The Kinkade legacy and the role of the amateur critic

I don’t really follow modern art.  I probably should, but I don’t.  So I don’t have a strong opinion on the “painter of light,” Thomas Kinkade, one way or the other.  His paintings are visually lovely.  That’s about all I have to say on the subject.  But others have quite a bit more to say, and stridently.  Via Unfolding Forms, I read a provocative criticism of Kinkade by Daniel Siedell, who asserts that Kinkade “produced paintings that are far more terrifying than Munch’s and Holbein’s, giving us a world deprived not only of Easter Sunday, but Holy Saturday, Good Friday, and Christ himself.”  To wit:

But Kinkade’s work refuses to take us to the end of ourselves, refuses the confrontations and disruption that could open us up to grace. His images give us a world that’s really okay, a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, a cozy night with the family to put us right with God. It is a world devoid of pain and suffering; devoid of any fear of insanity or suicide. As a result, it is also a world without grace, without the Word that offers it.

By presenting a prelapsarian vision in his work, Kinkade (Siedell argues) obviates the purpose of Christianity.  More than that, Siedell essentially faults Kinkade for not being personal enough.

Although his visual imagery refused to acknowledge violence and desperation, Kinkade’s personal life was full of it. I can only imagine the excruciating pressure he felt to live up to these deceptively dangerous paintings, which deprived him of the grace he so desperately needed. If only Kinkade could have used his considerable artistic gifts to produce work that came out of his fear, anger, desperation, and his struggle with faith in Christ, he just might have become a painter of Light.

Frankly, I think it’s a tendentious critical move to connect Kinkade’s personal life — and how one critic interprets its significance — to the failings of his aesthetics.  The commenters on this article picked up on that thread and debated it quite heatedly.  Perhaps the most adroit response was made by Haley:

He gained a multi-billion dollar empire by not injecting his personal woes into his work and created beauty instead. We didn’t buy the person, we bought the art. Imagine that.

My question is: who says that Kinkade didn’t inject his personal woes into his work?  Why couldn’t his obsession with pictorial beauty be somehow intimately bound to his personal tragedies?  Siedell seems to depict Kinkade’s beauty as an escape from reality and from the purpose of grace — but who really knows if that’s how Kinkade’s process worked?  I don’t.  Neither do the people who bought his paintings.  I think there’s validity in Siedell’s critique of how Kinkade’s work functions as a prelapsarian fantasy, but why does Kinkade’s personal life need to be a decisive factor in explaining it?

In an earlier post on the occasion of Kinkade’s passing, Brett David Potter had this to say:

That’s one way of looking at it. The other might be to see Kinkade as a courageous artist, going against the grain and doing what he wanted regardless of the art world and its fickle trends. Should artists pay attention to the “critics”? Do they help steer art and artists in the right direction over time, sifting the truly great from the ephemeral, or does critical discourse simply exclude divergent voices from mainstream acceptance? It’s a pressing question… who decides what is “good” art? If you subscribe to Arthur Danto’s institutional view, it is precisely critics, curators and the “artworld” who determine what’s in and what’s out. But if you go by mass appeal, Kinkade might be a more successful artist than most artists working in New York and London today.

An open question, to be sure. But the real question is: who are theologians and art critics going to use now as a case study of bad religious art?

Siedell is only one of many that is trying to steer the discourse, but Potter’s final question — while a little tongue-in-cheek — is absolutely relevant.  Siedell’s most trenchant criticism of Kinkade is basically twofold, investigating whether Kinkade’s art is bad theology or bad aesthetics (or both).  Does bad art make for bad religion; does bad religion make for bad art?  Are the two impulses inseparable from conception, or do they just sort of find each other over time?  The question of how Kinkade’s personal life fits into the puzzle, while perhaps overreaching, reminds us that matters of faith and aesthetics are deeply personal.  Perhaps they can’t so easily be distinguished from the inner life of the artist or the events that shape him.  Yet that kind of keen focus on the individual and his psychology might also preclude an enquiry into the more general metaphysics of art: what role might God play in it?  How do the nature of God (or God’s presence in nature) intersect with art in general?  How do those things impact standards and judgments?  What larger spiritual truths must be considered in evaluating a discrete work of art, as opposed to the lone, soul-searching artist?

Another question: do theologians and art critics seek out case studies for bad art?  Do they need something against which to react in order to define themselves and/or their priorities?  And what is the relation between their priorities and the taste of the masses?  Must there be mediators between Art and Man, or perhaps just facilitators of discourse?

Obviously, I’m asking these questions because they’re applicable beyond Kinkade or modern art.  They’re directly related to film and pop culture, and Siedell’s critique of Kinkade made me think of faithsploitation films like Fireproof and the role they play in the culture.  I’m left wondering what the most fundamental questions are that we should be asking about Christian art.  I’m not going to alter my position that Fireproof is a bad movie, but I am open to the possibility that my priorities in judging the merits of specifically “Christian” cinema might need modification.  I’m not even sure precisely what priorities I’m advocating, beyond the pursuit of aesthetic excellence and improving the cinematic literacy of the culture.  Maybe that’s because my own views on the subject are still evolving, but maybe it’s also because I’m not sure what role I play in this whole discussion.  I’m just a blogger; not an expert, not a professional critic.  Just an enthusiast who wants to contribute his two cents to the world.  But it’s worth remembering that art, beauty, and faith are things that people take as personally as I do, and it behooves me to seek clarity and grace if I’m going to talk about these things.  I don’t want to seek out case studies of bad religious art.  I want to study art religiously.

