Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light

Thomas Kinkade[1], Painter[2] of Light[3]

Michael Merry

With this piece I am parodying David Foster Wallace[4].  Before this class[5] I had heard of but was not familiar with DFW[6].  I have enjoyed reading his work and emulating the style which can lend itself a kind of alchemical quality. 

I thought I would write about Thomas Kinkade who is a contentious figure in the art world[7].  He calls himself the world’s most collected artist and has made a fortune[8] by combining Christian ideals[9] with a tiered pricing[10] scheme to sell[11] his paintings in dedicated mall shops[12] and on QVC[13][14]. Kinkade’s work is also available on gift cards and many other forms of merchandise sold through Hallmark and Wal-Mart[15].  A feature film[16] has been derived from his work and it’s stated ambitions[17].  However, to the postmodern[18] viewer, steeped in irony[19], his work is seen as a parody[20] of itself and of the ideals[21] it aims to invoke[22]

[1] Thomas Kinkade is a painter with a large and loyal customer base among the middle class.  He also has a large number of fans among members of the lower class who would like to believe that they are members of the middle class.  These people want to have enough income to buy his work so as to display the fact that they have enough income to buy his work.  He is something of a household name, especially among housewives in suburban, rural and other areas of diminished cultural sophistication.  Kinkaid achieved this by adhering to two American ideals.  1: Talking a good game about hard work and self-reliance.  2: Tiered pricing.   

[2] Kinkaid’s work is sold as editioned prints.  It’s hard to understand what they look like if you haven’t seen them.  Imagine a high quality photograph of a painting in which you can clearly see the artist’s brushstrokes.  A clear gel-like medium is brushed onto the prints to make them seem like they have the impasto surface of real paintings.  The result is a print of a painting with one set of brushstrokes in the painting and another set of unrelated, clear brushstrokes sort of floating just above the image and affecting the way light hits the surface.  It’s visually kind of bizarre. 

[3] The ability to accurately depict the play of light and especially to make light seem to radiate from the painted surface has been the stock-in-trade of many painters at least since a middle class emerged in the late Renaissance.  Many in the new and growing class were eager to display their wealth and saw owning paintings of things that they aspired to own as a sort of next-best way to associate themselves with classes who could afford to own the actual things.  Artists responded and it soon became clear that the market, especially in Northern European cities and especially in Amsterdam, was biased toward visually dramatic effects of light.  Within a few years the paintings lost their status as stand-ins and became commodities desired over the things themselves. 

Kinkade however, calls himself the "Painter of Light" because he sees his paintings as tools that can inspire viewers to greater faith as Christians. "Light is what we're attracted to," he says. "This world is very dark, but in heaven there is no darkness." Christianity Today

[4] In addition to parodying Wallace, I’m emulating the format of The Best Creative Non-Fiction by employing a digressive little preamble.

[5] Creative Non-Fiction with Ben Yagoda. 

[6] Not the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, which I was familiar with before taking Creative Non-Fiction, but the late author David Foster Wallace. 

[7] Alluding to the art world as a definable community is disingenuous.  Sarah Thornton’s description of “a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art” is as good as any other.  She hints at the cliquishness, taste, and subjectivity that make the art world confounding and fascinating. 

More to the point, Thornton’s description of a network held together by “a belief in art” allows us to contextualize the mixed feelings surrounding Kinkade’s work.  There are many in the arts who would like to believe in an idealized role for art in our society, something along the lines of art existing for it’s own sake or for the enlightenment of human kind.  Being profitable or collectable is not part of this equation.  On the other hand, there are many in the art world who make a living, some of them have amassed large fortunes, through the buying and selling of works of art.  These speculators pay lip service to the art-for-art’s-sake camp but operate more like stock brokers implementing marketing strategies, hyping their goods, developing five and ten year outlooks, and networking to get insider information.  

[8] Between 1997 to 2005 Kinkade accumulated over $80 million. 

[9] Thomas Kinkade travels as part of an ongoing “Share the Light Tour” and with his brother Pat on their “Heritage Tour” sharing his message of home, family, faith in God, the celebration of nature, the celebration of romantic moments, hope and a simpler way of living.

