The Painter of Light

Thomas Kinkade’s Paintings Embody an American Vision Missed by Many Artists

There is not a scrap of doubt that the late painter Thomas Kinkade was a kitschster without rival, but as Blake Gopnik writes, his canvases managed to capture a strangely American combination of blinkered nostalgia, blind complacency, and a ferocious resistance to change.

04.11.12 8:45 PM ET

Amazing how a death can soften your opinions. I used to think of Thomas Kinkade, our self-proclaimed Painter of Light, as a schlockmeister beyond compare, beneath any critic’s contempt or notice. But since the weekend, when news broke that he’d died at only 54, I’ve had time to reconsider. I still view him a kitschster without rival, yet that now seems a significant artistic achievement.

Kinkade’s garish pictures of bubbling brooks, flowering arbors, and quaint village life get at an important chunk of the American psyche that most museum art doesn’t. He captures, with chilling accuracy, a strangely American combination of blinkered nostalgia, blind complacency, and a ferocious resistance to change. And then he packages and sells that vision within a no-holds-barred consumerist culture that you wouldn’t think compatible with pictures of commerce-free townships twinkling by snowlight. There’s not a single Pop artist–not even Warhol–who got at this truly popular side of our culture, and its contradictions, the way Kinkade did.

My praise isn’t facetious or knowing. Kinkade channeled a certain American vision and found the perfect way to convey it. His saccharine style, which escapes any hint of irony or self-reflection, is perfectly matched to some unreflective and irony-free zones in our culture. Art doesn’t always have to comment on the thing it shows. Sometimes just holding up a mirror can be more than enough. Sometimes a mirror is a better tool for seeing than a fancy lens.

I believe Kinkade is not the fantasist he seems. His art gives a realist’s view of how many Americans think and emote. His peaceable farmsteads may never have existed, but the ideals they appeal to are very much with us. (Norman Rockwell, on the other hand, presented fantasy as close to real, which is why I can’t shift to liking his art. It tries to be successful in its lies, whereas Kinkade’s art tells accidental truths.)

This undated photo provided by The Thomas Kinkade Company via PR Newswire shows "Christmas in New York" by Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade, whose brushwork paintings of idyllic landscapes, cottages and churches have been big sellers for dealers across the United States, died Friday, April 6, 2012, a family spokesman said. (AP Photo/PR Newswire, The Thomas Kinkade Company)

The Thomas Kinkade Company / AP Photos

"Christmas in New York" by Thomas Kinkade

It may be, as critics like me have always insisted, that Kinkade didn’t make a single contribution to how paintings can be painted or to what art can look like or do–but he didn’t have to, to make art that matters. His work is all about content not style; in fact, it needs a hackneyed style to get its content just right. To make Kinkade’s high kitsch function as high art, you’d only have to do one thing: put it in the kind of museum where pictures invite serious thought about the worlds they show.

I don’t believe that moving Kinkade’s art from mall to MoMA means using it as a readymade, almost against its will, the way Duchamp turned a standard urinal into the artwork called “Fountain.” Kinkade’s pictures were meant to be looked at and contemplated, as art, in a way a toilet is not. My dark view of what they show–the view I’d hope museum visitors might grow to have of them–may not be the same as Kinkade’s, but we both believe that his pictures are there for the reading.

Kinkade’s intentions don’t determine the meaning of his art any more than other artists’ do. We are no more stuck giving credence to the purity and honesty that Kinkade sees in his pictures–to their “serene simplicity,” in his words–than we are obliged to buy into the theosophical ramblings that Malevich felt were key to his lucid abstractions. We can look to Kinkade for a true image of American values gone wrong, even if he wouldn’t have recognized such things in his art.

Or maybe he would not have been as naive as all that. Over the last few years of his life, as his mall-art empire sank into bankruptcy, Kinkade’s persona as a born-again believer in faith and family values gave way to a public picture of him as a hard-drinking, breast-grabbing wise guy who stiffed his business partners and pissed (almost literally) on his rivals. He started to look more like Jackson Pollock than Mr. Rogers. If anyone knew that American success was built on unbucolic truths, Kinkade did. His pictures know it, too.