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Bullshit Heaven

THE LOVE AFFAIR between the intellectuals and the trashmeisters, now more than a hundred years old, has just overtaken the man who is by some measures the most popular painter in America. Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall is an essay collection that exudes a creepy fascination. While a number of the contributors manage to provide level-headed assessments of Kinkade’s place in the American imagination, I am not remotely convinced that such attention should be lavished on Kinkade’s sugar-drenched Middle America, with its frosted gingerbread domiciles, dew-kissed old-fashioned small-town Main Streets, and farmlands so fertile they look as if they’re on steroids. Alexis L. Boylan, who edited the book, would no doubt protest that the size of Kinkade’s reputation justifies the attention on sociological or cultural grounds, pure and simple. I know that many intellectuals believe we overlook middlebrow tastes at our own risk. But there is a large dose of reverse snobbery threaded through this collection. More than a generation after Pop Art became holy writ, it is rather tiresome to be announcing yet again that we live in a democracy where one person’s treasure is another person’s trailer trash, and that their masterworks are not necessarily inferior to the Picasso’s and Matisse’s in our museums. Many of the contributors to Boylan’s anthology want to devour every last bite of their middlebrow cake, but only after each tasty morsel has been skewered on a highbrow fork. The problem is not that they respect Kincade anthropologically, it is that they respect him as an artist.

Kinkade is a California boy, born in Sacramento in 1958 and educated at the University of California at Berkeley. He refers to himself as “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light” (the term is trademarked). Through sales in Kinkade Signature Galleries in malls and by mail order, he has (or at least claims to have) turned himself into America’s most collected living artist, with work of one sort or another in one out of every twenty homes. Although reproductions of Kinkade’s Prince of Peace, a portrait of Jesus, are said to be a big seller, most of his works are landscapes and cityscapes. His subjects are isolated cottages, romantic lighthouses, snowcapped mountains, cozy small town residential neighborhoods, bustling city streets, and inviting foreign vacation spots. The paintings are overheated and underpowered, the color simultaneously shrill and soggy. Everything—houses, trees, clouds—looks as if it’s made of cotton candy.

Grappling with a man whose politics are right-wing and who is unabashedly Born Again is not necessarily easy going for the liberal-spirited or politically correct academics who have contributed to this volume. Some may pride themselves on having taken on a tough subject, but with Mormon chic ruling on Broadway I suppose Born Again chic is just around the corner. Kinkade, although a churchgoer and father of four, also has his wild-man side, which may have a sort of voyeuristic appeal for well-behaved professors. He has been accused of driving business associates into bankruptcy, and reports of his bad behavior have included “public drunkenness, strip club and bar hopping, public urination”—on a statue of Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland, no less—“lewd conduct, and at least one case of probable sexual harassment.” The man is catnip for the psychopathologists.

And since Kinkade’s images are mostly disseminated not as original oil paintings but in an endless series of editions and product spinoffs such as faux-Victorian tea cups, those who are still mulling over Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” will have more food—or junk food—for thought. I recall the critic Sidney Tillim arguing some years ago that mechanical reproductions have their own kind of aura, their particular variety of impersonality that conveys some sort of folk or pop truth. I guess such an argument can be made for Kinkade’s slick litho repros, although in order to swallow the argument one would have to feel more affection for Wal-Mart America than I can work up. 

The entire subject of Thomas Kinkade is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. I am not always sure whether the authors gathered together in Boylan’s collection are being grimly sincere or shamelessly ironic. I wonder if they themselves are in some doubt about this. As for the intellectual inflation that curdles so many of their arguments, it comes in forms both defensive and offensive, sometimes simultaneously. A number of contributors cannot resist the temptation to take Clement Greenberg’s old essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” for another spin. I find this absurd. What on earth does a piece of writing that was meant to explain the miracle of Picasso, Braque, and Mondrian have to tell us about the work of a man who, though undoubtedly full of himself and his achievement, is mostly out to make a buck? Monica Kjellman-Chapin, in her essay “Manufacturing ‘Masterpieces’ for the Market: Thomas Kinkade and the Rhetoric of High Art,” alludes to Malraux as well as Greenberg and Benjamin, and gets herself into quite a bind, wondering whether Kinkade is “not particularly postmodern” or “not exactly postmodern.” With Kjellman-Chapin, terms such as “high,” “elite,” “low,” and “kitsch” are robbed of any relation to artistic or social reality, as they are marshaled to turn Kinkade into a figure of artistic and social consequence. “His easy assimilation of ‘high’ art’s values and markers,” she writes, “serves simultaneously to obviate any distinction and to concretize the division between elite and ersatz, while appearing to confirm his own pictorial efforts as legitimate Art-with-a-capital-A.”