[10] Tiered pricing is the most American, the most pervasive, and the most insidious of pricing schemes.  The American dream tells us not only that if we work hard we can all have more and nicer stuff but that we ought to be working hard to acquire more and nicer stuff.  Not to do so would be un-American, unpatriotic, and maybe even un-Christian in some circles.  We the people are psychologically trapped in an ongoing cycle of achieving goals only to replace them with new loftier ones. Validation and satisfaction is always just out of reach.  Because of this we lose the ability to think rationally in the face of tiered pricing. 

Tiered pricing is a marketing scheme that involves an entry-level product, a gateway product. When we go to buy this thing we will see a nicer one nearby that costs a little more.  And there are a few more that are each a little nicer and their prices are each a little higher.  Not large price increases, just enough that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal but that it kinda is.  These nicer, more expensive ones don’t do a better job, they just have some added features.  American car companies pioneered and perfected this approach after the Second World War. 

When the war ended America had become the economic engine of the world.  Everyone had a good job downtown, Ike initiated the interstate system, and the white people invented suburbs where they moved to live in homogenous communities of bungalows and ranch style homes.  Huge numbers of people needed cars to get them from those new homes, over the new road and to their new jobs.  This was great for the automakers except that customers were buying one car and hanging on to it for several years.  Auto manufacturers would unveil a redesigned and improved car every five to seven years and there was no reason to replace a well functioning vehicle in the mean time.  Their solution was to entice the customer to trade-up. 

Rather than bringing out a completely redesigned vehicle every half decade or so, carmakers began adding a few new features to their cars each year.  These features were adopted from more expensive cars in the manufacturer’s line adding to their appeal.  For example, if a set of giant fins attached to a Cadillac was out of your financial reach, a couple years later you would be able to buy a giant set of fins attached to a Chevy Bel Air.  Before long consumers, with an unconscious drive to acquire more stuff, were purchasing a new car about every two years.

[11] Kinkade paints “masterworks” which, as far as I can tell, are not for sale.  But copies are available as editioned prints on paper or canvas, either framed or unframed and in a range of sizes with corresponding price points.  A basic 10.5”x12.5” print on paper sells for $89.  Some of the prints have “light effects” painted on by “highlighters” or “master highlighters” that add to the illusion of light and to the idea that these are original works of art.  These are then sold at incrementally tiered prices.  Various features may be added, a little doodle on the back for example, to make them more valuable.  Prints with the artist’s signature on them come at a premium.  Those highlighted by the artist himself are priced at the top of the tier for $60,000. 

Recently a developer opened multiple Thomas Kinkade themed villages in Vallejo California where, starting from the mid $300’s, you can own a turnkey faux English country house chock-a-block not only with his paintings but wallpaper, upholstery, lamps, placemats, coasters, rugs, switch plates, doorknobs, faux antique furniture and anything else the kitsch-tank can think of.

[12] Kinkade sells his work in dedicated stores designed to re-enforce the branding of his paintings.  The entryways suggest The Shop Around the Corner and the interiors comfortable old country homes, maybe in Ireland or Cornwall, where people wear flannel pj’s, drink warm cider and believe in Dickensian endings.  There are multiple rooms with light-up electric fireplaces, faux antique furniture and a lot of woodwork.  The lighting is low and sets a cozy mood, the opposite of what you expect when you go to look at a painting. 

[13] The acronym QVC stands for Quality, Value and Convenience.  QVC operates a cable television channel and a website that allows consumers to make purchases from home.  While the programming is not slick enough to be described as spectacle, it employs strategic lighting, attractive models, “expert” and celebrity guests, and regular hosts who lend a sense of familiarity.  The result is an aesthetic somewhere in-between morning talk shows and telethons. (There’s a sort of hanging expectation that one’s favorite crooner may make an appearance in the next segment.)  I can imagine this attracts certain types of viewers and inspires them to eagerly part with their money. 

