I have said some pretty terrible things about Thomas Kinkade in my time. I have been saying things about him for years. And although my gut reaction to his death was snarky as hell, I think his “oeuvre” raises a lot of important questions that are asked over and over again concerning ART in this country. I have been thinking critically about TK since a show at Middlebury College in 2009, Making Sense of Thomas Kinkade.

I think striving towards making something purely aesthetically, subjectively beautiful is fine. For example, my favorite radio station in Austin is Simply Beautiful 91.3. “Putting a smile on your face!” They play elevator music, essentially. Instrumental versions of songs like “I’m Not In Love.” There is no irony in my appreciation for this radio station. I get kinda heated when I drive, so to have this sort of cake playing in the car is good for everyone. I also love Disneyland mostly for its prettiness. So Thomas Kinkade, in his self promotion and self defense, said things like this:

I view art as an inspirational tool. People who put my paintings on their walls are putting their values on their walls: faith, family, home, a simpler way of living, the beauty of nature, quiet, tranquillity, peace, joy, hope. They beckon you into this world that provides an alternative to your nightly news broadcast.  The New York Times, 2001.


People are reminded that it’s not all ugliness in the world. The New York Times

That is FINE. Aesthetics, pure aesthetics, are important to some people; I understand that part of that is that they don’t want to have to think about anything when they look at “art.” I am saying this objectively, no value judgment. Morley Safer, for example, demonstrates that he does not want to be challenged, visually or intellectually, by contemporary art. Sometimes I don’t want to think about art either. Again, something purely lovely is nothing to scoff at.

This is what seems to be the predominant state of things to me, and there is a tension here that both sides feed into (“both sides” meaning this silly dichotomy between appreciators of “high” and “low” art): Art that is ugly or strange or conceptual, that makes one uncomfortable, is for the elite; art that is pretty, uncomplicated, intended to inspire good feelings, is for everyone else- regular folks.

This is a useless distinction to make, in my opinion. At the same time, just because I am in graduate school and am paying to talk about things like this with other people in graduate school does not make my opinion more valid. But we have been talking about this, we “elite” 20-somethings, and we are SAD about it. Because anyone is allowed to look at anything; anyone is allowed to feel whatever they choose when they look at something; anyone is allowed to have thoughts about things they look at. It is so purely democratic and wonderful. If someone looks at a painting, and they say, “I don’t get it,” I think that is SO GREAT. Ok, run with that. Why don’t you like it? What do you think is going on here, really? Gut reaction is great, but you are allowed to think about this a little bit.

Before I get all dark, I will quote Dave Hickey:

The justification for this pretense to disengagement derives from our Victorian habit of marginalizing the experience of art, of treating it as if it were somehow “special”–and, lately, as if it were somehow curable. This is a preposterous assumption to make in a culture that is irrevocably saturated with pictures and music, in which every elevator serves as a combination picture gallery and concert hall.


The New York Times obituary includes this paragraph:

In the 1980s, Mr. Kinkade said, he became a born-again Christian. The change dovetailed with a shift in his career path. Rebelling against what he considered the elitism of modern art, Mr. Kinkade moved his focus to retail, not a traditional gallery system. He began publishing inexpensive prints of his work and, later, opened his own galleries.

This part about “rebelling against what he considered the elitism of modern art” is what I find troubling. Rather than picking on a dead man, I will deal with this characterization, as its own concept.

First off, a lot of artists are not making any money at ALL. So maybe calling Kinkade’s work “art” is just moot, because many artists make work because they can’t not, even though their work is unmarketable. Maybe I am actually just doing exactly what I am saying NOT to do? Well, I’ve recognized that possibility, so let’s keep going.

Another thing we have talked about in class is the problem of approaching something you care about in this framework of hoping to legitimize it. Making work that is pointedly antithetical to someone else, rather than just making the work you want to make (be it paintings, writing, music, politics), means recognizing one’s own marginal status, and affirming the status quo. If you believe something is important, think about the reasons why you think it is important, and maybe talk about that instead. So you find the art market at large horrifying; then great, make your “affordable,” accessible work. Don’t say, my art is for everyone, unlike that garbage over there. And don’t tell me that you are just a regular guy who just likes pretty pictures, or who just likes what folks like (Nascar, Disneyland) while you make millions of dollars, and sell tract housing at $450,000 a pop in a fucking suburban UTOPIA with your name on it.

So this turned into an empire, an empire possibly based on filling a need for comforting pictures, possibly based on reactions against modern art. And some people became ADDICTED to buying Thomas Kinkade works. This was addressed in 60 Minutes segment on TK in the 1990s, which I can’t find online, mostly because he just died and it is therefore ungoogleable. (HAHA 60 MINUTES AND ART. No really, it’s great.)

