On bad and good art

By , 25 September 2009 6:43 pm

I fear I’m going to make enemies with this blog but something has to be said. Last weekend we were on the edge of the Cotswolds for a family reunion and on the Sunday spent a couple of hours in the once picturesque but now rather tourist beset village of Broadway. There we found a shop devoted entirely to the works of the American artist Thomas Kinkade and we wandered around looking at the numerous prints and keeping our comments to ourselves. If by some fortune you do not know the work of this gentleman then here is a specimen.

And if you insist here’s another.

Now that’s probably all you need to know; his work is pretty much variations on a theme and instantly recognisable from ten paces. ‘Thomas who?’ I hear some of you say but what is interesting is this man is probably the world’s bestselling living artist.  You may consult his website (I have no intention of giving you the URL) and you will find that he declares himself ‘Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light’. (The last bit by the way he has rather modestly trademarked; although as some wit has remarked, ‘The Painter of Lite’ is a better title.) Now normally I would pass over such things but Kinkade makes claims to be a Christian and certainly a little fish logo rests over his signature. Not only that but the Wikipedia article on him (which I have no reason to disbelieve) tells us that his paintings are much loved amongst American Evangelicals. I have a nasty feeling that they are probably popular amongst British Evangelicals too. 

Now here I want to be careful. After all, we all disagree on aesthetic matters: and it could be -I suppose – that my intense dislike of these works is due to a sort of cultural snobbery or a personal dislike of American popular art. Well I’ve searched hard and I don’t think I’m guilty of either sin. Indeed, with respect to the latter I have to say that I have rather a soft spot for Norman Rockwell. I suppose too I want to be wary of what is no more than envy: Kinkade has certainly made a massive fortune through shrewd marketing: another wit calls him ‘the artist formally known as prints’. (By the way Kinkade attracts some extraordinary attacks: there are some spectacular and often hilarious parodies of his work on something awful.com). I also recognise that the man clearly has (or had) talent; there are well, portions of his paintings that are done well.  And let’s face it, in a world where dead sharks and unmade beds can be considered art it’s surely no bad thing to see landscapes and homely scenes. Yet when every excuse is made I have to say that I find these paintings bad art generally and, in particular, bad Christian Art.

I have spent some time considering why I dislike these paintings. There are several reasons. I loathe the formulaic and lazy repetition of elements (the glowing skies, the sombre trees, the absence of people, the snow draped rocks and above all, those wretched houses with golden light blazing through the windows as if every stove had suddenly gone supernova). I am sickened by the nauseous distorted colours which seem to me to be the visual equivalent of chocolate sauce and syrup on ice cream. Yet I think my biggest dislike of these paintings is simply that they are not true to the world. It’s not just that the water wheels he paints couldn’t turn, that no house ever glows like that, or that it’s sometimes impossible to know whether it is dawn or midday. It’s something more profound: these paintings are escapist in the worst sense of the word. In Kinkade’s world, no shadow falls. And because no shadow falls there can be neither redemption nor authenticity. His paintings, as Christian Art at the very least, are lies both about us and about the world.

By way of contrast (and I hope I don’t come over as an intellectual snob), I have been listening to Bach cantatas on the way to and from college. (The first 40 discs by the Japanese Christian Masaaki Suzuki have come out in a series of cheap box sets.) Anyway in Cantata 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Klagen  (‘Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing’) there is a wonderful aria with the following haunting couplet probably based on Revelation 2.10 and 1 Corinthians 9:24.

‘Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden,
Kampf und Kleinod sind vereint.’

Which being translated is “Cross and crown are joined together, struggle and treasure are united”. The great authority on Bach, Durr, suggests that Kleinod should really be translated as ‘prize medal’: so maybe that last line ought to read “contest and prize are united.” Well maybe the alliteration is a little bit cheesy but frankly, it all seems so much truer to life and ultimately, infinitely more encouraging than all of Kinkade’s paintings.

8 Responses to “On bad and good art”

  1. Kirsty says:

    Light loses its impact when it shines from every window.

    The same pictures with only one or two lights on, while maybe not 'good art' would not be so annoying (maybe).

    I don't think there's anything actually wrong with twee paintings – even if they're not to my taste. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, there is a problem when people think they are inherently more Christian or spiritual.

  2. Boaz says:

    An alternative perspective on a lack of shadows:

    I lived for nineteen years in or around Seattle (justly famous for the quantity of cloudy and rainy days, if not for the total quantity of rain that falls), and one thing about a cloudy day is that there are almost no shadows: the light is so diffuse that it does come from everywhere. You almost have to look underneath cars to find shadows. However, that's because the entire area is already in a shadow.

