Kinkade and the PrOsPerity Gospel.
Looking at the work of Thomas Kinkade through a different lens.
By Kevin Moore | 10.28.18
hen I was nineteen, my mother wanted me to paint pretty landscapes like Thomas Kinkade.
At the time, I was more interested in Francis Bacon’s paintings of existential nightmares. While both artists deal with religious themes, their obvious differences sum up our two world views quite nicely.
Francis Bacon - Screaming Pope
My Uncle, Chuck Forsman (my Mom’s older brother), is a great modern landscape painter. His work is mature, thought provoking, technically superior and sympathetically pessimistic. While my Mom loves her brother and values his artwork, I think she connects with Thomas Kinkade on a different but understandably cosmetic level. Kinkade's idealized version of reality must seem comforting to her, in my imagination, it is the visual equivalent of her denial. A depressed suburban mothers utopian dream.
I bring up my Uncle because, in many ways, he is the artistic opposite of Kinkade. While both are white males, raised in Christian households, about the same age, and from Northern CA, their depictions of Western American culture could not be more different. While my Uncle undoubtedly views his work as a form of “realism”, there is always a raw, intellectually jarring critique on American culture that is absent in Kinkade’s idyllic paintings that are portrayals of the world “without the Fall”. In some ways, the two represent a battle between pessimistic liberalism and conservative Christian idealism, each crafting his own subjective viewpoint with every stroke of the brush, and my mother caught in their idealogical crosshairs.
My Uncles resume is a good one, he has been taken very seriously by the Art establishment and has exhibited his paintings in numerous galleries as well as museums, he has a published book of his photographs, and was an art professor at the University of CO for many years. He has made a living as a professional artist, I admire his work deeply, but he is no Thomas Kinkade.
Thomas Kinkade, the self proclaimed “Painter of Light”, IS art, at least to many suburban Mom’s (among others) in our country. His aesthetic represents their values and morals in the same way Warhols Campbell soup cans did to the intellectual elite in the 1980’s. Then it hit me...
Thomas Kinkade is a POP artist for Evangelical Christians.
He is Andy Warhol’s conservative counterpart. The dictionary defines POP art as “art based on modern popular culture and the mass media especially as a critical or ironic comment on traditional fine art values.” I guess it is safe to assume that Evangelical Christianity is a huge part of our “modern popular culture” (how else do we explain our current POTUS)? It is certainly a part of our mass media, and the ironic part, with regards to Kinkade, was that he was not aware of the irony. If he had released a statement saying that his paintings were a critique of the current religious climate, he might be having a retrospective at MOMA this year. But, he didn’t, and he didn’t need to in order to be successful. I own a Thomas Kinkade doormat, and two Kinkade drink coasters (without irony), if thats not POP art, I don’t know what is.
My dirty Kinkade doormat
Lets break it down.
Below you will find descriptions of two artists;
American painter of popular subjects, studied panting at UC Berkeley, Notable for mass marketing of his work as printed reproductions and other licensed products, uses glowing, unnatural color, places value on simple pleasures, has “capacity to identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience”, It is assumed he had a hand in most of the original, conceptual work that he produced. However, he also employed a number of studio assistants to help create multiple prints. One of the most counterfeited artists, reported to have earned $53 million for his artistic work.
American artist dedicated to commercial art, made paintings of iconic American objects, often painted with bright colors, initially pursued a successful career as a commercial illustrator. Coined a widely used expression, raised Catholic, studied commercial art, used assistants to increase his productivity, criticized for becoming merely a "business artist”, reviewers disliked his exhibits calling them superficial, facile and commercial, with no depth or indication of the significance of the subjects.
While you might be able to guess which artist is which, the two descriptions (taken from Wikipedia) are very similar, just for fun, here is a third artist;
American artist known for working with pop culture subjects. Some critics dismiss his work as kitsch, crass, and based on cynical self-merchandising, licensed to sell mutual funds and stocks, began working as a Wall Street commodities broker, found a new career as a commodities broker, did this job in order to be independent from the art market, has a number of studio assistants that create his work, tries to reach the widest possible audience by using familiar objects with sentimental value.
That’s right, artist number three is Jeff Koons, a contemporary of Kinkade. I find it remarkable how similar the descriptions of the three artists are, yet only Kinkade is dismissed from Art History, while the other two are celebrated. This feels like a type of liberal bias at work, mainly because of the respective target audiences.
It seems to me that the idealized, brightly lit, fantasy cottage print my Mom owns functions much the same way an idealized brightly colored fantasy portrait print of Marilyn Monroe might for someone else with a different background. Neither Kinkade, nor Warhol, nor Koons for that matter, discuss the conceptual aspects of their work with much depth, in fact, all three encourage the viewer to take it at face value, not to read too far into it. On some level, it looks to me like all three artists are commenting on the superficial aspects of American culture, Warhol and Koons target fame and consumerism, Kinkade targets religion (although without any irony). His work is the visual manifestation of the contrived ideaology that celebrity pastors in mega churches sell to their eager congregations (Joel Osteen anyone?). They are illustrations of the Prosperity Gospel. Kinkade's images represent the new visual vernacular for a church that has lost its way in our consumer culture. Seen through this lens, Kinkade’s work becomes a devastating indictment on the church and a symbol for what has happened to Christianity in the West, although I am sure he would not agree ( he has since died and could not agree even if I wanted him to ). I find his paintings more frightening than anything Francis Bacon could imagine.
Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen
I am now 42, and while I still don’t want to paint pretty landscapes like Thomas Kinkade, the idea of creating subversive artwork that criticizes mega churches who prey on vulnerable members of their own congregations by promising that God will solve their problems if they just pray hard enough sounds enticing.
Maybe my Mom was on to something…