Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thomas Kinkade: a Reevaluation. Or: What is Kitsch and Why is it Bad Exactly?

Or is it bad?

As you probably know, the popular painter Thomas Kinkade died a couple of weeks ago. Popularity on the scale of Kinkade is something few artists experience, but most artists I know hated the guy, or at least, resented the hell out of him. 

The first thing I noticed when he died was how carelessly the obituary on Yahoo had been written. More accurate information could have easily been found on Wikipedia. The author of the obit described Kinkade's paintings as,  "brushstroke paintings," whatever that means. As far as I know there are few other ways to paint a painting than with a brush, unless digital media has become so prevalent that the author felt that a distinction had to be made, but I doubt it. Maybe they meant impressionist? Though his paintings weren't entirely impressionistic either.  But "brushtroke paintings" was simply lazy.  The article ended with how much his paintings sold for, "$100 to $10,000" except this wasn't how much his paintings sold for at all. He didn't sell his paintings. He sold his prints. He sold them in his own chain of stores in malls all over the country. You probably all ready know this, at least the part about his chain of stores, but the author of the article couldn't be bothered. It wasn't even logical: how could the most successful painter in the U.S. sell his original work for $100? So even though I didn't care for the guy's work, I felt that Yahoo had done him an injustice. He deserved better.

Why did people hate him? They hated him because he appeared to be an mercenary opportunist. He  was unapologetically arrogant. I once read a New Yorker profile about him where he described his resentment for art academia, and how they had rejected him. He thought he should be in all the greatest museums in the world, and that time would show his true value as an artist. He once said, "The concept that an artist would be revered by popular culture is an immediate dismissal of his relevance as an artist." I can't deny the essential truth of this statement, at least in contemporary art academia. And time has won out for a lot of popular artists. Through his pictures, Norman Rockwell invented an undeniably unique portrait of american culture that has become such a powerful argument, that his work has entered both the popular and academic vernacular to describe a particular vision of American culture. However you feel about his work, his impact on our collective imagination in undeniable. Kinkade loved Rockwell. He once said, "We've found a way to bring millions of people an art they understand." Supposedly, one in twenty American homes contain a piece of Kinkade's work, so maybe he had a point. One out of twenty people can't be wrong.  People like what they like, and to say that it's because they lack sophistication is too easy. "These paintings are easy to call insignificant by a critic, but they are precious to the people who bring them into their home," said Kinkade, another difficult point to argue.

I don't doubt Kinkade's essential sincerity. If he capitalized on his work, it was out of his own faith that it had value. He knew how to exploit it, and he did. The kind of success that he generated was equal parts artistic ability and business acumen. He used every opportunity to sell his work in every venue possible. There were dish towels, and commemorative plates. There were even TV movies and housing developments. This pissed a lot of people off. Not only did they feel his work was kitsch, but he was making a bundle. Success on this scale has a way of justifying what you do, of proving, on some level, that your work, and by extension, you, are loved. But it didn't seem quite enough for Kinkade. He didn't only want to be loved by the people who loved his work, he wanted to be legitimized by the cultural elite. Clearly this was a point of huge contention with him.  

 He was a deeply, almost aggressively religious man, and he considered the work he did an act of reverence, and that his inspiration came directly from god. Who can argue with that kind of conviction? If god is your muse, who cares about the cultural elite. But apparently Thomas Kinkade, did. At least enough to be vocally resentful about their perceived rejection of him. 

In the last few years, since I've been doing children's material, I've been reassessing what I think about the idea of kitsch. The polish author, Milan Kundera once defined kitsch as "a denial of what is unacceptable about reality." He used the concept to describe the failure of communist idealism, and of idealism in general. One of my favorite books of Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, is about a communist poet who tries to live every aspect of his life by what he supposes to be his ideals, but can't get beyond his own vanity. The gap between what he wanted to be and who he was, was inescapable, and since he could not accept who he was, he became a living example of the concept of kitsch. I don't know if this applies to Kinkade personally, but it's one definition of Kitsch, and Kinkade's work can be easily argued to be Kitsch.

This is pretty typical of the kind of work we associate with Kinkade:

Quintessential Kinkade

 I'm not going to deny that there's something about it that's very enchanting. Intellectually, I want to reject this thought immediately, but there is a part of me, the part of me that liked Disney's Snow White as a kid, that is very attracted to the image. On a technical level it's competently painted. Kinkade is no amateur. His paintings take quite a bit of skill to execute. But it's not simply the way they're executed that's appealing, and there are many other painters who have more technical skill than Kinkade.

