Thomas Kinkade - The Good Shepherd's Cottage (2001)

Cottage Industry

Q: Who is the most successful artist to have graduated from Pasadena’s prestigious Art Center College of Design? If you guessed hig-modernist design copycat Jorge Pardo, you’re only getting warm. The artist in question, while similarly blurring the lines between fine art and furniture as well as extending the artist’s domain to include the construction of entire domiciles, regularly posts annual sales in excess of $100-million, and his work is estimated to be a part of 1 out every 20 households in America. Art Center’s biggest professional fine-art success story is the only artist to have been named a "future hall of famer" by US Art Magazine, a two-time National Association of Limited Edition Dealers "Graphic Artist of the Year," and the nation’s most collected living artist. Yet, Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ remains virtually unrecognized by the otherwise impressionable art world, relegated to the same nebulous phantom zone as berated and mustachioed Super Bowl Playboy artiste LeRoy Neiman, once-decent illustrator turned sinister hack Peter Max, and the by now "quart-sized Picasso" Alexandra Nechita. As a fine artist, Kinkade’s work has infiltrated the public sector on an unprecedented scale, gracing knickknacks and gewgaws of all manner, and giving rise to over 300 galleries devoted exclusively to sales of his work.

Incorporated in 1990, Kinkade's marketing and distribution company Media Arts Group was one of most unusual business phenomena of the turning Millennium. Ranked fourth on Business Week’s May 1999 list of "Hot Growth Companies" and placed in the top ten of Forbes Magazine's 1998 list of the best small companies in America, Media Arts Group claims to pursue an innovative strategy of "lifestyle branding," a scheme that involves getting consumers to identify Kinkade's name with traditional family values by licensing it to a variety of essentially retro-Victorian home-furnishing lines. This, in turn, draws even more people into the carefully monitored Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises, where the bulk of commerce takes place. Drawing from a library of 170 Thomas Kinkade images, Media Arts Group manufactures a baffling array of products, from magnets and cookie tins to every imaginable permutation of framed or unframed photolithograph on paper or canvas. These, ranging from the $195 nine-by-twelve-inch Classics Collection to the $15,000 Master Edition Canvas Lithographs—with "personal retouching by the artist himself," the artist’s thumbprint, a Master Edition Seal, an authorized security signature, and yet a second signature in metallic ink—are the company’s meat and potatoes.

For those of lesser means, there is the Thomas Kinkade Plein Air collection, the Thomas Kinkade Portfolio Edition, the Thomas Kinkade Library Print Edition, the Thomas Kinkade Inspirational Print Collection, the Thomas Kinkade Hearth and Home Collection, and the Thomas Kinkade Book Collection. Members of the Thomas Kinkade Collector’s Society “enter a world of beauty that only Thomas Kinkade can create” by paying annual dues and purchasing exclusive, members-only offerings from the pages of the Society's journal The Beacon. In 1998 the La-Z-Boy furniture corporation unveiled a line of over 100 Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ furniture items. The following year, Warner Books Inc. and QVC combined to give a big push to Kinkade’s collection of self-help aphorisms "Lightposts for Living" which was followed by scores of other publications, from parenting manuals a trilogy of soap-operatic novels set in the fictional Kinkadesque town of Cape Light. Also in 1999 Media Arts announced a licensing agreement with Houston-based U.S. Home Corporation for the construction of homes, and ultimately entire planned communities inspired by Kinkade’s work. The first such community, part of the planned enclave of Hiddenbrooke north of san Francisco, opened – with an unsettling serendipitous poeticism that underscored its underlying theme of retreat from the harshness of contemporary life – in September of 2001. From inspirational desktop screensavers to “Music of Light” CDs to chapel-shaped dinner table centerpieces to something called the “Sunrise Magnetic Flap Journal”, there seems to be no aspect of contemporary culture to which Kinkade’s vision is inadaptable. What may appear to be merely classic marketing is nevertheless a successful instance of the fine arts competing with the mass media, and deserves close attention.

