High Contrast: Thomas Kinkade’s Art, Life & Controversy

There is something attractive about defrocking a figure of faith-and-family-values virtue, particularly one of great commercial success who has endeared himself to an endangered minority: the American middle class. The late Thomas Kinkade, who died of unnamed causes Friday, made an easy target. The self-anointed “painter of light” specialized in idealized scenes hearkening to a more innocent and bucolic time. Such art might be expected from a pastor’s wife or a bookish introvert yet it was the high degree of contrast between the artist’s placid and peaceable imagery and his real-world foibles and flaws that made him an irresistible subject for personal and artistic attack.

In the wake of Kinkade’s untimely death at age 54, the Los Angeles Times rehashed a 2006 exposé in which the painter was portrayed as a drunken, ruthless and foulmouthed hypocrite.  Whatever one may believe about the man, the art world has stood firm about his vision: Kinkade is a commercial success but his paintings do not merit creative or historic memory.

Kinkade’s artistic legacy is as much in question as his personal one.

The flurry of reader comments and criticisms at the news of Kinkade’s death belies the ire of Kinkade’s many collectors and fans, befuddled that the art world has yet to embrace the prolific painter as one of their own. And it brings into sharp focus the growing disparity — and the unresolved debate  — between what the public buys and the critics praise. Andy Warhol was and is an immense commercial success. Clearly it is not the act of being wildly successful that makes an artist a pariah. Rather, it is Kinkade’s idyllic vision that rankles the art world elite. Somewhere the meme took hold: paint something inscrutable or obtuse —  a Rorschach test on canvas — then and only then does it possess merit in the contemporary context. It was only a matter of time before the self-taught, folk artists and mainstream “populists” fell out of favor.

Even among casual onlookers the aesthetic battle lines are well established. Art enthusiasts and collectors who fancy themselves “in the know” mimic the art world’s shock and disdain at those who dare defy the convention that one must be wholly unconventional — perhaps even emotionally disturbed — to enjoy critical acclaim. All the while, consumers who enjoy art from the gut rather than the head continue to ask why art critics are so very, very harsh. Indeed, there is something to the question to be asked.

The fine art world has successfully indoctrinated would-be artists and the culture at large: Artistic themes that portray a simplicity a child can appreciate don’t constitute “art”. Themes that favor innocence over angst don’t merit discussion. Depictions of widely-held ideals over cynical self-revelation are unworthy. Even the time-honored practice in which artists interpret the social issues of the times are in short supply. The Great Recession, and the 21st Century in particular, is notable thus far precisely for how little the arts and entertainment community has managed to reflect or acknowledge a faltering American Dream nor a social criticism of globalization at large. Instead, art critics and creators-of-the-moment exude the idiosyncratic and the narcissistic. And therein lies the “Kinkade paradox”: the esoteric, quirky and self-preoccupied art that is championed for its creative singularity carries an equal albeit opposite potential to be culturally out of touch — if reinterpreting the “real world” through a myopic lens is in fact the sanctioned goal.

The emotive loss of color and character within the art community is a loss to each and every one of us. For every wall of conformity that goes up, diversity goes down.

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The market spoke and the market liked Kinkade. The art world elite have done more than spur a debate. For years, generations even, they have kept a lot of creative people in jobs they have even less talent for because the thought of going up against non-art creating critics and cutthroat collectors and curators offends the sensibilities of sensitive, creative or contrarian individuals.

This is how the creation of art becomes a closeted pastime. This is how art is abandoned in childhood, in dumpsters and in storage lockers, too.

More people should be invited to partake of art, not fewer. Nothing could be further from the aim of creative expression than to place aspiring creators in a box consisting of a “right” and a “wrong” way to go about pursuing a personal form of expression. The art world has been dominated far too long by cultural snobs and professional critics who have erected academic dogmas and creative doctrines, who have codified styles and themes — quashing the pure and simple joys of creative expression and aesthetic appreciation. If the art of Thomas Kinkade translated to the masses an appreciation for beauty, the painter has, in fact, invited and inspired more people to appreciate that which only the imagination can conceive.

If anything can be gained from Kinkade’s lifework, it ought to be the art world’s willingness to see itself in a new and more honest light.

Art is not what someone says it is — or isn’t. Art is about people. By people. For people.

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RESOURCES

Thomas Kinkade, Painter for the Masses, Dies at 54 | NYT

Painting, Still Lively in the 21st Century | NYT

Where Are Today’s Steinbecks? | BBC News

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