Everything in the picture is arranged in a way that reminds me of a manicured and very cared for garden. When I see people with a garden like this I don't think kitsch, so much as, "wow, they really take care of their garden." The cottage is about as enchanting a cottage as you could imagine. It's got a thatched roof, arched door, and cobbled stonework. There is not one, but two smoking chimneys, which seems a little impractical for the size of the house, but its cozy size is also appealing. It is the kind of place you might expect a little elf to live. The bridge, too, is the image of a quaint little bridge. You've got a stream, you've got a little serpentine pathway, and of course, Kinkade's trademark glimmering light and misty background. The whole scene is surrounded by brilliant pastel colored flowers and blossoms. It's a collection of charming and idyllic nouns, all crammed into one painting.

It's hard to see images for their own merits. We tend to pick out the nouns. Tree. House. Car. When we look at a picture, nouns are the first things we think of. Aside from simple expressions of desire and affection, simple nouns are the first things we learn when we learn about language. Our conception of these nouns is elaborated on over time as we learn more about "tree," and "house" and "car." Our collective understanding of a given noun is called it's schema.  Each of these symbols has its own schema and cultural association, and these associations are similar if you share that culture. Kinkade succeeds in evoking a psychological response of quaintness and nostalgia by tapping into that collective schema. Someone who has not been exposed to our cultural idyls will likely not have the same response. There's little denying that Kinkade is very good at this. By effectively illustrating these symbols in combination, he's able to evoke an emotional response, whether or not, intellectually you would like to have that response. I think it's this involuntary emotional response that causes even more resentment in people who don't like Kinkade's paintings. It's like when you watch a movie that you know is emotionally manipulative, that you know is pressing your emotional buttons, but you can't help but feel what the movie is trying to make you feel. When I see a movie like that, afterwards, I feel ripped off. I feel lied to. But as mercenary as Kinkade seems to be as a businessman, I don't think his intentions as a painter are mercenary at all. He doesn't intend to manipulate. I think, by combining all of these elements, he's pleasing himself. It makes him happy to paint this stuff, and he can see that it makes other people happy too.

When I look at Kinkade's paintings and enjoy them, part of me feels like I'm looking at something elicit. It's enchantment porn. But then I go from being enchanted, to feeling ripped off again. I once read pornography described as something that's only purpose is for you to want it.  I think there's some of this in Kinkade's paintings, but to say that this is their only aim is an oversimplification. But he's not Norman Rockwell. While Rockwell illustrated his world view by telling a variety of stories in a variety of ways, Kinkade tells the same story over and over again. Obviously it's a story people like. To enjoy his paintings, you have to have a willingness to allow yourself to feel the feelings of enchantment and nostalgia that these paintings evoke. All it takes is the willingness, and a cultural affinity for the symbols he uses. It's hard for me, personally, to be so willing, seeing the paintings as I see them. Intellectually I can't allow myself to suspend my dislike for this kind of emotional manipulation, even if it's not cynical or calculated. It's also a very traditional and conservative kind of nostalgia, what my wife would call, "grandma." It's the kind of naive charm that we associate with an era less cynical, and perhaps our cynicism denies us the simple pleasure of what Kinkade has to offer. 

Disney, My Own Work, and How Kitsch is Too Kitsch?

I've discussed in earlier posts my ambivalence for and admiration of Disney films. My ambivalence stems from their aggressive charm, similar to that of Kinkade, and my admiration comes from both the craft of them, which goes far beyond what Kinkade ever achieved, and the naturalism and expressiveness of the best of Disney's character animation, most of which happened prior to the 70s. But this character animation, too, can be aggressively charming and aggressively endearing. I find the best Disney films both an inspiration, and a caution. I look at them and think, what in this seems manipulative, or insincere to me? When I talk about insincerity, I don't mean intention. I'm sure the intentions of the animators were very sincere, even if that intention was to cajole. They did whatever it took to make their characters appealing. But sincerity, to me, is to invest in these characters something that goes beyond Kinkade's nouns. Insincerity, to me, is when, over all else, the intention is plainly to evoke emotion, rather than to express character and the subtle commonalities in human beings. When it's no longer about "bridge" but about a specific and unique bridge. 

In recent years, I've thought more about audience than I ever have before. I'm telling stories, and I want the reader to experience identification with the characters. There is also a marketplace that I have to consider. Books have to be sold. I try not to be mercenary about my approach to that marketplace, but I do know what kinds of images are going to make it difficult for me to succeed in that marketplace. It would be disingenuous to say that I haven't catered my work, in part, to what I know I can sell. Illustration is a business, but also an occupation. I want to tell stories in the most effective way I can, but I can't be very effective if no one is buying my work. So to survive in that marketplace, I have to make certain compromises, but the last thing I will ever compromise is my sincerity. 