Kinkade differs from his fellow gilded ghetto dwellers of fine-art collectible land, however, in that his work makes no token concessions to modernist and postmodernist reorderings of visual language. Overtly, even militantly sentimental (like his idol Norman Rockwell), Kinkade's detailed workmanlike renditions of traditional quasiluminist landscapes, inhabited by homely cottages and stone lighthouses, neatly bisected by babbling brooks and waterfalls, and track-lit from heaven through a conveniently parting storm-front, are quintessentially picturesque. That is, they are pictures that look like scenes that look like pictures. With the licensing of furniture, linens, chinaware, and housing designed to look like it came out of a Kinkade painting (in addition to the more typical licensing of giftware bearing reproductions of an artist's imagery) the layers of simulation become thick enough to conceal the source. The camouflaged invisibility of sentimental pictorialism in our visual culture, where the pathetic fallacy can only penetrate the art world through the orifice of ironic appropriation, while at the same time almost saturating the ground of popular visual culture—television, movies, and advertising—is the loophole Kinkade and his corporate associates intend to stretch wide enough to free us all.

Free us from what, though? To those who remain cloistered and self-involved in today's art world, Kinkade’s crusade may seem to be merely a calculated exploitation of the reactionary media image of modern artists as sneering hucksters, deriving meaning from its oppositional relationship to the drip paintings, meat spectacles, and Duchampian relocations that have fueled tabloid rants since forever. But apart from a few incidental (and disparaging) mentions, the literature on Kinkade is devoid of any reference to contemporary art. Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ brochures, catalogues, and annual reports are nevertheless laced with statements about the meaning and function of art in the contemporary world, more often than not mouthed by a member of the Board of Directors of Media Arts rather than Kinkade himself. “Art is an incredibly powerful communicator which can, and should, be as relevant to people in our culture as movies, books, music, or television.” Right on!

The first time I entered a Kinkade franchise and told the proprietress that I was thinking about writing an article on the artist and his work, a wall of suspicion immediately dropped between us, and she informed me that I couldn’t do that without the permission of the Company. This was the first hint of the paranoiac cultishness that gives the massive enterprise its ominous edge: Kinkade's landscapes are reminiscent of the pastoral scenes that are revealed at the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil as only billboards masking gray postindustrial ruins. In this sense, Kinkade's empire provides a more real, if cruder version of the picture of popular culture that the overly Gnostic strains of contemporary cultural criticism identify as a wholly malevolent and patently false model of reality, designed to distract and coerce us into a mass denial of our individual misery.

Be that as it may, the art produced or championed by adherents to this line of argument (that is, the entire cultural niche that values the insights of Jean Baudrillard over those of Dale Carnegie) is as vigilantly, if less forthrightly committed to the policing of the status quo as any Hallmark greeting card or network newscast. Their audience is just smaller, and dresses funny. Why should we believe that telling people "Everything’s all right because I am a clever, privileged manufacturer of contemporary cultural objects" is more convincing to some friendless, lactose-intolerant middlebrow who lives and works in a cubicle than "Everything’s all right because you can imagine you are walking down this pre-industrial English country lane and a nice lady is making you lactose-free cocoa in that stone cottage"?

Kinkade’s strategy is not one of rehabilitation of the existing art world, but an establishment of an entirely new parallel art world, one that defies high and lowbrow distinctions and teleological models of art as a formalist polemic awaiting completion, subverts the established hierarchy of the gallery and museum system, and cuts a swath through the tangled elitism of academic paradigm. These are, of course, the declared ideals of all good postmodernists. This phagocytic configuration is constructed through the combination of a relentless forging of a new distribution network by which the public may encounter art and expect to have a positive experience, as well as by the artist's radical usurpation of protocol. Wholly on par with Komar and Melamid's Most Wanted art project (though not requiring quotation into the high-art establishment for validity), Kinkade accomplishes his feat by going to the public to find out what constitutes a worthwhile art experience, rather than dictating one to them. Kinkade invites us to join him in "letting our light shine to illuminate a world of beauty and grace."

The Messianic tint to Kinkade's artistic persona is no accident. The artist’s apparent separateness from the ominously anonymous Media Arts Group; the cultlike atmosphere of his galleries with their prescribed litanies (“Is this your first experience of the art of Thomas Kinkade?”); the ritualized dimming of gallery lights; the artist's power to transubstantiate a relatively inexpensive lithograph into a high-priced "semi-original" through the merest application of paint daubs; the implicit equation of accomplished illusionistic lighting effects with mastery over spiritual illumination; the attribution to the artist and his work of the shamanistic power to transport nonvisionaries to parallel realities; and countless other carefully orchestrated aspects of Kinkade's packaging all paint the artist as avatar, the embodiment of godhead. This way of understanding and bestowing meaning and authority on artistic activity is as old as culture. It is only in the last 150 years that artists have rejected it, railed against it, and refused to take advantage of it. Kinkade has tapped into a vast reservoir of art-related archetypal energy which crispy academics have failed (alongside racism and narrative) to wish out of existence.

