Kinkade: Making more than just a ‘light’ profit
During the past twenty years, soft hued, glowing paintings of hope and comfort have amassed a fortune for the enigmatic artist Thomas Kinkade. The forty-seven year old claims he represents the forefront of a new artistic trend—“a populist movement that takes images people understand and creates an iconography for our era” (Decarlo B51). But as Kinkade’s digital reproductions of idyllic settings make millions of dollars, art critics such as University of Missouri art professor Brooke Cameron brush him off as only offering “a warm, fuzzy buzz for people” (Chronicle of Higher Education B4). Along with Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell, Kinkade’s works are labeled as ‘kitsch,’ a term coined by Clement Greenberg in 1939 to refer to vulgar and popular art with great mass appeal. Critique of Kinkade’s artwork and business tactics frequently clash with his ardent sales pitch that his art is important and uplifting to real people. In fact, a further conflict arises as the self-proclaimed Christian ‘painter of light’ builds a multi-million dollar empire and seemingly ignores the biblical teaching that a person cannot serve both God and Money. These paradoxes lay the framework to further examine Kinkade as an artist and businessman who defies the elite art establishment with his fame and fortune.
Undeniable commercial success
Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his mother in 1890, “In a painter’s life, it is generally the case that success is the worst thing of all” (Davis 1). More than a century later, Kinkade excels at proving Van Gogh’s statement false. Rising above a poor, single-parent home situation, Kinkade immersed himself in art traditions at Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design. Soon, though, he veered into the landscape paintings of the plein air tradition. People liked what they saw in these gentle depictions of cottages, gardens, gates, lighthouses, and rainy city streets, so Kinkade stuck with this artistic approach. Paintings, or more recently, digital reproductions with ‘highlight’ touches, are just the beginning. Today’s Kinkade trinkets include nightlights, pocket watches, plush teddy bears, wall tapestries and clocks. In 1990, when Media Arts Group was founded, Kinkade became the first painter on the New York Stock Exchange. Los Angeles Times writer Patti Davis comments that no one has taken marketing and merchandising to the lengths that Kinkade has. In the California Kinkade-inspired gated community, one wonders what can top a Kinkade home starting at $425,000.
Those who can actually afford such houses comprise only part of Kinkade’s customer base. Ironically, these upper class Kinkade fans do not typically visit art museums, despite the usual museum attendee characteristics of higher income and more education (Freeland 93). On the other hand, these more wealthy customers are not bashful to indulging their Kinkade fetish by adorning their homes with dozens of his paintings. Of course, even if a person cannot afford a framed print of Sweetheart Cottage or Garden of Prayer (which range from around $100 to thousands of dollars), there are always Kinkade greeting cards, keychains and screensavers. Conveniently, his works are displayed in special Thomas Kinkade galleries in malls and also pushed on the QVC home shopping channel. He targets the part of the population which may not engage in ‘high’ art, and puts a wholesome spin on his brand by emphasizing his status as a born-again Christian, a family-oriented promoter of values, and as an admirer of American artist Norman Rockwell.
In a Kinkade coffeetable book, Paintings of Radiant Light, he explains that as a young artist, he realized how few people actually went to galleries. Therefore, Kinkade sought a way to mimic Rockwell’s ‘gallery’ entering millions of homes through the Saturday Evening Post. If Kinkade’s modern version of reaching such masses means the digital reproductions and trinkets, he seems to have succeeded. According to Media Arts Group in 2001, one in every twenty American homes has a Kinkade work displayed. Kinkade stays in touch with his most devoted customers through newsletters and the Thomas Kinkade Collectors’ Society. Currently on his official website, an audio webcast with his voice promotes new paintings for 2005 such as The Guiding Light—“we’re pushing the level of detail to new heights” and Stillwater Cottage—“I know it might sound immodest to say this but I think it’s probably the best cottage I’ve done.“ Citing a feeling of commonality with Rockwell and even Walt Disney, Kinkade insists that regardless of the monetary profits, “I really like to make people happy” (Kreiter 39).
Kitsch and the museum factor
According to many in the elite artworld, works by both Kinkade and Rockwell deserve the label of kitsch. After Rockwell’s death in 1978, though, the perception of his art changed from simply an illustration to what Kinkade describes as belonging “in that category of art that lasts” (Kreiter 38). Recently, Rockwell was given retrospectives at the High Museum in Atlanta and Guggenheim in New York. While Kinkade stresses his similar focus on art for the average person, it is doubtful that his iconoclastic paintings will secure him a museum spot, owing to his commercial rather than artistic success. At least presently, Kinkade will have to continue dreaming of acceptance by museums, as he does in the painting Paris, City of Lights, part of his more urban-focused ‘Cities of Light’ series. In this particular work, he includes a street post with an advertisement for a sold-out Kinkade exhibit at the Louvre.