[14] While the products sold via QVC are fairly described as quality items, (Sears was one of the first companies to sell on the network) no serious artist or collector wants to see art marketed and sold in this way.  Such a format is seen as pandering to vulgar consumerism, (Vulgar in the sense that the obscenely wealthy use to invoke the idea of seething masses of unwashed peasants who are forced concern themselves with making a living) negating any aesthetic experience of the work of art and placing all emphasis on the nature of the art object as a commodity. 

[15] Many collectors of Kinkade’s work buy under the assumption that it will increase in value over time.  Antiques Road Show may lead a person to think that they only need to wait a few years and they’ll be gloating down at the rest of us from their own Xanadu.  However, as we have seen in examples ranging from Tickle Me Elmo to Gone With the Wind commemorative plates to Beanie Babies, nothing produced in large numbers will increase in value any time soon.  Buying a Kinkade is probably a lot like buying a new car and seeing a twenty percent depreciation as soon as you drive it off the lot.  A collector’s great-grandchildren might be able to see a measurable profit, but I doubt it.  To be worth anything these items are going to have to become rare (a scenario that I would not be unhappy with) bits of Americana indicative of the zeitgeist of an era.  The quantity (not to mention quality) and diversity of Kinkade’s merchandise suggests that a small eternity will pass before anyone gets rich by selling off their collection. 

[16] In 2008 Kinkade self-produced a semi-autobiographical movie Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.  It is a celebration of his most popular painting of the same title.  Taken in context with his general marketing tactics the movie seems to be little more than a sales and promotion vehicle. 

However, the movie stars Peter O’Toole, who’s work on the film we might ascribe to mental faculties declining in old age, and Marcia Gay Harden who is harder to explain away.  Including the Kinkade movie, she has played in six films in which art is an essential part of the story and she has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of Fine Arts.

[17] Kinkade states that his “mission as an artist is to capture those special moments in life adorned with beauty and light.   I work to create images that project a serene simplicity that can be appreciated and enjoyed by everyone.  That is what I mean by sharing the light.” 

I imagine that Kinkade’s description of himself as having a mission to share the light must have a familiar ring for Christian evangelicals whose rhetoric emphasizes each individual’s mission to use their God-given talents to share the gospel. 

[18] The postmodern era may be described as an era without overarching narratives.  In the modern era events and meanings were contextualized in relation to hegemonic narratives and ideals.  An example would be the American dream as a fulfillment of a manifest destiny defined by previous generations.  Or the way the NAZI’s whipped Germany into a lather with their master race schtick.  (NAZI artwork has some things in common with Kinkade’s.) 

The implication is that Kinkade’s audience may have an anachronistic sort of world-view under which his artwork itself is less important than its association with the narrative contexts with which it is complicit.  Owning the work is a sign of a one’s ongoing identification with a particular way of looking at the world.

[19] Irony is a subversive rhetorical strategy and is a fundamental characteristic of postmodern thought.  The postmodern viewer expects that a work of art should employ irony to cause the viewer to question the validity of modernist narratives.  An example would be to undermine a pictorial style by overdoing it to the point of ridiculousness.  

[20]A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent cosiness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire. The cottages had thatched roofs, and resembled gingerbread houses. The houses were Victorian and resembled idealised bed-and-breakfasts ...” Joan Didion.  The Guardian

[21] Kinkade’s style is heavy handed to the point of cartoonishness.  The postmodern viewer automatically understands this as an ironic gesture.  Since Kinkade is evidently sincere in his idealism and apparently unaware that by overdoing it his work is undermining itself, his work reads as a parody of itself. 
[22] A few months after this was written Thomas Kinkade died of an overdose of alcohol and valium.  In the days following his live-in girlfriend / personal assistant reported that the relapsed alcoholic Kinkade had “been drinking all night and not moving” and died in his sleep “very happy.”  She then also reported that she had been collecting defamatory information for several months in case of just such an opportunity to tear Kinkade down and personally devastate his wife.  She must have gotten a share of the loot as that information never became public. 

It also became more widely known that Kinkade’s distribution company was on its last legs as it had lost several suits by those franchisees who had opened all those stores in malls across America.  Among the substantiated accusations was that the franchisees were not told that the company was going to undercut their profit margins in favor if its own at every opportunity.

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