You’ve seen his “Signature Galleries” in shopping malls. You’ve seen him on QVC or the Home Shopping Network, hucking his paintings at the masses. You’ve perhaps marveled at his shiny, naturalistic scenes of fire-lit cottages and bright, bubbly, Disney-esque landscapes. Or maybe you’ve looked at his cutesy, sparkly paintings and, like many art historians before you, said: “Ew.”
The quintessential Kinkadian image usually conjured up is relentlessly twee, with bulbous cottages, precious stone bridges, and gently winding roads and/or streams, all bathed in his signature glowing light. Even when Kinkade renders a more urban setting, his vision of an edenic world is a rigorously homogenous one, in which racial, ethnic and economic differences are suppressed. -Kjellman-Chapin
The Oxford English Dictionary describes kitsch as “Art or objets d’art characterized by worthless pretentiousness; to render worthless, to affect with sentimentality and vulgarity.” My biggest issue with Kinkade is that I see his work, not as fine art, but as kitsch. Not only kitsch, but kitsch being sold to the masses under the guise of fine art, when really it is nothing more than overpriced, mass production, based on a mash-up of techniques of canonical masters and emblazoned with Kinkade’s stamp of approval. There is no sense of personal expression or political or social relevance; it is “art” for money’s sake and nothing more.
My personal favorite of his series is his Disney Dreams Collection in which he paints similarly bubbly scenes involving Disney characters. On his website, Kinkade says about the following piece: “I believe Bambi’s First Year is the most breathtaking subject in my Disney Dreams Collection to date. I hope as you look at Bambi cresting the ridge of his domain, you too will feel empowered to live your best life and to count on a season of new beginnings, even when the challenges of life confront you. Truly for Bambi, and for us, life goes on.”
While I highly discourage boiling down all of Art History into a “top 15” list of artists, pieces, etc. due to the inherent loss of historical relevance and context, art historians must admit to the public’s desire for knowledge of the “who’s who” in art. Kinkade markets specifically to this audience, which is how he has gained his widespread commercial popularity. While Kinkade does not necessarily adhere to the canon’s laid out specific traits (e.g. innovation, precocity, originality, and unique authorial identity) in his “relentlessly twee” images, he creates a false sense of originality by drawing upon various artists and styles as if they were brand names, and then creating digital copies of his originals in order to mass produce them. He profits off of old masters’ canonical techniques and their success, much like a fake Louis Vuitton designer purse provides a guise of material wealth.
Further, since his works were not being acquired by public or private museum collections for sale or show, he then built his own museum (and galleries) dedicated to his work, so that visitors may align his name with others that they see in museums (e.g. Van Gogh, Monet, etc.). He has literally done everything in his power to market his way into the art historical canon. Regardless of whether or not you think that Thomas Kinkade is a great artist, you have to give it to the man…he is a fantastic businessman. The company that he co-owns with entrepreneur Ken Raasch, the Media Arts Group, raked in net sales of $120 million in 1999, and $140 million in 2000.
He has been billed as the foremost selling artist of all time, a powerhouse of self-promotion and retail savvy….[however], his aggressive marketing tactics have earned him a reputation as a huckster, which has served to derail any serious consideration of him as an artist. -Kjellman-Chapin
All of this talk about marketing, kitsch and the canon raises a very important question: do we construct our image of high art based on what we find in the most prestigious collections? Doesn’t that give these institutions an unprecedented power? I think so. A majority of the public could care less about how the art canon is formed and what pieces are being left out of it, and that is the audience most easily reached by artists like Kinkade. No historical relevance, no personal artistic expression, no political or social commentary….but hey, it’s cute, right?
Monica Kjellman-Chapin, “Kinkade and the Canon: Art History’s (Ir)Relevance.” Partisan Canons, Anna Brzyski, ed. (Durham, Duke University Press, 2007): 267-288.