Thomas Kinkade: Art, Christianity, and Hypocrisy

Artist Thomas Kinkade died on Good Friday, which is probably how he would have wanted it (albeit about 30 years from now). Kinkade was a Christian, and his Christianity was just one of the many things that rankled his critics.

Let’s be very clear here right at the outset. Thomas Kinkade was not a bad artist. Thomas Kinkade was an exceptionally talented artist with excruciatingly bad taste. He was a hack, and a tremendously successful one. A hack is someone who sells his talent to the highest bidder, with little concern for niceties like artistic integrity. I’m a hack myself, and let me tell you something: if I found a way to create the writing equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, and make as much money as he did, I’d do it in trice.

Frankly, his work gave me the weejums. Simcha Fisher nailed it when she wrote

By showing light in the form of exaggerated highlights, fuzzy halos, and a hyperluminescent shine on everything, regardless of where they are in the composition, he isn’t revealing the true nature of—anything.  It’s a bafflingly incoherent mish-mosh of light:  an orange sunset here, a pearly mid-morning sheen there, a crystal-clear reflection in one spot, a hazy mist in the other—all impossibly coexisting in the same scene.  This picture:

makes sense only as a depiction of an oncoming storm, with heavy smog in some spots and total visibility just inches away (blown by what wind, when the chimney smoke rises undisturbed?), several cordless Klieg lights, possibly a partial eclipse, and that most cheerful of pastoral daydreams: a robust house fire.  This is a lovely fantasy in the same way as it makes lovely music when all of your favorite instruments play as loudly as they can at the same time.  Listen, and go mad.

Where is the source of light? This isn’t just clumsy execution, this is an artist who cannot see—who knows nothing at all about light, what it is for, or whence it comes.  (Or, more frightfully, an accomplished artist who has discovered that it’s much more lucrative to quash his understanding of these things.)

Kinkade isn’t content with shying away from ugliness:  He sees nothing beautiful in the world the way it is.  He thinks it needs polishing.  He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable—or will be, after she loses ten pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up.  Normal people recoil from such extreme artifice—not because they hate beauty, but because they love it.

Kinkade-style light doesn’t show an affection for natural beauty—it shows his disdain for it. His light doesn’t reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren’t merely trivial, they’re a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn’t just tacky, it’s anti-Incarnational.

I understood Kinkade better when I started seeing him not as an artist in the tradition of the Hudson River School who went spectacularly wrong, but as a fantasy illustrator like his good friend and collaborator, artist James Gurney.  He wasn’t a Rockwellian realist like Terry Redlin. He was a painter of fantasy landscapes, like Roger Dean with cozy cottages.

Joe Carter, writing in First Things, uncovered this amazing bit of contrast between early and later Kinkade.

The painting on the left (from 1998) is a remarkably accomplished piece of art. It’s a little masterpiece that captures mood and place with skilled use of shadow and light. The painting on the right (from 2004) sacrifices that mood on the altar, not of hyper-realism, but of fantasy. There is an unpleasant artificiality to the scene, particularly in the garish use of the light and the bizarre color choices. Is the mauve sky supposed to show a sunset, or the onrushing Apocalypse?

I really do commend Carter’s entire piece as an analysis of the Kinkade phenomena, and I think he strikes at the heart of what Kinkade gets wrong:

There is nothing wrong, or course, with fantasy or with what C.S. Lewis calledSehnsucht, the inconsolable longing in the human heart for “we know not what.” What makes Kinkade’s cottage painting so dispiriting is that rather than being created to challenge or even inspire, to evoke in some way the desire for Heaven, it’s intended only to comfort. It’s sentimental.

Sentimentality, as literary critic Alan Jacobs says in a recent interview with Mars Hill Journal, encourages us to “suspend judgment and reflection in order to indulge deliberately in emotion for its own sake.” Reflection reinforces and strengthens true emotions while exposing those feelings that are shallow and disingenuous. Sentimentalists, however, try to avoid this experience of reality and try to keep people from asking questions by giving them pleasing emotions they have not earned. The shameless manipulation of our emotions, says Jacobs, is the ultimate act of cynicism.

This is why Kinkade’s art doesn’t, ultimately, work as pure fantasy art. It’s not his intention to bring us to a wondrous Deanean landscape that never was and never could be, but offer a reassuring fantasy by manipulating common images and emotions to create a cynical idea of what we might almost have, or might have lost. And he does it badly. His use of color, of light, of halos—all of them turned up to 11—is like sitting down to a meal of whipped topping, chocolate jimmies, and sugar cubes.

