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The controversial art of Thomas Kinkade

It was clear, this weekend, that the major West Coast newspapers didn't expect the controversial (yes, I used that word deliberately) artist Thomas Kinkade to die at 54 years of age. Thus, the newsrooms did not have pre-written obituaries about the self-proclaimed "painter of light" ready to update and publish. The key at this stage of the journalism game is the pending autopsy. While his family stated that he died of natural causes, Kinkade also has struggled with a variety of issues -- some quite bizarre -- linked to alcohol abuse.

The early obituaries where short and usually shallow, which is rare for a public figure as loved and loathed as Kinkade. Here is a chunk of the offering from The Mercury News, which was deeper than the average. Readers learn that:

His paintings are hanging in an estimated one of every 20 homes in the United States. Fans cite the warm, familiar feeling of his mass-produced works of art, while it has become fashionable for art critics to dismiss his pieces as tacky. In any event, his prints of idyllic cottages and bucolic garden gates helped establish a brand -- famed for their painted highlights -- not commonly seen in the art world.

"I'm a warrior for light," Kinkade told the Mercury News in 2002, alluding not just to his technical skill at creating light on canvas but to the medieval practice of using light to symbolize the divine. "With whatever talent and resources I have, I'm trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel."

His Media Arts Group company surged to success, taking in $32 million per quarter from 4,500 dealers across the country 10 years ago, before it went private in the middle of the past decade. The cost of his paintings range from hundreds of dollars to more than $10,000.

The Placerville native, who also leaves behind a brother and sister, was known to dress up like Santa Claus on Christmas, ride a Harley-Davidson and go on painting trips around the world. He would visit studio executives but also got to know all the homeless people in Los Gatos. He read classic books but also enjoyed shooting and blowing up things on his ranch.

The father of four girls and a devoted Christian, his artistic philosophy was not to express himself through his paintings like many artists, but rather to give the masses what they wanted: warm, positive images. ... In the 25 years since graduating from UC Berkeley, his official biography says he has printed 1,000 paintings of "cabin and nature scenes, beautiful gardens, classic cottages, sports, inspirational content, lighthouses and powerful seascapes, impressionists, and classic Americana."

This story, as it should, mentions Kinkade's recent history of financial insecurity -- including a Chapter 11 filing on behalf of his company's Pacific Metro branch. Then, months later, there was a suspicion of DUI arrest. The Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating some of his investment practices.

For me, the key questions linked to serious news coverage of Kinkade are hidden in that vague, meaningless phrase "devoted Christian." It is also important to realize that the "tacky" label was tossed at Kinkade by serious Christian artists and thinkers on left and right (a must-read by Joe Carter here). Kinkade was found guilty of cranking out safe, predictable, sticky-sweet art -- opium for the semi-spiritual Masses.

Thus, at his "God and the Machine" blog at Patheos.com, Thomas McDonald writes:

Kinkade was a Christian, and his Christianity was just one of the many things that rankled his critics.

Let’s be very clear here right at the outset. Thomas Kinkade was not a bad artist. Thomas Kinkade was an exceptionally talented artist with excruciatingly bad taste. He was a hack, and a tremendously successful one. A hack is someone who sells his talent to the highest bidder, with little concern for niceties like artistic integrity.

Wait, there's more. McDonald quotes this devastating verdict from Simcha Fisher, writing at The National Catholic Register:

Kinkade isn’t content with shying away from ugliness: He sees nothing beautiful in the world the way it is. He thinks it needs polishing. He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable -- or will be, after she loses ten pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. Normal people recoil from such extreme artifice -- not because they hate beauty, but because they love it.

Kinkade-style light doesn’t show an affection for natural beauty -- it shows his disdain for it. His light doesn’t reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren’t merely trivial, they’re a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn’t just tacky, it’s anti-Incarnational.

Ouch. It would be hard to imagine a more brutal sentence about the work of a Christian artist.

This brings me to my main point about the Kinkade coverage -- which I expect to continue. At some point, journalists need to interview the critics and defenders of Kinkade and allow them to offer their viewpoints about the faith content, if there was any, of his art. Also, if Kinkade was a "devoted Christian," what kind of Christianity drove the work of this Berkeley-trained professional? Why did he do what he chose to do his paint and brushes (and his empire)?

I have my own opinions and they are based, in part, from my one encounter with Kinkade, which was not in a journalistic context. I was not able to ask him pointed questions and record the answers. I will simply say this, speaking as an Orthodox Christian who grew up Southern Baptist (it would be hard to name two traditions with more radically different approaches to art): Kinkade was, simply stated, not very interested in religious art. He was, however, interested in selling his products to a certain kind of vaguely religious set of clients. He knew what worked. He knew what these consumers said inspired them. Thus, that's what he wanted to create -- period.

This slice of the Associated Press report on his death points toward some interesting subjects for discussion.

Bridges are a frequent subject, as are steps or grassy inclines leading through gate images. Some of his paintings are visual depictions of Bible verses, such as "A Light in the Storm," taken from John 8:12: "I am the light of the world."

A biography on the website said Kinkade rejected "the intellectual isolation of the artist" and instead, made "each of his works an intimate statement that resonates in the personal lives of his viewers."

"I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy," he said.

Bridges. Gates. Streams. Cottages. Lighthouses. I think that it will help if readers cruise around a bit in the following simple Google search and focus on the subjects and images that are missing from Kinkade's work (as opposed to this collection by another troubled artist who was a Christian).

It will take serious journalism to get any of these subjects into the framework of daily journalism. Journalists who attempt to do so should brace themselves for lots of angry telephone calls and emails.

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