The world lost Thomas Kinkade more than a week ago, an artist whose importance during his life was measured by product placement and marketing prowess. Kinkade’s work always fascinated me, not because his formulaic shuffle of cottages, lighthouses and waterfall gardens appealed to my taste, but because he seemed like a conflicted character. Many remember he was arrested for drunk driving in 2010, and photos and rumors of him later in life made him come across as tired and unhappy. But like his art, those things are largely superficial, and the core of Kinkade may never be known.
I’m sure his estate will strive to preserve his legacy as the almighty “painter of light.” Because he was so opposed to art that meant or expressed anything beyond a base sense of comfort and religious wonder, his work ends up saying, well, not much at all. But there is something profound about his fame, influence and personality. In graduate school I remember discussing how interesting it would be to have Kinkade and Jeff Koons in a panel discussion, talking about art of the masses, popular culture, marketing and persona.
I have a feeling Koons would have come off as polite, enthusiastic and curious, while Kinkade would have been dark, defensive and defamatory toward contemporary art in general. But the two seem to have a lot in common, though they engage with a different set of rules. Kinkade certainly appealed to the masses, as his work is supposedly in one out of every ten or twenty homes in America. Recently I re-watched the 60 Minutes profile of Kinkade as he buzzed in his jet from event to event, signing his name to factory-copied canvases with oil-painted touch-ups done by assistants. It’s impossible to not think of Warhol and mass production of art. It’s impossible not to think that his career means something about art no matter if his work does.
Kinkade was certainly not doing anything new. I have a large oil painting hanging in my living room. It belonged to my Grandmother. It’s impressionistic. Globs and dabs of paint make up a tranquil scene with large trees, a river, a cottage, etc. It is signed Van Gahe. I don’t know much about Van Gahe, but I’m pretty sure the piece is a fake. My Grandfather worked in furniture stores all his life, and these paintings were probably mass produced to be affordable but look expensive.
Kinkade like many other artists, was operating in a long tradition of idealized scenes of nature for the average home. Those of us in Texas probably know Dalhart Windberg, another artist whose work depicted idealized nature-scapes, and whose career became defined by the market for his reproductions. He is to Texas what Kinkade is to America (as far as popularity goes). I don’t think Windberg respected Kinkade too much, saying that he had pretty much exploited the market for reproducing art. There was, at one time, a “right way” to reproduce one’s work as an artist in a market where originals became so expensive that prints were the only way to reach a wider audience. Windberg certainly did. His work is probably in one out of ten Texas homes. My Grandparents had several. It’s a viable marketplace, and Kinkade will certainly be remembered as the king of it. No other artist graces more calendars, snowglobes, furniture and even housing developments.
But back to the question, what does Kinkade’s work mean? How can an artist’s work, which is basically different versions of the same scenery over and over again, really say anything? This is really the borderland between pretty scenery and conceptual art. Art surely doesn’t have to say anything at all. The beauty in art can rest on its own laurels, especially to those who believe art should be accessible to all. There is something to be said for skill, craft, the ability to put the right color in the right place. Bob Ross taught us art was about creating our own happy places, and dammit he’s right, because art should be that simple and enjoyable. Kinkade’s philosophy was much the same. Give people what they want: to be happy. But isn’t there more to art?
Isn’t this the reason we study art history — because a culture’s art says something about those people’s beliefs, social structure and common values? Isn’t there much about art that reveals who we are and the struggles and triumphs we’ve been through? What will Kinkade’s work say to a 22nd century art historian?
Kinkade believed Picasso’s importance would diminish with time. I imagine he would say the same about Warhol. Maybe not. I’m going to make a prediction too. I think his cottage clusters will be lost, forgotten, trivialized. They are indeed generic faux-religious inspirations, no better or worse than the copied furniture store piece I have in my living room. That’s why I think his Disney paintings are more significant. Kinkade idolized Disney. He also despised him. Kinkade aimed to create a world much like Disney did, but fell short. Kinkade should have created his own theme park, but didn’t possess the imagination in which to create one.
His cottages, like his work, were superficial. There is nothing inside those cottages. It is up to viewers to fill in the cottages with their own imaginations. Houses in the Kinkade-themed suburban communities are now filled with people paying bills, raising kids and navigating reality just like any other suburban community. Kinkade struggled with his fantasy world, even as those who purchased his work benefited and escaped within it. He never lived up to the mythology Disney created. Kinkade dealt with this reality by “legally” appropriating Disney characters to dwell in his dreamscapes, and allegedly urinating on Winnie the Pooh. It’s not uncommon to both respect and revile your idols. But Kinkade’s struggle with fantasy and reality means more than his cottages on canvas and coffee cups. He knew the secrets of the fantasy factory. His thing for Disney says something, far more than his twinkling brushstrokes.
I suggest to future art historians to not look at Kinkade’s cottages for long. Start with the Disney pictures, and consider a new American Surrealism much like Norman Rockwell brings to mind. Idealized, serene, surreal — oddly religious and patriotic — but a self-denying and repressive surrealism, not a conscious ironic one. His Disney paintings nostalgically remediate another artist’s mythos within faux religious inspired pastoralism — gloss over glam, ice cream over icing. What could make a Kinkade better? How about Bambi nibbling on some geraniums?
The truth is, Kinkade was a disciple of Oz and the manufacturing of desire. There is always a man behind the curtain — a Darwinian industry running the Utopian fantasy, cashing in on dreamers and the market of escapism, sweeping up the trash and resetting the factory for the next set of business hours. Kinkade discovered the secret of selling the mass appeal of mystical inspiration. It’s a non-stop cash in. I imagine it can start to feel really empty. It could make a man frustrated enough to drunkenly pee on it. But I only speculate about Kinkade’s inner torment - - some say Kinkade was merely marking his territory, even though he was in a Disney hotel at the time of the alleged incident. Kinkade certainly cashed in, but he was no match for Disney. Kinkade would never have thought to make art about this. He certainly would never let anyone become aware that he knew what he was getting away with, if he actually did know.
Why was Picasso relevant? Because he looked at the world in a different way than any artist before him. Why was Kinkade relevant? What significance does he carry for art history? I believe among Kinkade’s most compelling pieces was a work commissioned for the 50th running of the Daytona 500. NASCAR Thunder is perhaps the most significant un-Kinkadian Kinkade in existence. Far from the European mystical gardens and meadows where quiet cottages reside, a stronghold American spectacle roars into being at a concrete and metal raceway. Families emerge from their quiet nestled communities where Disney characters frolic to watch the high octane, top speed buzz and rumble of NASCAR. Above, fireworks burst with color and fighter jets slice over the sky, enforcing our country’s independence and military might. Below, the automotive industry roars at its peak, each car plastered with sponsor logos, signifying the triumphant capitalist-fueled dream of America. Here, Kinkade has said something. He aligned himself with a factory of spectacle, this one held together and maintained by economic and armed forces. Even though NASCAR doesn’t need a mystical painter to say what it can say on its own, Kinkade has commemorated it. In striking parallel to his own professed and conflicting beliefs, NASCAR Thunder strikes a chord of relevance. Art History, I suspect, will remember this Kinkade.
John Aäsp is currently Visual Arts Director at Rockport Center for the Arts on the Gulf Coast of Texas, where he also serves as Managing Director of the Rockport Film Festival. He received his MFA from RIT in 2006. Other than writing, making video art and electro-beepy music, John can’t stop making excuses for his cats and his love for motorsports. @johnaasp, johnaasp.blogspot.com, beachblanketblammo.com