Thomas Kinkade passed away earlier this week, aged 54, leaving behind a troubled legacy and art that was like a Fabrege egg, revealing itself to be empty if you peered beyond the glittery surface. I won’t concern myself here with Kinkade’s personal demons; plenty of others have covered that territory far more expertly, and in more depth, than I could manage. I’d rather address his art, which at one time was speculated to hang in somewhere upward of one fifth of all American homes.
Some time ago, I wrote of the dangers of trying to please everyone, and singled out Kinkade as one artist whose work points up the dangers of doing that; playing it that safe might earn you millions (indeed, Kinkade built an empire that branched beyond painting to retail, publishing and real estate), but it’s not really going to challenge anyone.
The artist’s work was often derided as kitsch, but this was no ordinary kitsch. Milan Kundera once famously said, “Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists.”* Therein lies one major problem I have with Kinkade’s art. To paraphrase Eric Idle, sometimes life’s a piece of shit when you look at it. Denying that won’t make it any less so, and making art in that spirit ends up producing the very thing it denies.
Further along, Kundera states:
In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.
Yet another problem: in order to provide answers, you first have to figure out the questions you’re going to ask. The artist’s work has been called “life affirming” by his fans, who are legion, but if anything it’s bleak beneath the forced cheer of its exterior; it brooks no questions, no challenges are issued or accepted, so that the only thing left is an exercise in nihilism that occludes the future by denying the present as it is, or the past as it really was.
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. — Franz Kafka
While that quotation’s stuck with me since the first time I read it half a lifetime ago, I don’t agree 100% of the time with Kafka. There’s a time and place for escape and simplicity. As with everything else, though, something needs to balance that simplicity — something, in short, needs to acknowledge the bumps and imperfections, acknowledge that life itself isn’t all sunshine and roses, rendered in your medium of choice. Art, whether we’re talking about literature, music, painting, or photography, isn’t strictly a representational medium, after all; it’s also an interpretive medium. It’s a lens through which we can see the world from another perspective, at some times getting the wide angle that allows us to see the wood for the trees, and others allowing us to zoom in on, and maybe understand a bit better, that which we would otherwise overlook or take for granted.
As Kafka reminds us, we can make art that makes us happy for ourselves. What’s harder to find than happiness — which, after all, is pretty transient if you stop to think about it — is the joy that comes from those flashes that happen in the creative process that hint to us that we’re thisclose to getting it right after falling short so often. And, in the end, that’s perhaps Kinkade’s biggest failing. The payoff (what there is of it) feels empty, devoid of joy or even happiness, because it really didn’t take much effort to get there. There’s no puzzlement, no Kafkaesque blow to the head, or even the belly laugh that comes from a punchline that whacks your funnybone like a bolt from the blue. All that’s left in the end amounts to a pile of oilcolors stacked before a mirror, reflecting nothing but themselves.
*From an extended meditation on kitsch that appears about halfway through his wonderful novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.