Such art institutions as the Louvre and modern art museums, plus journalists and professors in the field of art, comprise what Kinkade calls the critical Establishment. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker makes a good point, though, asking, “Do we want what we call ‘art’ to serve this social function of quelling our anxiety in an almost pharmaceutical fashion?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education B4). Baker’s comments on Kinkade art are kinder than University of Missouri art professor Brooke Cameron’s prediction:
When all is said and done, no one’s going to remember Thomas Kinkade as an artistic innovator. They may remember him as a businessman. He’s selling something that’s very comfortable. There’s no poetry in there—it’s kitsch. He’s sort of a male Martha Stewart. (Ibid)
Kinkade’s art falls short in front of Michael Zakien’s statement that serious art must engage or challenge. On the other hand, throughout magazine and newspaper interviews Kinkade insists he pays little attention to such critics. He claims that his painting is a ministry that thrives on divine inspiration.
Art + Faith = Money?
Markedly dissimilar from Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol, perhaps it is Kinkade’s self-perception as a divinely inspired artist which puts him at odds with the Establishment, which he called “very anti-Christian and anti-moral” in an interview with The New American. Even so, the dichotomy between Kinkade’s professed Christian faith and his commercial emphasis raises some doubts. In an interview with the New York Times, Kinkade expressed his belief that art’s purpose is to provide inspiration and reassurance, instead of questioning assumptions or challenging the status quo. Thanks to the millions of people who buy this supposed inspiration and reassurance, Kinkade has become a very wealthy artist.
Kinkade touts his Christian faith as the reason behind his artistic creativity. Still, the array of Kinkade merchandise, including his art prints with accompanying Bible verses, seems to suck in buyers looking for fulfillment through ‘wholesome’ objects. Such gimmicks encourage materialism, the exact opposite of the Biblical teaching, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 5:16, 21). Of course, gestures like donating a portion of the profit from the painting Hometown Pride to Habitat for Humanity make for good Kinkade publicity. At the heart of the matter, though, is Kinkade’s seemingly comfortable position at the height of wealth and prestige. This, above all else, makes him appears more successful at serving the master of Money rather than God, as emphasized in Luke 16:13.
The test of time
In sum, Kinkade knows exactly what sells to whom, and keeps inventing new products to do exactly that. He has successfully championed an art-based lifestyle brand for those who can afford it, despite his claim that his art aims to connect with the ‘everyday’ person. Although Kinkade receives little praise from the art establishment, he continues to walk the path marked by the kitsch-coated footsteps of Rockwell. Time will reveal the true reception of Kinkade, and also will determine whether his paintings and other merchandise remain ‘treasures on earth’ or fade into tired, sentimental items fit for a garage sale. Kinkade’s faith-money complex remains murky, though many still embrace him as an artistic Christian leader. With commercialism at the heart of his success, there is little doubt that this artistic businessman is happily watching his profits increase. Kinkade enjoys the admiration and money of his customers, and undoubtedly has plans to take his ‘crusade of light ‘ even further in the future.
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that’s ‘accessible,’ creating paintings that soothe—and sell like hotcakes.” Los Angeles Times 26 July
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Della Cava, Marco. “Thomas
Kinkade: Profit of Light; Painter/QVC regular says he’s divinely inspired
produce works and expand his empire.” USA Today 12 March 2002: D1.
“Despite Elitist Gripes, He’s America’s Most Popular Artist.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 22 February 2002: B4.
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Kinkade. The Artist in Nature: Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air Tradition. New
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Kinkade, Thomas, and Philippa Reed. Paintings of Radiant Light. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1995.
Kreiter, Ted. “Thomas Kinkade’s American dream.” The Saturday Evening Post March/April 2003: 38-43.
Leland, John. “Subdivided and Licensed, There’s No Place Like Art.” New York Times 4 October 2001: F1.
by Inga Zornes
Major: Music Education
Expected graduation: 2007
Hometown: Wenatchee, WA
This paper challenged me to evaluate numerous perspectives about the artist Thomas Kinkade, and to form my own conclusions about his artwork and commercial success. My family has a Kinkade hanging in our living room so I initially thought I would write the essay in support of his work. After researching thoroughly (a process I actually enjoy immensely), I was able to better understand the divisions in the artworld and identify the overt contradictions in Kinkade's faith-money complex. Studying Kinkade reinforced my view that the artworld, especially in the systems of painting and music, is heavily swayed by money and commercialism. Still, as an optimistic musician, I have not lost all faith in the arts' power to both challenge and to express deeply what words cannot, regardless of the profit.