is a Republican and a born again Christian and does not know how to spell the name Kincaid.
But what really bothered me most of all was that people by the thousands seemed to love this shit.
I am not in with the in-crowd of the art world. I am not in with any in-crowd. Fred downstairs, my supplier of used issues of ARTFORUM and a former New Yorker, is in with the in-crowd of the art world . . . or was. Actually, Fred is now a more relentless dropout than I am. In the art world Thomas Kinkade’s pictures are, as this article so accurately puts it, “reviled, if not simply ignored.” As for me, those paintings of cottages drove me up the wall.
But then these authors say this:
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. [Fred being one of those.]
That sent me dutifully trooping back one more time to Thomas Kinkade’s online gallery in order to look at this stuff—his Jerusalem Sunset, the Parisian cityscapes, the fantasy tableaux–with as open a mind as I could manage. I know my way around The Painter of Light™’s online gallery, having visited it for giggles several times before. What was my own conclusion? Only that I do not care any more.
In 1939 Clement Greenberg wrote an influential essay titled Avant-Garde and Kitsch, which essentially defined the word “kitsch” as we usually use it today. His thesis was that avant-garde and modern art is a means to resist the “dumbing down” of our culture caused by consumerism. Art-like products, such as Hummel figurines, that appeal to these dumbed down consumers he termed “kitsch.” Therefore, Thomas Kinkade’s works are regarded by the cool set as kitsch. You needed to know that, if you did not already, for what follows.
This then appears in the ARTFORUM article:
. . . 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 unrepentently. Yet almost without exception, the writers here [in the book reviewed] 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 . . . .
You know something? Goddamnit, those boys are absolutely right. Absolutely right. I have no argument with them at all on that.
I have made peace with many things since coming here to Mexico. Many things. I am proud of that. And now I have made peace with The Painter of Light™.
*The co-authors of this review are themselves the authors of a book entitled Art Outside the Art System.