Without being particularly self-conscious of it, I try to avoid making pictures that are driven by the kinds of nostalgia nouns and specific emotional objectives that I've described. So far this hasn't proven to be much of an obstacle. Generally I do the work that pleases me, with the intention of telling whatever story I'm trying to tell in the most effective way I can. Is it my attention to charm? Absolutely. But charm is secondary to narrative. And if I'm doing my job right, it's the story that you come away with, and not enchanting nouns, or generic emotions. 


  1. I think that you are being true to yourself as an artist. Artists have always had to think about their audience whether it is an art director, wealthy patron, or their internal manifestation of spirit. Those same artists also consider their own desires and aesthetic. The combination of these two forces create art.

    However, I am not so sure about Kincade. Yes he catered to his audience, and yes he did show some talent (depending on who you ask). I am just not sure how sincere his art is. Did he acctually like what he painted, or was he just chasing after the all mighty dollar? Ralph Bakshi, an underground animator and author of subversive films hired Kinkade to be a background artist on his film "Fire and Ice" when Kindade had no prior experiance.

    Bakshi on Kincade: "He's very, very talented, and he’s very, very much of a hustler. Those two things are in conflict. Is he talented? Oh yeah. Will he paint anything to make money? Oh yeah. Does he have any sort of moralistic view? No. He doesn't care about anything. He's as cheesy as they come."

    Kincade is a hot topic for artists because it seems like Kincade's only goal was to make money.

  2. Thanks Marsha!

    I think I've heard that quote from Bakshi before, and I think there's truth it, but I don't think it tells the whole story. Kinkade was quite young when he did set and background illustration for Hollywood, and didn't started selling the prints he's famous for until the 80s, after he became a born again Christian. I'm not a religious person, but this is the root of the "devine inspiration" he talks about, this assumption that what he does comes from God with a capital "G." I think he was sincere in his belief, because it justified everything he did. This makes me think that what he did wasn't entirely cynical. He was trying to make a buck, for sure, but I think he believed very much in his own work. That doesn't mean he was any less greedy, and it certainly doesn't make him any less egotistical, but it doesn't make him completely mercenary.

    What I mean by sincerity and what Kinkade might describe as sincerity are probably too different things. Kinkade has an objective he's trying to achieve with his paintings. He wants to ellicit a very specific response from his audience. Everything about the content of his work is dictated by the response he wants to elicit. This is very different than what I'm trying to do, but I did want to acknowledge that I've had to make compromises, and what those compromises represent to me.

    I think that no matter what kind of art you make, you're always thinking of audience. I discuss some of my ideas about audience more in depth, here, in relation to writing:

    But thanks for your faith and encouragement. It means a lot, Marsha!

  3. Well, For what it's worth, regardless of why he painted what he painted I still love his work. It is quite beautiful, and for a guy to admit such mushy stuff, it must really strike a chord in him(IE me). I buy his puzzles when ever I can afford to. I never really cared about any artist, just the art. Ars Gratia Artis.

  4. Well, to each his own, said the old woman who kissed the cow, and I've definitely kissed my fair share. There's no shame in liking what you like.I did try to consider the art with a certain amount of objectivity, just as I did the man, whose motives for making the stuff I do believe were essentially sincere. I did admit that his work had a certain seductive appeal, however ambivalent I felt about it. I was more fair, I believe, than most of his obituaries. I think his work made a lot of people happy just like you, and I can't argue with that. I'm glad you like his work, and that it gives you pleasure.

  5. True, very true.

    You aught to try putting one of the 1000 - 10000 piece puzzles together. With the detail and colors he uses they will have you baffled for months while trying to figure them out. A real challenge! It's a shame the obits didn't do him justice.

  6. I don't have the patience for jigsaw puzzles. I'd rather just make a picture of my own. :)

  7. As I child I would have loved his paintings. (I never saw them as a child and if 1 in 20 homes in the US have at least one of his paintings on display, why have I never seen a single one in any of the homes I've visited here?) His Crayola palette would have enthralled me as a child. As an adult I see them the same way – "Crayola". As a child I would have loved all the intricate detail in the stonework and the rocks along the river bank. As an adult, I prefer the impressionists who said a lot more than previous artists by saying much less. Yes indeed, I believe it IS a matter of maturity but that certainly doesn't mean that I think people who love him have anything to apologize for. Indeed, I love some kitsch precisely because it is so unabashedly kitschy. It is banale, excessive and over-indulgent and as a result, I can't help but be entertained by it. Having the right balance between good taste and vulgarity is not a bad thing.