Sunday, April 8, 2012

rethinking Thomas Kinkade

In my thirties I happened to step into a show where a number of Thomas Kinkade paintings were being displayed along with other painters of his ilk.

I didn't like any of the paintings that I saw at the exhibit: I dismissed everything I saw while barely looking at any of them; I was extremely disappointed that I had gone out of my way to go to it. Indeed, I was embarassed to be there and hoped no one saw me. And in spite of my feelings at the time, people were buying this art like mad to put in their suburban homes.

As I stepped out to get back into the car, I was shaking my head and looked at my husband (ex now) and with a puzzled look asked, "Why?" He nodded in agreement, knowing what I was getting at.

Although we didn't see eye to eye on much, we both loved going to art museums together. Renaissance masters were my favorites, though I also went out of my way to go to pottery exhibits, sculpture exhibits and always loved the chance to go to the Modern Museum of Art on one of those college buses full of art students that leave the college campus at 5 in the morning and come back from New York City on the same day. Art could move me to tears. I remember stepping into the Renaissance tapestry room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and bursting into tears.

Anyway, back to my story:

So, previous to the Thomas Kinkade exhibit, we made a trip to a museum to see a special display of original drawings by Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci is someone I have always been fascinated with, even as a child: his mastery of so many mediums, his inability to finish projects, his wonderful imagination, his refined painting style, his sketchbook full of ideas, indeed his life was so rich and interesting to me. When I was a teenager, I actually stared at one of his paintings for hours. When I went to the National Gallery of Art, I kept returning over and over to the room where his painting Ginerva de' Benci was located. When I was a freshman in college and able to afford some prints, it was Leonardo I pinned to my wall.

So coming directly from an exhibit on Leonardo to an exhibit of Thomas Kinkade seemed like night and day to me.

But now that I'm older, I have a different perspective on the art of Thomas Kinkade. Admittedly, I still don't love his work. Plain and simple, it is kitsch along with hummels and pink flamingo lawn ornaments. I often think that most of it is displayed in households with too much T.V., too much refined sugar and kids that misbehave. I'm surprised that painter Eric Fischl hasn't inserted a Kinkade look-alike in his own dark depictions of suburban life.

Being part of the art student community and later being among teachers, I could afford to deride Kinkade's work like the art establishment always has. My professors told me to shoot for the stars and I did: I made a lot of provoking and innovative work that continually challenged my skill (note: I don't have any of this work on the web at this time because it is sexual in nature). Even as a potter in the 1980s when I had to make mugs to support my higher art habits and where I could make a comfortable living from the profession, I could still distance myself from kitsch art.

But when it became clear that only a chosen few were allowed into the art establishment and when I had to change my artistic direction in order to continue making a living doing art, I began to look at kitsch differently.

My change in attitude came at a time when I began to feel a repulsion towards the art establishment for always going for the shock value of subject matter above everything else. I also hated the disgusting food art being displayed in musuem shows which seemed no more valuable in terms of longevity, innovation and skill than kitsch. Indeed, food installation art seemed to be on the same level as kitsch in that it appealed to the art establishment's lowest common denominator (and just continued a tradition that Duchamp had started a century earlier with the urinal on the wall -- indeed it seemed as conformist to me as the days of the Academie des Beaux-Arts). It seemed to me no different than Kinkade appealing to people who had little appreciation for life outside of their own worlds of gummy bears, Smerfs, big T.V.s and suburbia.

I simply stopped going in the direction of innovative shock-you art and struggled more than usual to make a living at art. I was so down on my luck that I took it to mean that I had to appeal more to a general public not educated in art, though admittedly I didn't know how to do that very well at first because I was grossly out of touch - I was a studio hermit educated by professors who bowed to the art establishment.

After I decided I would try to appeal to a more massive audience, I was dealing with a lot of medical issues and other hardships. As a person, I was becoming more compassionate and tried to find ways of dealing with suffering by indulging in art that I felt was uplifting. It became less of a concern to make a statement than to improve my own emotional and spiritual state of mind. I was also performing music at Renaissance Faires. The combination turned me more towards fantasy art.

I began to visit less museums and go to more plebeian exhibits in upstate New York and New England tourist town galleries, almost all of which indulged in pleasant tranquil garden scenes, seascapes, idealized landscape paintings, realistic portraiture and fantasy art. I knew why these artists did it: to survive, to be able to keep saying they were still artists and to indulge themselves and others in a world made more ideal than most of us live. I discovered that fantasy art appealed more to the part of the general public on a spiritual quest. Indeed, I realized all of these artists which overwhelmed the art scene in almost every town and city across the country were probably derided by the art establishment as much as Kinkade had been (though not publically because these artists aren't making millions of dollars).

Perhaps kitsch landscape art is no more sinful than authors having to resort to writing romance novels in order to pay the heating bill, the potter having to make mugs and the photographer having to shoot weddings. Indeed, I am now guilty of having made plenty of kitsch art: indeed greeting cards and gift tags are indicative of a bit of kitsch, yes?

I vaguely remember reading a Buddhist teacher say that in order to become enlightened, you had to have a panoramic view of an issue, i.e. see it from all sides. In seeing the issue from more sides, I no longer revile Kinkade's art anymore than I hate the seascapes I see at tourist town galleries. At this point I also don't have a lot of thoughts and feelings invested in what the established art contemporary scene does or expects of its artists either (the artists who conform to its vision of what makes a "real artist", those who deserve a place in history and in the permanent collections of museums).

As the saying goes, it is what it is and somehow I have found that in my life I am walking on many different art paths trying to find my own way - and perhaps by default, it is a path with a panoramic view.


  1. Good post. Now I have to go go look at a Thomas Kincade picture! I'm not really up on art!