My point? The point is that I think it’s a big problem to say “I do not feel included in your museum or in your concept of art” and to have that be your platform. Stop, and maybe take that feeling and say, ok, why? What would make me feel better? Maybe step outside of yourself and look at the unfamiliar. Maybe it’s a luxury to be able to do that. I mean, I am a young white woman with a degree in Art History, I grew up on a farm, that’s where I am coming from. I guess what I’m saying is understand what you believe in, and work from there. I am thinking, step out of the shadow of what you don’t like or don’t understand, what you don’t want to understand. We are all just people, right? This us and them thing in art, it’s bullshit. Let’s all just calm down and look at things. Some of us want to just look; some of us want to look, then think way too much. It’s all valid. Let’s talk to each other.


Ok Annie, follow this to its logical conclusion, then, because this is a two-way street: what is really going on in these TK paintings? Is it nothing, like he claimed? I would say NO. There is a lot about society and American going on. Also, maybe framing work in this way–it’s just meant to be beautiful and comforting, and an antidote to what you normally see–is a way of obfuscating what is really going on.

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Maybe it’s a huge mistake to do so, but I can take this further, and maybe I will be crossing a line here. I made a comment in public that was way too blithe and I want to explain why I thought even for one second that it was ok to do that. I will try to do this carefully. I will preface this by saying that I am NOT making a direct comparison between what Thomas Kinkade’s enterprise represents and a monster; I am giving one EXTREME example of the perils of one guy fucking with culture, and how that turns into exploiting people. Let me talk about history. This is history, ok? Nothing more. This all happened.

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Something I know a lot about is Nazis and art. A good portion of what I know I learned from this book, the catalogue for a show that was at LACMA, “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avante Garde. If I am grossing you out, maybe look at that, or watch The Rape of Europa or something. Sometimes, when people bring up Nazis in an argument, you can just say, oh god, throw this whole thing out. But I am going to talk about CULTURE and HOW that Hitler guy was able to get people to agree with him. Before Hitler, culture in Germany was progressive. The Weimar Republic, ok? Bauhaus. The first museum to buy a Cezanne was in Germany. Basically all of my favorite painters were Germans in the early 20th century. With an economic downturn, and a shift in power, however, folks needed someone to blame. So. Hitler, and others. Hitler was a mediocre painter who did not get into art school. People love to talk about that. But what that means, is that he valued culture. He thought about art, in whatever way. He felt marginalized by the high art world. So, and he created the Ministry of culture to help carry this out, he talked about the irresponsibility of the government in paying so much money to put works of art in German museums. These works were maybe challenging, maybe not accessible to the casual viewer? Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Artists from outside of Germany as well. How could this happen when Germany’s people were hungry and poor? When Germany was so wounded by World War II? Without taking into account that many German artists fought in WWI. Even though they were hungry and poor also, these artists became the enemy. These artists who cared maybe more than anyone about beauty, they were called insane and unpatriotic, and elitist, and therefore Jewish, because their art was so far beyond the pale. I want to cry right now, but this is important, ok? So, people got angry. The Folks, they got angry. They were already angry! But now, they agreed, this isn’t our culture. These guys, they’re not German. Even though they were not Jews, they had fought in the war, some of the artists were already dead, they had died in battle, fighting for Germany. The artists were forbidden from making work. The Bauhaus was shut down. Artists fled the country; some stayed and made work in secret; some of these artists even supported the National Socialist state, even they were in big trouble. Artists were sent to camps. New art was called for. They held a contest to fill a new museum, and the winners of the contest were ok painters who painted very unusual neo-classical themes, mostly featuring naked (naked, not nude) young women. The other art, the stuff I like, was pulled from the museums and hung across the way in Munich. The Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937 travelled around the country and was the best attended museum exhibit of all time. It was a mess. People ate it up. People saw a lot of paintings. And everyone was still poor. I think you know what happened next. I’ll stop here.

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3 Responses to “PAINTER OF LIGHT”

  1. 1 annies1mom

    You should submit this to The New Yorker. It is amazing and you are WICKED smaht! Love…

  2. just stumbled across your blog and had an idea for a time travel movie lol. what do you think of this:

    a scientist in the far but not too distant future with a keen interest in art accidentally creates a short circuit tear through time, rotationally-shifting the lives of Thomas Kinkade, Adolf Hitler, and Marcel Duchamp. the tear displaces each person in a space-time carousel where they each get to move forward in time and live in the other two persons’ bodies for exactly one week each, until they return to their own.

    initially Duchamp occupies Hitler, Hitler occupies Kinkade, and Kinkade occupies Duchamp. then Duchamp occupies Kinkade, Hitler occupies Duchamp, and Kinkade occupies Hitler. by the time each person realizes what is going on, the scientist shifts their slots one last time and they all occupy their original time and space at the start of the third week, ending the carousel forever.

    • OMG I forgot to tell you how this is the greatest idea. Can it somehow incorporate them all having an art contest? Who would be the judge? Jeff Koons?? G E N I U S

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