Kinkade the Man, and the Christian

Kinkade’s critics reveled in his misdeeds (and, apparently, they were legion), and how they revealed the hypocrisy at the heart of every Christian. Secularists and anti-Christians really need to get a grip on this point: “hypocrisy” is not when a Christian fails to live up the ideals of his faith, no matter how loudly he proclaims those ideals or how spectacularly he fails to live them.

Hypocrisy is when you set up one standard for yourself and another standard for others. The hypocrites condemned by Jesus (Mark 7:6, Matthew 23:14) merely made a show of their faith, while their hearts were far from God.

A Christian who merely pretends to have a faith he does not truly have is a hypocrite. Jesus was able to call the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites because he could look into their souls. That’s not a gift we’re given.

A Christian who believes and proclaims a sincerely held faith, yet who falls into sin, is not a hypocrite. He’s a human being. Neither the loudness of the proclamation nor the severity of the fall are relevant, no matter how much it titillates the gossips and allows a secular world to sneer. It gives scandal, and as such it is wrong and offensive to God and the body of Christ, but it is not some grand statement on faith itself. It’s not even a statement on the faith of the sinner, since we cannot know what is in the heart of a man, or what demons he battles on a daily basis.

Clearly, Kinkade had demons. He was regarded by some as kind of a bully, he had drinking issues, he was prone to unfortunate episodes of public micturition involving Winnie the Pooh, and was implicated in various financial misdeeds. Yet he also had the love of his family and friends, gave joy to millions, provided money to the poor and sick, and proclaimed the Gospel. It’s not our place to judge the state of his soul. God doesn’t need our help rendering judgment. He’s got that covered just fine, as we’ll all learn soon enough.

Kinkade’s most successful work was crass and unappealing, but at least he was trying to create something beautiful that evoked a good feeling in people, no matter how badly he went about it. The modern art most praised by the art establishment is nasty, ugly, pointless, dehumanizing garbage with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Crap artists like Tracy Emin are lionized by critics and showered with cash for turning out un-art that shows nothing but contempt for humanity.

The cosmic joke is that, technically, Kinkade’s skills are so far superior to Emin’s that it’s almost comical, but he made the mistake of peddling hope instead of despair, and that’s an unforgivable sin in the post-modern world. If his cozy cottages were splashed with blood and sheathed in condoms, he’d have his own wing in the MOMA by now. And that, not Kinkade’s comforting kitschy fantasies, is the real crime of modern art.

In any event, may he rest in peace, and may God grant comfort to those who loved him.

“God is dead, and we have killed him”


The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein (Click to enlarge)

“Descended into hell”—perhaps no other article of the Creed is as alien to our contemporary mode of thought as this one. And yet, does not this article, which, in the course of the Church year, is liturgically ordered to Holy Saturday and which is especially significant for us today, express in an eminent degree the experience of our century?

On Good Friday, our gaze remains fixed on the Crucified One. But Holy Saturday is the day when God is dead, the day that gives voice to and anticipates the shocking experience of our time: that God seems to be absent, that he is in his grave, that he will not awaken again, not speak again, so that one need no longer dispute his existence, but can simply forget about him.

“God is dead, and we have killed him.” These words of Nietzsche belong linguistically to the tradition of Christian devotion to the Passion; they express the essence of Holy Saturday, the “descended into the kingdom of death”. When I think of this article, my thoughts revert to the account of our Lord asleep during the storm on the Lake of Galilee (Mk 4:35–41), or to his meeting with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35). The troubled disciples speak of the death of their hope. What had taken place was, for them, something similar to the death of God: the source through which God seemed to have spoken to them at last was extinguished. The One sent by God was dead; there remained only a complete void. There was no longer any answer.

But while they spoke thus of the death of their hope and were no longer able to see God, they failed to observe that this very hope stood alive before them. The article about the Lord’s descent into hell reminds us, then, that it is not only God’s speech, but also his silence that belong to Christian revelation. Only when we have experienced him as silence can we hope to hear as well his speech that issues in silence. Can we wonder that the Church, that the life of the individual, leads us again and again to this hour of silence, to this ignored and forgotten article: “descended into hell”?

Pope Benedict XVI, from Veraltetes Glaubensbekenntnis?, in the Logos Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Collection. Also in C0-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year.