If you have ever been to an art fair, entered a “framing gallery,” or set foot in a country home, you are probably familiar with middle-class America’s favorite artistic genre. It features babbling brooks, glowing cottages, majestic sunsets, and wooded lanes. Though the art world has largely ignored this simplistic, pandering imagery, one man has managed to create an empire around it.I speak, as you may have guessed, of Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light.” His paintings are the epitome of the picturesque, balanced somewhere between reality and fairyland. Although these paintings are not much different from their wholesale landscape cousins, the manner in which they (and their maker) have been marketed is striking, and furthermore, rather upsetting.
Kinkade is the prime shareholder of Media Arts, the corporation that markets his work. This corporation consists of an international network of galleries that show only Kinkade’s work. I visited one of these galleries, located in Mayfair Mall in the Milwaukee area. (The Kinkade gallery in Appleton’s Avenue Mall recently closed due to mismanagement.)
It seems fitting that most Kinkade Signature galleries are located within malls. There, the products are easily accessible to the average American consumer. Nevertheless, the gallery conveyed a sense that this shop was on a higher plane than Bath and Body Works or Wicks ‘n’ Sticks. Low lights, dark walls, plush carpeting, and the soothing sounds of Enya contributed to the sense that, for some people, this was a sacred place.
The saleswoman smiled and asked me whether I had ever experienced Kinkade’s work. She obligingly lowered the lights to demonstrate how the paintings “light up” in the dark. Indeed, as the lights dimmed, all the windows in the cottage seemed to glow, as did the street lamps and the setting sun. Nearly every Kinkade painting includes some form of electric light, a gimmick that inspires gasps of awe in the viewers.
It is important to note that the works for sale are not Kinkade’s original paintings, but digital prints that have been transferred to canvas and, in many cases, touched up by artists specially trained for this work. This touchup work enhances the glowing effect. One print in the gallery, an example of the high-end “Studio Series,” was touched up by Kinkade himself, and sold for $6,500. The saleswoman beamed as she presented the lavishly framed canvas, which did not look much different from the more modestly priced prints.
The prints, however, are only the beginning. Media Arts Group has created an entire lifestyle around the work of Kinkade, a lifestyle that emphasizes family values, Christian beliefs, and simple pleasures. Citing the will of God, Kinkade claims that it is his Christian duty to propagate his wholesome images.
In addition to collecting mugs and plates, extreme Kinkade devotees can live in The Village, a gated community in California with the same types of meandering paths, old-fashioned street lamps, and sparkling streams that one may find in the paintings. The only problem is that there will be actual people living in this community, whereas the paintings are generally devoid of human presence.
I must give Kinkade some credit. Not only has he become the most financially successful artist in the country; he has subverted the entire gallery system, creating his own parallel system and allowing those from the outside to become part of a new art world. Most importantly, he has created a greater enthusiasm for his own work than any other artist of this century. Are these not the goals of the postmodern artist?
Then again, we must remember that Kinkade has taken the easy road, giving the public exactly what it wants. The main difference between Kinkade and the average sell-out is that Kinkade has embraced his work as being more important than high art. He has rejected the art world at every turn, just as the art world has rejected him.
If we think of Thomas Kinkade’s work at all, let us think of it as it really is: empty decoration. Some day, it might rise to the status of camp. Then those of us who know better will smile fondly at “Glory of Evening,” “Glory of Morning,” or “Glory of Winter,” wondering how anyone could have taken this stuff so seriously.
Perhaps we already do.