Thomas Kinkade's Premise
As you no doubt have heard by now, Thomas Kinkade, the self-titled "Painter of Light," passed away last Friday at the age of 54. I'd like to take this opportunity to say a few things about his art and the wider art world. I never met him and I can't speak about him as a person (it sounds like he had his fair share of demons), but a comment I read this weekend in one of the news stories clarified my thoughts about his artwork and his critics tremendously.
I've never been comfortable with the criticism heaped upon his work by the larger world of art. In fact, criticism is a mild word — he was literally trashed and insulted by the art community. I followed his career from a distance and have noted with consistency how his work was loathed by the art establishment with a bitterness that always seemed out of proportion. For example, here is a quote from the Los Angeles times:
Whether lambasting his paintings or his mass-market business technique, critics reserved a special contempt for Kinkade. Times art critic Christopher Knight has described his paintings as "schlocky" while the San Francisco Chronicle's Kenneth Baker wrote that Kinkade "has a vocabulary, as most painters do... It's a vocabulary of formulas, unfortunately."
I've never understood this kind of criticism in art. It's not unique to Kinkade, surely, because we see similar bitter criticisms in every photography forum, too. His work was different than the norm and therefore simply had to be intellectually destroyed. Kinkade's art may not be someone's cup of tea, and can be viewed as saccharin-laced fantasy, but why does this motivate people to lambaste him with such insults? Whatever happened to "Live and let live"?
Curiously enough, I've noticed a similar animosity toward two other artists who were incredibly popular and whose work is loved by millions — Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney — both of whom Kinkade stated that he felt were artistic fellow travelers. I think he was right about this, but it wasn't until I read further that I understood it.
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."
The intellectual isolation of the artist. That's the key.
Kinkade, Rockwell, and Disney made art with a different premise — a premise that is diametrically opposed to the premise that drives today's art world. To be honest, I think I have spent my entire adult life, my entire art life, so involved in the Zeitgeist of my times that I was unaware of the fundamental premise of today's art world. Who knows what drove the critics to express such contempt for these popular artists, but it seems clear to me that they are being judged against a different premise that handicaps them entirely in the world of modern art. Without knowledge of the premise, of course the art was a bit of a mystery. Change the premise and everything else changes, too.
Art as personal expression is the invisible premise that drives today's art. Van Gogh, with his tortured soul, is the paragon. What we feel, what we see, what we create is the realm of the artist with this premise. But, such internally directed, self-expressive motives are not the only premise that is possible. Kinkade, Rockwell, and Disney — and now that I think of it all of the classical painters, in addition — all eschewed personal expression in favor of the pursuit of that "intimate statement that resonates with personal lives" of their viewers. Rather than create obtuse and intellectual art that demands the viewer migrate to the artist's point of view, Kinkade and his fellow travelers turned the premise around 180° so that as artists they migrated to the viewer's point of view. It's no wonder that Kinkade, Rockwell, and Disney connected with such incredibly large audiences — and equally no wonder that so much of today's excruciatingly personal artwork connects with almost no one.
I'm in the arts as both a publisher and an art maker. But I can clearly see the schism that divides my life with an unbreachable crevasse. I have friends and fellow artists for whom art is the driving force in their lives; I have friends (and family) for whom art is a laughable foolishness, a game played by intellectuals that has no meaning and no importance. The former group makes, buys, collects, and enjoys personally expressive art. They (We) are a very small, miniscule subset of the population. The latter group would never dream of attending an art gallery opening, let alone purchasing such buffoonery at such absurd prices. It's easy to think that these uneducated masses do not like art —a put-down the arterati enjoy flinging at the red-neck cretins. Those masses do, however, flock to major museum exhibitions, have art in their homes, and enjoy art — from artists like Kinkade, Rockwell, or Remington. And Ansel Adams.
The intellectual isolation of the artist. The premise of the self-expressive artists is that they are the center of art and that the audience should seek out their artistic insight and genius. As his stated goal, Kinkade's premise was that the viewer is the center of art — a premise that is visible in his compositions that are so incredibly inhabitable. It cannot be coincidence that the popularity of Kinkade is connected to the way his paintings all feel like we could walk right into the idyllic world portrayed; that the popularity of Rockwell is connected to the way his paintings reminded his audience of the world they grew up in; that the popularity of Disney is the way his vision of life touches a universal set of fantasies; or that Adams' photography shows us an idealized nature we would all love to inhabit, but that is not the one we actually live in.
Kinkade said, "I'm trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel." He also said, "I really like to make people happy." For this he is trashed by the art world? Would they have applauded him if his objectives would have been to spread misery and darkness and make people feel sad and despondent? Come to think of it, based on what I so often see on display in today's modern art galleries, perhaps that is the objective of modern art. If the premise of today's art is to be personally expressive, and if the artist icon who demonstrates this is Van Gogh, perhaps it's understandable why so much of today's art leaves me feeling, like Van Gogh, suicidal and depressed.
The art critics can scoff at Kinkade and Rockwell and Disney (and Adams) at the top of their collective lungs, but they cannot change the response that so many of us have to their artwork, nor can they remove the longing that exists in people for inspiration and the anticipation of living in a better world — even if that better world exists only in a painting or a photograph. We are optimists in the midst of realism — an attitude that strikes me as a much more enjoyable and rewarding realm to occupy than that of a modern artist in the midst of a banal and pessimistic world. Perhaps Kinkade had it right. No doubt his premise put him at odds with today's art world, but perhaps his premise also was a great virtue that the art world simply cannot allow into their collective consciousness lest it "shine the light" on their premise of intellectual isolation.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.