The use of imagery as a key for unlocking inner experiences, swept under the carpet in an attempt to rid it of the condescending overtones of therapy and forfeited in the fifteen-seconds-per-picture mode of museum trolling, is one of the most psychologically and biologically profound effects of visual art. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the ancient traditions of Tibetan and Navajo sand painting to Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece to the paintings of Mark Rothko, the use of pictures as visual aids in initiating and guiding inner "journeys" uniformly depends upon dim lighting, privacy, prolonged access to the artifact, an understanding of the translatability of the design into illusionistic depth, and freedom from self-consciousness in order to effectively trigger a deep animal response. This kind of visual material is no longer a consensually validated way of understanding art; yet, it has never really gone away. Given the strength of the psychological hook it wields and the utter isolation most regular Joe's feel toward contemporary art, it's small wonder that no matter how disdainfully we sophisticates ignore the "Old Mill" and the "Little Cottage Down the Lane," they just won’t go away.

Through a concerted and intricate advertising strategy, Kinkade and Media Arts Group have reinscribed their high-numbered editions of sentimental pictorial lithography with the aura of the artist. Positioning art as an understandable, explorable, available, and positive experience for a large public, Kinkade is tapping into a deep yearning of the American public to participate in the art world. What he understands (and many of his fellow Art Center alumni do not) is that people consciously prefer to be seduced into agreement, rather than bullied into making up their own minds. People want to be rewarded for paying attention. To refuse to participate in such hardwired and unavoidable acts of commerce on the basis of moral superiority is, if not puritanical, hypocritical and fascist, then just plain stupid. Although the recent economic downturn and an unprecedented level of saturation have resulted in a dilution of this aura (and some publicly voiced financial distress from franchise gallerists), Kinkade has remained steadfast to his vision, working extensively with charities, actively promoting the pivotal role of art education in the public schools (including the licensing and development of the Kolorful Kids™ curriculum and instructional video set), and, finally – in November of 2003 - buying back all the public stock in the Media Arts Group at 76% over market value: a bottom line statement of confidence in the continued demand for his message.

Intentionally or not, Thomas Kinkade Galleries and Media Arts Group have also created a most telling art-world intervention, on a par with Jeffrey Vallance’s clandestine 1977 electric switchplate solo exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Hans Haacke's 1971 exposé of the real-estate holdings of Guggenheim Museum trustees. “From the outset,” writes Chairman Ken Raasch, “Media Arts Group has changed the paradigm of art." We're often told that the ability to mobilize opposition is a measure of dialectical currency. So, consider the following: Answering the question “If art can be anything, why can’t copies of furniture or graphic design or advertising be art?” will likely get a rise only out of the furniture designer or graphic artist or advertiser from whose work you are profiting. But then consider this: “If art can be anything, why can’t mass-marketed prints of nineteenth-century-style romantic landscapes be art?” and you will get virtually every expert opinion on the matter lined up against you. To participate in any of the conceptual sleight-of-hand acts in current circulation as an art experience, you have to "get it." To be allowed to sit in a Kinkade La-Z-Boy, you just have to get it. And Nature, Family, Serenity, and Spiritual Light are included with even the most modestly priced Thomas Kinkade lifestyle accouterment.

At the same time, Kinkade’s work raises more questions about what constitutes art in contemporary culture than most everything from within the art world it aims to supersede. While skittish dilettantes tiresomely mine yet another implicit but unexplored incremental variation on early seventies avant-gardism in search of a frisson of wrongness to momentarily confuse their consumers into thinking they’re actually questioning what constitutes art and what its role in our culture consists of, Kinkade and associates blast through such twee niggling with what amounts to a manifesto for the new millennium. A fractally detailed hybrid of the high-pitched busyness of commercial culture and the low hum of contemplative interiority, Kinkade's great work reads like a hypertextual marriage of the two most seemingly opposite cultural strains of our time. For an art world that shrugs as it continues to find titillating ways to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it ought to serve as a wake-up call.

A version of this essay appeared in Doug Harvey’s Skipping Formalities column in the September 1999 issue of Art issues.

From the catalog for "Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth" Grand Central Art Press/Last Gasp 2004 accompanying the exhibit of the same name curated by Jeffrey Vallance at the GCAC from April 3 - June 20, 2004