It was a certain morbid curiosity that drew us, two artists and me, to the Westin Galleria one afternoon in late March to witness a personal appearance by California painter Thomas Kinkade, variously known as America's most collected artist, the only artist traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and the Painter of Light. Here was an artist who has five galleries devoted solely to his work in the Houston area alone, whose fans own three, ten, 20 of his paintings (at around $1,000 a pop), and who -- here's the kicker -- advertises on television. Yet until two days before, I had never heard of the guy.
The three of us, having successfully infiltrated the Laura Ashley set, were soon casting politely inscrutable glances at each other, the message of which boiled down to this: As much scorn as we could easily heap on Kinkade's treacly little paintings, never had more than 600 people paid $15 a head to get my autograph, and never had my friends received a standing ovation the minute they walked on a stage to talk about their art.
Thomas Kinkade makes the ultimate Republican paintings. Unlike Norman Rockwell, to whom Kinkade compares himself, he depicts the world as he would like it to be rather than as it is, steeping everything in a pickling fluid of hazy golden light. His cozy cottages glow with hearthfire (his galleries are equipped with dimmers so you can see how the paintings seem to light up in the darkness). His gardens bloom lavishly. Trellises dangle above clear rivers, dew-coated stone bridges span twinkling streams. Mountains, untrammeled by timber companies or pollutants, rise in salute of America the Beautiful in all its God-fearing glory.
Like his paintings, Kinkade's rehearsed version of his life story seemed too idyllic to be true: He married his childhood sweetheart, taught himself to paint, risked his life savings to do his first print (which sold out and is now worth a lot of money), had four daughters and inscribes the first initial of his wife, Nanette, in secret places on his paintings in acknowledgment of her contribution to his life. His collectors and dealers believe that Kinkade is close to the Lord, and he encourages the notion that his business is actually a ministry: When you buy one of his paintings, he told the crowd, you "light a candle."
Which is not to say that his work appeals only to Christians. Media Arts Group, Inc., the company that has made Thomas Kinkade's name into a "lifestyle brand" à la Martha Stewart, has deals with Avon, Hallmark, La-Z-Boy and most recently, U.S. Home (which will build houses based on those in Kinkade's paintings). His collectors are women (79 percent), homeowners (87 percent), empty nesters (66 percent) and rich (46 percent average $80,000 annually). The company trades on Kinkade's appeal for "just about everyone"; every American wall is a sales opportunity, and national trends toward "nesting" and "cocooning" are viewed as favorable to Media Arts's business climate.
It didn't take much for Kinkade to sustain his audience's conviction that he's the real thing. His cute daughter dispensed chintzy prizes (Beanie Babies she decorated herself) to the couple who had been married the longest and the couple who had the most kids. I was surprised she didn't also give a prize to the person who owned the most Kinkades, although the artist did ask for a show of hands on that issue too. Kinkade made a small (I think it was $2,000) donation to a local charity in the form of one of those giant, camera-friendly checks.
Kinkade's success irked me, the way it irks me that the Alley Theatre's schmaltz-laden musical Jekyll & Hyde could go on to enjoy a critic-defying success on Broadway (not to mention the way it irks me that the Alley spells theatre as if that were somehow better than theater). Yet it also humbled me. Here was an artist whose work real people craved, people who saved their money to buy the latest limited edition (Kinkade's originals, apparently worth a few hundred thousand dollars apiece, are not for sale; instead, they are reprinted on canvases and highlighted by hand). I felt like an art snob. I thought about buying stock.
