The peculiar popularity of Thomas Kinkade

S. Brent Plate assesses the peculiar appeal of Thomas Kinkade, "the painter of light," who died earlier this month at 54.

Beauty. Emotion. Buying. Kinkade pulled together religion, art, and commerce to sell a feeling.

Kinkade sold a great many of these feelings through some curious approaches to painting and a shrewd business distribution system. Critics easily dismissed his paintings as kitsch, poor art, or perhaps not even art at all. While I don’t really like Kinkade’s paintings, I believe it would be naïve to simply dismiss his work, to stop querying the deeper reasons for its mass appeal. Kinkade’s pictures may or may not tell us much about art, but they do tell us about the work of art. Art works, it has a job to do, and the effects of art can be more important than the pictures themselves.

Kinkade’s is a theo-aesthetic, a distant, or perhaps bastardized, version of Romanticism, that great cultural movement begun in the late eighteenth, and carried forward into the nineteenth century. Romanticism was in large part a reaction against the overly-rational approaches of the Enlightenment; the Terror of the French Revolution, the spoils of industrialization, and war across Europe left many balking at the so-called progress of the rational mind. Poets like Goethe, and Shelley, and philosophers like Schiller, Kant, and Schlegel began to pay attention to the emotions, to intuition, and to aesthetic experiences that weren’t comprehensible by rational means.

Comments (2)

One important point that Plate misses was caught by Joe Carter in this article from First Things: Kinkade actually started painting in a significantly different style, and indeed continued to paint in his own style under an assumed name, so perhaps not to hurt sales of his main line of merchandise. And I would agree with the assessment that, judged by technique, his older style stuff is better. And then you get something like this supposed depiction of the Cape Hatteras Light which sets it on a New England coast instead of on a mid-Atlantic barrier island.

It galled me to hear him compare himself to Norman Rockwell, not just because the latter is a much better technician, but also because Rockwell never prostituted his technique to the sentimental scenes he painted. And at that there is a lot wider range of emotion in Rockwell's work (think of Rosie the Riveter versus The Problem We All Live With). Kinkade, to be blunt, sold his artistry out: he switched to making what he had to understand as inferior craft in order to make it more saleable.

Is this a parable for the Episcopal Church? After reading one salvation proposal after another one wonders if some aren't willing to sell out "in order to make (TEC) more saleable.

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