Is Kinkade’s ‘Oh so Popular Art’ as good as Pop Art?
Thomas Kinkade, though arguably the most economically successful living artist in America, receives a huge amount of criticism for his work. He is berated for drawing on societal clichés and producing cookie cutter paintings for mass appeal. Art critics often see his work more as a “get rich scheme” than true art. This begs the question: who is right? Is Kinkade a true artist as the masses believe him to be, is he more of a businessman like the critics claim he is, or does he actually sit somewhere in between? To shed some light on this issue, a comparison between famous pop artist Andy Warhol can be made, who also took much of his content from societal clichés. If it can be accepted that Warhol is rather universally remembered as a true influence on the art world, then a natural discussion follows about what makes Warhol’s art more legitimate to Kinkade’s critics.
Whenever Warhol’s name is mentioned, iconic images of his Campbell’s soup can paintings spring to mind. This subject matter is directly borrowed from common everyday items that anyone can relate to. Memories of walking down the soup aisle at the grocery store, or cooking up Campbell’s soup during a rainy day spring to the minds of the viewers. The specific imagery doesn’t actually matter, just the fact that anyone can easily relate to Campbell’s soup. Similarly, if one of Kinkade’s latest Disney themed paintings is considered, its subject matter is instantly relatable to its viewers, too. Seen in this way, it might seem clear that there actually is no difference between the legitimacy of Warhol’s and Kinkade’s work. Before reaching this hasty conclusion, however, an assessment of the true quality of each artist’s work must be made. In the same fashion that Lucy Lippard defended Seranno’s infamous Piss Christ, the materials and form of each artwork will be examined, their content or expressed meaning discussed, and context compared.
Warhol’s Campbell soup cans were made using a semi-mechanized silk-screening process on a series of thirty-two canvases, one canvas for each of the varieties offered at the time. The paintings are each fairly large, about the size of a typical poster. At the time that they were displayed in 1962, they were highly controversial because the combination of subject matter and the way in which they were made reeked of commercialism, much like the critics seem to think Kinkade’s work does today. Many thought that the soup cans didn’t show the fine craftsmanship or skill necessary of an artist. Interviews with him and his demeanor under the public’s scrutiny did absolutely nothing to clarify his intent, either. He was famous for his stubbornness and unwillingness to discuss any sort of deeper, underlying meaning with regard to his work. He once said that everything you need to know about him is right there, “on the surface.”
Despite this, the reason that Warhol’s soup cans are remembered so distinctly is because they forced the art world to examine the boundaries of art, even if he did not directly ask them to. He was one of the pioneers to introduce the idea that everyday objects could be art, depending on how they were viewed—that taking a direct imitation of a soup can and putting it on the wall is valid art. From the perspective of the art world, his semi-mechanically made soup can paintings were revolutionary in that they successfully shattered the previously iron clad gates of the art world and opened the door to new and radical forms of art. So while the actual construction of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can paintings may not be sophisticated and skillfully done, their deeper meaning within the art world and important transitional place between modern art and the more radical postmodern art guarantees that they are quality pieces worthy of praise.
If a similar analysis is conducted on one of Kinkade’s Disney themed paintings, the shortcomings of the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light™” are quickly illuminated. First, however, his strengths as a painter must be acknowledged. An examination of his painting titled, Snow White Discovers a Cottage, reveals that it actually is painted quite well. He successfully plays with different colors to generate an appealing sense of lighting. The windows of the little cottage spring forth with bright yellow light. The texturing accentuates different parts of the painting, too. The knobbiness of the trees seems real, and the thatch roof of the cottage appears actually made of hay. Just like a Warhol’s soup cans borrowed from a societal symbol, so too does Kinkade’s piece. Snow White is seen walking down a path followed by rabbits and deer towards the appealing cottage. In the distance the iconic Disney castle is present as well. The problem with the construction of the painting comes when it is compared to his other paintings. In fact, this particular painting appears identical to one of his previous paintings except that he just plugged in the figure of Snow White and the distant castle. Furthermore, the artwork that he sells to his customers is, almost always, never painted by him. He has a patented painting process whereby prints of his paintings are highlighted by an army of painters under his employ. Still, one can argue that this is really no different from Warhol’s imitative semi-mechanical process by which he silk-screened his soup can series. What, then, places Warhol on a higher pedestal than Kinkade in the eyes of the critics?
The fundamental difference between Kinkade’s painting of Snow White and the cottage and Warhol’s soup cans is their underlying meaning to their respective art worlds. The fact that Warhol claimed that his soup cans didn’t mean anything—that they were in every sense just “skin deep”—shook up the art world. His work showed that even meaningless material like common everyday soup cans can be rich works of art with a lasting impact. Kinkade also approaches his work simply, but it does not have the same effect. He holds that every person has fantasies about living in quaint little cottages with babbling brooks and forests full of cute animals. His paintings attempt to draw their viewers into their own fantasies. He also plays to his customer-appeal by touting his devout Christian beliefs and small town roots. Snow White Discovers a Cottage is not a work of creativity, but a work of salability. Even if it is a skillfully crafted painting, it was intentionally tailor made to be suitable for hanging in every home in America. It is truly skin deep, like Warhol’s paintings, but there is no rich message to take away. A viewer looks at his work, considers it pretty, and then looks away while quickly forgetting about it.
This discussion has been crafted to show the many different layers that must be unpeeled to discern the fundamental differences between Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can paintings and Kinkade’s Snow White with cottage paintings. At first glance, they seem on the same level. The process by which each painting was made is semi-mechanized and the subject matter of each painting is iconic to its viewers. Each painter publicly states that their work should be taken literally, with no underlying and deeper meaning. However, the real difference between the painters arises from the relationship between the context and content of each painting. The content of a Kinkade painting has been intentionally placed there to be appealing and salable. On the other hand, the content of a Warhol painting makes a strong statement to its viewers that ordinary objects can be presented as interesting and engaging pieces of art. To answer the question set forth in the beginning of this discussion, Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade will both be long remembered for their genius. While Warhol will be remembered as a profound influence on the art community and causing the direction of art to move to even more radical forms, such as Duchamp’s famous Fountain, Kinkade will be remembered for his amazing capacity to sell his art to the masses. He is an artist as evident by the skill seen in his paintings, but his real genius comes as a businessman.
Expected Graduation: May 2010
Hometown: Silverdale WA
After watching a 60 Minutes segment about Kinkade in class, I became interested in the reasons why his work is disliked by so many art critics. I found myself agreeing with the criticisms, but I had trouble articulating why. This essay served as a chance for me to really pick apart Kinkade's work and understand exactly where his shortcomings arise. Warhol was an interesting comparison artist because his art has many aspects that parallel Kinkade's, even though he is generally regarded as an influential contributor to the art world.
Thomas Kinkade, Snow White Discovers a Cottage, 2009, http://www.thomaskinkade.com/magi/servlet/com.asucon.ebiz.catalog.web.tk.CatalogServlet?catalogAction=Product&productId=205771&menuNdx=0.1, accessed on Oct. 25 2009.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, 1962, http://www.dvorak.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/warhol-campbellsoup.jpg,
accessed on Oct. 25 2009.