Thomas Kinkade: Mass Market Painter of Comfort

America’s “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade died yesterday in California. A devout Christian who called himself “a warrior for light” and sold his paintings to millions of like-minded collectors, his fans might find it fitting that he died on Good Friday. (Even if at age 54, his death was untimely.)

I am not one of his fans. I have routinely dismissed his work, calling it Mall Art. (And occasionally “crotch rot of the art world.”)
It actually offends me by being so inoffensive: Its sheer mediocrity. Its slick attempt to please the most amount of people possible. Its treacly outlook and mealy-mouthed religious overtones. They way it’s sold at “Inspirational” shops and on-line outlets with cutesy names like “Kinkade Korner.”
I have made fun of people who view his work was a reflection of their faith: in traditional values, in Nascar, in small town coziness, in paintings specially made to hang over the sofa. Preferably matching the sofa. Or thrown over the sofa.

Like Fox News Channel, his work was not created to make the viewer question or challenge their ideas and values. It was created to confirm them. His paintings are comforting. People want to climb into Kinkade’s mass-produced world and relax in one of those sun dappled pastel cottages. (In fact, there is a community for people who truly want to live the Kinkade dream: KINKADE VILLAGE.)

But now that he has died, let the revisionist history begin. I imagine he will no longer be referred to as “The Painter of Blight” by his detractors. (Or at least not as much.) And the truth is, why should his paintings bother me so much? I don’t care that he licensed his name for use on everything from pot holders to puzzles. He never claimed to be anything but a commercial artist. And is it so strange that in an uncertain world, people want to imagine themselves in a sparkling Christmas landscape, rosy cheeked, on a sleigh headed to a snow-covered home with perfect plumes of smoke rising from the chimney? Or traipsing through the flower beds in the summer? Or headed to Disneyland with a family much happier than your own?

I’m reminded of another popular artist who was scorned by serious art collectors while he was alive. Norman Rockwell. His sentimental paintings of an idealized America were dismissed as “calendar art.” When he died in 1978, that innocent vision of America was a distant memory. But in 2001 his work was displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, one of the foremost shrines to “serious” art. This exhibition was called, “Pictures For The American People.” It opened in November, when the city was still awash in American flags and lingering fear. It was a huge success. I think people needed those sweet, nostalgic images. People needed to believe in them. But beyond that, those of us who had never seen his work in person were astonished at how good it was. To see it up close, to see the brushstrokes, to see the facial expressions…his work belonged in that museum. More importantly, it depicted how we wished to see ourselves at that moment. It fulfilled our need to be comforted.

Will Thomas Kinkade ever get the same treatment? I find it hard to believe. But I’ve decided to stop judging his work and the people who love it so harshly. We all need a little comfort wherever we can get it.


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