    The other question I would bring up (more out of questioning assumptions and looking for alternative explanations rather than necessarily defending Mr. Kincaid's style): in the new Heaven and new Earth, there will be no darkness, no shadow, right? And if such things look disturbing, perhaps it's because we prefer (and are certainly more used to) darkness with our light. This applies to spiritual matters as well (though we wish it wouldn't), as we're all fallen.

    I still love coming to the blog each week, and thank you for continuing it, Dr. Walley!

    Boaz, now in Austin, TX

  3. Zoomie says:

    Having been overloaded with Kinkade's brand in nearly every Christian bookstore, and a good number of general shoppes here in the States, they do get a bit tiresome. I suppose it I had to criticize them for anything, it's for lack of creating any real imagination in the viewer. They are what they are. Not being a fan of the bulk of modern abstract art – I've often said "if it requires too much explanation, it's not art," – I find Kinkade's things disappointing because they require no explanation at all.

    I was further disappointed to find out, courtesy of a TV documentary that his "works" – or at least those that show up in most shoppes – are often the product of nameless assembly-line artists in a Kinkade factory. Kinkade will add a few strokes and a signature, and voila!

    Kinkade's popularity here seems to come from a mixture of adept marketing – complete with targeted presentations during well-attended conferences of a few completely original works to various Christian celebrities to hang in their ministry offices and headquarters, and a pervasive desire by many of his buyers to have their art do little more than generate some "warm-fuzzies" as they stare into the fairyland scenes he paints.

    It's sad that Kincaide has penetrated the heart of the Cotswalds. It's one thing to buy made-in-China kitsch that's actually reflects a location, but having made-in-America generic kitsch (some of which may come from China too) filling a shoppe that would better be selling the work of local artists seems an unfortunate symptom of the globalization that's slowly erasing the uniqueness of the various corners of our world.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Whoops! Tony left a comment but I was on my Iphone and I deleted it. Anyway here it is
    "I Don't understand why so many artists tend to give Kincade so much flack about his work, his style and especially his success.

  5. Aranel says:

    I have a friend with a pastoral degree who has been suffering from cancer and bad health for several years now. He and his family love Kinkade's work. I don't completely understand why, myself. However, it is event to me from the way he stares at the painting over the fireplace that it communicates comfort to him. (It's a scene of a sailboat on somewhat rocky waves at sunset)

    Personally, I find them a little boring. The bright sunset landscapes remind me of Lisa Frank with a more precise, adult flair. Yet, at the same time, thinking of my friend, I still have a sort of soft spot in my heart for these paintings. So, in the meantime I will remain half-neutral.

  6. Tony Snipes says:

    (Thanks for recovering my original comment) I understand that not everyone will find Kinkades’ work to suit their tastes, but isn’t that true for ALL artists? If so, why do we find so many negative discussions about his success?

  7. John Weaver says:

    Very interesting blog entry. I'm currently writing an essay on the state of the arts in evangelical culture (I'm about 40 pages into it). Basically, I contend that the union of Christian art with worldly populism, through Christian rock, burger king logos, etc. is what ruined any attempt for truly authentic Christian art. To me, the most authentic Christian art out there, believe it or not, is Jack Chick tracts, because of their brutal acceptance of every hard doctrine the Scripture preaches, as well as their tendency to confront (I'd say overconfront) the "world" in everything they put out. But then, I tend to see art as fundamentally destructive, particularly popular art. Peter Watkins, a British film director from the sixties, made a film called Privilege (which you should check out, as it predicts the rise of the Christian rock scene). Watkins thesis is that the government uses popular art as a means of anatheszing the populace and keeping them from making meaningful social changes to the way the world is. So, even though I'm an agnostic, I'll always respect Chick tracts and A Thief in the Night, for daring to be confrontational in a truly shocking way. I just don't think Christian fiction or art is going to do this anytime soon.

    Best wishes,

    P.S. I revised my chapter on your books, partly based on your suggestions and my dissertation director's. It's almost ready to be published in dissertation form, so let me know if you want me to e-mail you a copy.

  8. Nate says:

    “Yet I think my biggest dislike of these paintings is simply that they are not true to the world.”

    This is my reaction to Kinkade’s work too. I find them visually disturbing because real world trees and cottages don’t look like that at all. It’s an ‘uncanny valley’ kind of effect – it just feels fake, plastic, distorted, scary. The angles are exaggerated somehow.

    It’s not that I dislike ‘cute’ or ‘twee’ or want there to be a shadow – I’m a sucker for kittens, sunsets, and soothing green forests. And it’s certainly not that I’m not nostalgic for older, better times – at some level I am. It’s that Kinkade’s visual universe is a place I really, really don’t want to live, and doesn’t feel home to me.

    It feels cluttered and unlivable, ‘posed’ and sculpted rather than laid out naturally. The geometry just feels wrong.

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