Of course, much of the credit for Kinkade's success goes to his efficient marketing machine, which works overtime to assure the collector that she is getting something important. Unlike installations, ephemeral art, site-specific works, tubs of Jell-O, naked people coated in liquid latex, and other contemporary art statements that have made appearances in Houston of late, Kinkade's paintings have clear monetary value and a strict hierarchy of price. In a marketing scheme whose pretension is akin to theatre, Kinkade has standard numbered prints, artist proofs, gallery proofs, publisher proofs, international proofs, atelier national and international editions, renaissance editions and studio proofs. Kinkade understands that Walter Benjamin was wrong when he predicted that mechanical reproduction would decrease an image's value: He's got calendars and address books, Hallmark cards and tapestries. One in 20 American homes, according to the company's Web site, is graced by a Thomas Kinkade image.
This doesn't mean, of course, that artists should start watching reruns of The Joy of Painting and setting up their easels en masse on misty mornings. The idea that art should, as Kinkade so cleverly does, give the public what they want has already been made mincemeat of by Komar and Melamid, the Soviet emigres who poll viewers to find out what colors, scenes and elements they want in their art and make paintings such as America's Most Wanted, which features a lot of blue, a nature scene and a portrait of George Washington. It's a really ugly painting.
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While I didn't see Kinkade's landscapes, homes and (for the adventurous) "impressionistic plein-air works" as particularly interesting in and of themselves, I was interested in how his work related to contemporary art's much-lamented "failure" to reach a "mainstream" audience. (The presumption is, of course, that art should reach a mainstream audience, which I'm not so sure about.) According to critic Dave Hickey, who has been at one end of the debate over this issue for several years, the problem has been contemporary art's rejection of the beautiful in favor of the virtuous. Since beauty sells, Hickey wrote in 1993, ridiculing the art world for its horror of commercialism, beauty is suspect. The network of museums and nonprofit art spaces -- "therapeutic institutions," Hickey calls them -- fails to avail itself of "the subversive potential of visual pleasure."
Of course, to carry Hickey's love of mass culture and commercialism to its very extreme (which I don't think Hickey really wants to do) is to get stuck with Thomas Kinkade. Left in Kinkade's hands, the subversive potential of beauty drains away instantly. If, as Hickey argues, Robert Mapplethorpe used beauty to persuade viewers of the glory of gay sex, then Kinkade uses it to persuade his viewers of the glory of singsong family values -- not a challenging task. If beauty is a rhetorical tool, Hickey says, one can distinguish among "the most beautiful image," which simply appeals to the most people, "the most effective beautiful image," which makes the most extreme set of values palatable to the most people, and the "most efficient beautiful image," which sneaks transgressive content into the homes of the elite and influential. Kinkade's work falls under the first category, and therein lies its weakness. It doesn't persuade anyone of anything new.
Hickey's beauty juggernaut has gone on long enough, and been influential enough, to have given rise to a backlash. In the extended multicultural symposium that was the art world of the late '80s and early '90s, Hickey's theories could be used as an excuse to go home early. Because of that, they've recently been attacked (wrongly, I think) as patriarchal and exclusionary. Although Hickey never has to my knowledge advocated a universal beauty -- to him, visual pleasure is a tool artists forgot to use rather than an absolute measure of quality -- he has been assailed both for asserting white, male privilege in resuscitating beauty and for pandering to the masses. The former charge rings hollow; the latter somewhat true. Writing in a Los Angeles art magazine whose latest issue was primarily devoted to beauty-bashing, Peter Lunenfeld called Hickey's position defeatist: "If you can't beat the middlebrow, why not join it."
Hickey attacks the fact that artists decline to give the market what it demands as a petulant refusal to acknowledge the audience, and accuses the nonprofits set up to handle this nonmarketable art of neutering art's power -- and in both cases he is providing a valuable service. The resentment comes, I suppose, because Hickey has not critiqued the market itself in terms of the escapist, Republican pablum that can gain ascendancy there. Is it really fair for Hickey to champion the tastes of the people and ignore Thomas Kinkade? It's true that the market has room for many, many opinions, but market forces tend to push product in one direction. Hickey may use the market as a whip for an art world that depends in no small part on market-free but agenda-laden charity funds. But he can't claim that all that sells is good art, or that all good art sells.