Thomas Kinkade, Disney, and NASCAR

by John Aasp April 16, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, "A Quiet Evening,"

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.

Thomas Kinkade, "Bambi's First Year,"

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.

Thomas Kinkade, "Nascar Thunder,"

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,,




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Robert Boyd April 16, 2012 - 11:42

A book that is relevant her is The Judgment of Paris, which looks at art in Paris during the 1860s and early 70s through the lens of Manet and Meissonier. Meissonier was the wealthiest, most-successful artist in the world in the 1860s. He was highly respected. The suggestion that he would in essence disappear from art history would have been met with derision. He was still one of France’s most beloved artists when he died in 1891, after which time, his reputation collapsed. (I’ll leave it to others to judge whether this collapse was justified; however, Meissonier was without doubt an extremely skilled painter.)

I recently read this book, and as I was reading it, I kept wondering–who is today’s Meissonier? Kinkade? Koons? Hirst? Murakami? Or is the question even relevant, with corporations and foundations which exist to nurture the market for an artist long after his or her death, aided by extensions of copyright duration?

Epicurus Tallhead April 16, 2012 - 15:13

Perhaps it’s a slower moving apparatus now in proportion to relevant investment in financial as well as academic or official capital. But it’s a good argument in favor of skepticism as well as independent critical voices. This is the problem with art stardom, it’s all just a bubble, guarded to the death. And it distract from what is really going on. I wish poetry was the big investment, and I never had to read another fawning love letter to Warhol.

Were Kinkade graced with just a little more business acumen he would of marketed his work as ironic.

Robert Boyd April 16, 2012 - 15:50

“another fawning love letter to Warhol.”

Where would you have read something like that?

John Aasp April 16, 2012 - 16:51

I don’t know much about Meissonier except for his portrait of Leland Stanford, one of the men who placed that infamous “bet” about horses’ feet in motion that set off the career of Muybridge and the future of photography. I wonder if his being wedged in this period of breakthrough photography minimized Meissonier’s work — but left Manet and the impressionists intact as they held on to the relevance of paint.

Colette Copeland April 16, 2012 - 12:08

great article john. we were just discussing kinkade in my classes the week before he died. i agree that he will be remembered, not for his paintings, but for his marketing prowess.

Bill April 16, 2012 - 12:17

Kinkade and Windberg “art” are cheap reproductions of photographs. Nothing more and nothing less.

Alicia April 18, 2012 - 14:28

Maybe but the kicker is that they aren’t ‘cheap’. That’s what the discussion is exploring.

Chris Schmidt April 16, 2012 - 14:42

Art, emotion and business make strange bed fellows to say the least. Never thought much of his art, but then again I had a huge bias. I do believe when an artist strives to be successful in their life time they give up a certain amount of artistic freedom. No matter what type of art, when it comes from deep inside the artist, I believe the informed viewer will connect with that. Nice piece John…..

HJ BOTT April 21, 2012 - 23:23

Thank you all for this civil thread to this point.

Laray May 10, 2012 - 10:35

Kinkade made Protestant paintings. There’s good work out there about what kind of art is met with Protestant approval and why. One book that comes to mind is “Fables of Abundance” by Jackson Lears.

Basically, God is the creator. End of story. So the only acceptable artists are those who act as conduits in making images of God’s creation. Kinkade’s images, in fact, resemble those found in churches, usually located behind the baptismal pool.

The New York Times did a survey several years ago on the correlation between religion and modern art sponsorship. They basically compiled stats on people who identified with a major religion and then measured their degree of involvement in the arts (museum memberships, attendance, purchasing of art). It should come as no surprise that Protestants were at the bottom of the list. It also stands to reason that how Kinkade’s art was sold also contributed to his financial success.

John Aasp May 15, 2012 - 10:25

Here’s a perspective to support your point. Seems the sinful critics were responsible for the anointed artist’s death (according to Rev. Austin Miles…)


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