Exterior Context as a Criterion for Quality Art

Steve Hills, a relatively unknown current day artist, and Thomas Kinkade have produced paintings of nearly identical beach scenes with a pier as the main subject. The similarity of the paintings but differences in the artist’s ideals begs the question; does exterior contextual information play a significant role in our judgment of artworks? The aesthetical details of the two works are what separate them in terms of content, while the artists’ purpose and explanation of the pieces are what set them apart contextually.

Even in this age of modern technology where almost any information can be found on the internet, Steve Hills remains relatively unsearchable. Other than a modest biography on his webpage, he does not broadcast his artistry or personal life excessively. He paints from experience, with his landscapes scenes based on real places in California and Florida where he has previously lived. His watercolors are generally rather muted at first glance, but upon closer inspection reveal incredible detail and a subtle use of an exceptional range of color.

Thomas Kinkade, on the other hand, does not have a personal investment or interest in any of the scenes he paints. While he provides a heartwarming description of every painting in his online gallery, the sincerity of these words is questionable. Additionally, Kinkade has been featured in a documentary that chronicles his mass production of “authentic” prints for avid collectors who plaster their walls with his work. The film casts a dark shadow of doubt over whether Kinkade even considers his own pieces legitimate art, or if he sees them as merely a business venture and means of income.

According to Lippard’s three-pronged defense of Serrano, the first criterion for analyzing art is the material or form. Both Hills and Kinkade work in paint, although Hills used watercolor on canvas and Kinkade used oils and his prints come on either canvas or paper. The artists are similar in this manner with the medium of their art.

The second of Lippard’s factors is content. While both paintings contain essentially the same components, the message conveyed is entirely different. Both artists included the ocean, sky, beach, a pier, a surfer, waves, a building on the pier, lights, and clouds. The scenes appear to be captured at dusk as well. However, Hills’ painting is serene and not cluttered, while Kinkade’s has an overload of sentimental details. Hills’ painting focuses on the reflection of the evening light on the shallow water, the red roof of the pier building, and the subtle surfer amid the pylons. Kinkade includes a flock of seagulls, the sun setting perfectly centered over the pier, shore birds, an American flag snapping briskly in the breeze, a prominent surfer, and perhaps most saccharine of all, two sets of footprints in the sand that mesh into one.

Lippard’s final gauge of quality is context. Hills provides very little context for his painting in the sense of explanation, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what to take out of it. Conversely, Kinkade gives a whole explanation of his art, with the caption on his website saying that “Two pairs of footprints in the sand narrow to one, reminding us that when our lives are troubled, God will carry us through to joyous spiritual victory.” This context alienates the nonreligious and believers in a non-God entity. Furthermore, the American flag excludes people of other nationalities by essentially implying that this clichéd perfect scene only takes place on American beaches.

As Tolstoy says, a work of art can be classified as ‘real’ if and only if one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them. According to this philosophy, Hills’ paintings would be categorized as real because he paints from experience and in an effort to capture the beauty of these places so that others may enjoy them and be infected by the simple beauty. However, Kinkade’s work does not meet these standards because he paints what he thinks will be aesthetically pleasing to the general population of America, and although he gives explanations of each of his works on his website, these “deep meanings” are negated by the fact that he mass produces his paintings, adding details in real paint on the prints so that they seem more authentic.

It is astounding how much exterior contextual issues can affect one’s assessment of the quality of an artwork. If a viewer was presented with both of these paintings with no background information or prior knowledge, he or she would most likely favor one over the other, but based only surface issues such as color preference, since both are initially aesthetically pleasing. Hills’ piece more accurately captures a scene with emotion though, since he most likely painted the scene as it actually appeared, whereas Kinkade probably meshed the most pleasing parts of several scenes, or made up the whole thing altogether. His message is patriotic and God-loving, which may be appealing to some, but to be true art, the message should be open to interpretation. So, the content plays a role in the plausibility of the art, but the context is what really defines and quantifies the piece as quality art or not.

There are many ways to evaluate art, but all of them can be stripped down to analyzing the exterior context to some extent. Accurate judgment cannot be passed without taking into account the artist’s motivation, message, and philosophy about art. Even two incredible similar painted scenes can convey entirely different messages based on the context with which they are viewed.




“Untitled” by Steve Hills
(image forthcoming)

“Footprints in the Sand” by Thomas Kinkade



By: Cat Carroll
Major: Business Psychology
Minor: Spanish
Expected Graduation Date: December 2013
Hometown: Burien, WA

I did my final art project in high school on Steve Hills so I had an appreciation for his work and chose to compare him to Thomas Kinkade for this paper because of their similar content in these two paintings but vast differences in context.