About mjschneider

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by mjschneider

6 responses to “The Kinkade legacy and the role of the amateur critic

  • jubilare

    I am allergic to Kinkade paintings. I have a similar reaction to Rococo art. I can recognize the skill involved and the beauty intended, but I don’t have to like ‘em.

    Anyway… good questions, as usual. I think it is fallacious to make judgements on a person’s relationship to their own art because we really cannot know. While it can be interesting to take the artist into account, when all is said and done I belong to the camp that says “it’s all about what is on the canvas.” The art, itself, must stand alone. Perhaps this principle might be of use to christian artists and film-makers. Intention is not enough, the work itself out to be powerful even if someone has no idea where it came from, or what it is trying to say.

    “Does bad art make for bad religion; does bad religion make for bad art? Are the two impulses inseparable from conception, or do they just sort of find each other over time?”

    Oo… difficult… difficult. I do not think there is a simple answer. I cannot trust myself with an analysis as I am too biased, but it is food for thought.

    I think everyone seeks out things to push against, though, including art critics and theologians.

  • mjschneider

    I am allergic to Kinkade paintings. I have a similar reaction to Rococo art. I can recognize the skill involved and the beauty intended, but I don’t have to like ‘em.

    If your reaction to his painting is that bad, I guess I’m glad I didn’t include an image in this post!

    Anyway… good questions, as usual. I think it is fallacious to make judgements on a person’s relationship to their own art because we really cannot know. While it can be interesting to take the artist into account, when all is said and done I belong to the camp that says “it’s all about what is on the canvas.” The art, itself, must stand alone. Perhaps this principle might be of use to christian artists and film-makers. Intention is not enough, the work itself out to be powerful even if someone has no idea where it came from, or what it is trying to say.

    I agree… but sometimes I question it. I vacillate on just how important context is, and what is valuable context. There is always some context that is inherently relevant, but things like the artist’s bio, I just don’t know. In the case of someone like Henry Miller, it’s utterly pertinent. With someone like Kinkade… eh, who can say?

    Oo… difficult… difficult. I do not think there is a simple answer. I cannot trust myself with an analysis as I am too biased, but it is food for thought.

    I think everyone seeks out things to push against, though, including art critics and theologians.

    I think that’s true. Again, though, maybe the question is to what degree.

  • jubilare

    Hey, I had to study paintings I hated (as well as those I loved) for four years. I can take it. ;)

    I find context important when it comes to culture and time-period, but less important when it comes to individuals. The context of an artist can be very Interesting, but when it comes to evaluating their art, it is a slippery slope.

    True.

    • mjschneider

      There’s probably a slippery slope in any angle of approach, truth be told. I’m not sure why that particular one seems to be so problematic — both in the sense that I tend to react more strongly against it and in the sense that it seems to be such a commonly-utilized slope down which people slide.

  • brettdavidpotter

    Siedell certainly doesn’t mince words, does he?

    I like where you end up… you’re just a person concerned about beauty, art and faith trying to exercise a little aesthetic and spiritual discernment, not a policeman of the artworld. I’m similarly trying to navigate my way through this territory without losing my soul – what if the “religious art” that people find most moving turns out to be kitsch?

    I think you would like Frank Burch Brown’s books (“Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste” and “Inclusive Yet Discerning”) on this topic. He has some other great examples he draws in.

    Finally, on a personal note, would you ever want to contribute a couple of pieces to the Mediation blog at The Other Journal? http://www.theotherjournal.com/mediation – could be on any topic related to faith and media (you can see what we’ve been up to so far) though we mostly stay away from film since Filmwell covers that. [TV (especially Doctor Who) is OK!] Let me know if you’d be interested… do you have an email address?

    • mjschneider

      I’ll put Brown on my to-read list. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I certainly don’t want to be a policeman of the world; I don’t have the time or patience! The question of “kitsch” is one on which I’m a fence-sitter. It has more to do with the term than anything else. It would be easy to describe something like Fireproof as kitschy, but it seems like such a sincere effort, and in its own way, I think it’s sort of uncompromising (which is another word I disfavor, but which is apt). I’ve seen Capra’s films described as kitsch (“Capra-corn” and whatnot), but I know that Capra considered his aim at the mass-market and universal truths as something very deep and spiritual. Not every film he did is a success, but his best ones, even the cheesiest, are, in my view, ultimately very earnest. And he was a subtly superb stylist. I have very little background in painting as a medium, so I’m not qualified to critique Kinkade in particular; for that reason alone, I can’t and won’t defend him. Yet I am constantly intrigued by the disparity between popular appeal and critical appreciation. They aren’t always at odds, and I know that there is a segment of critical thought that tries to understand the ins and outs how how and why mass marketing works, but then there’s the segment that uses a term like “kitsch” as a way to dismiss something bad-but-popular in a way that suggests it simply doesn’t want to grapple with this disparity.

      Maybe it’s because critics are now self-aware enough that, even if it’s what they really mean, they can’t come right out and say, “Common people are a bunch of uneducated boobs with impaired brains and philistine taste.” I’m not at all laying this on you; it’s just the connotation I associate with that particular word, and since you used it, I’m just running with it a bit. Even so, there’s a part of that that I think is probably quite valid, and the fact that marketability (i.e. profitability) and popularity seem to be so closely intertwined leaves one with the distinct impression that anything that makes that much money must have an element of venal greed involved in its creation, and that it somehow takes advantage of people’s weakness for purty, shiny things. So the fear of corrupting one’s soul in tolerating that kind of art (or “art”) is very pertinent.

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