Kinkade’s pictures and Kjellman-Chapin’s text are a match made in bullshit heaven. “Kinkade,” she continues, descending ever deeper into the theoretical muck, “depends on a calcified, formulaic, static, even stale division between ‘high art’ and low forms of culture, since even as he enters the fray at the latter level, he relies on the value embedded in and conveyed by a strict and stringently preserved notion of the former to imbue his own productions with value/prestige/aura/authenticity. In other words Kinkade needs kitsch in order to partake of and try to participate in its elevated Other.” This sort of self-aggrandizing pseudo intellectual discourse puts me in mind of Edmund Wilson’s unforgettable attack on pedantry in the English departments, “The Fruits of the MLA,” in which he bemoaned—way back in 1968—“the indiscriminate greed for this literary garbage on the part of the universities.” The only thing that really distinguishes the new greed for garbage from the old is that garbage has itself become so chic. In the Kinkade anthology one finds garbage embraced with both guilelessness and aggressive high-camp cheers.

Karal Ann Marling, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a proud collector of all things Kinkade, strikes me as almost guileless, though I wouldn’t put it past her to be giving me a campy wink, too. In any event, she opens her essay by explaining with apparent delight that “the detachable flap on the remittance envelopes of no fewer than three of my credit card bills this month” offer the opportunity to buy one of Kinkade’s lighthouse lithographs for $9.95. You cannot argue with her when she declares that “it is one thing to buy a Picasso at auction in New York with all the attendant hoopla, and quite another to wallow in ‘collectibles,’ including checks, pictures sold through credit-card companies, resin figurines based on old Norman Rockwell magazine covers, and the kinds of dust-catchers collected by little old ladies who also collect cats.” What seems to have eluded Marling is the fact that for most of us a Picasso is not something to buy at an auction but something to look at in a museum or in a reproduction. And here is a big part of the problem. For many of the authors involved in this book, dollar value appears to be almost the only salient value. By this logic, a Kinkade reproduction that is specially hand colored and therefore costs more than a Picasso poster deserves the same kind of attention, if not more.

But in an art world where auction prices are more closely followed than critical opinions, why should this not be the case? At a time when Lisa Yuskavage, an artist no more or less schlocky than Thomas Kinkade, is exhibiting at the blue chip David Zwirner Gallery, which also represents the estate of an old fashioned austere modernist such as Donald Judd, the wonder may be that anybody feels any need at all to justify their interest in Kinkade’s crap. And yet I detect a note of something like belligerence in even the most unabashed of the cheerleaders in this collection, the artist and art critic Jeffrey Vallance, who exhibits his own work in cutting edge galleries in Los Angeles and New York. He opens his essay by proudly announcing that “I am writing this from my handsome Kinkade La-Z-Boy recliner”—and it is as if he were saying, “Take that, you snotty readers.” 

Vallance has the distinction of having organized what he calls “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade,” which some might take as an elitist declaration that the exhibitions of Kinkade’s work in America’s malls do not count. But no matter. Vallance’s essay, with pithily labeled subsections, is like a ride in a clown car. His first meeting with Kinkade was in the Kinkade Chapel that was set up in the exhibition at California State University in Fullerton to showcase the artist’s religious works. Here is Vallance. “The only way I can describe the scene is that it reminded me of the legendary account of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger kneeling together in the Oval Office. … A Nixonian glow emanated from Thom’s countenance as he divulged his divinely inspired design for the Kinkade empire.”

One of the choicest sections in Vallance’s essay is devoted to Kinkade’s much discussed guerilla act at Disneyland, where he urinated on a statue of Winnie the Pooh. Vallance believes that the Los Angeles Times was unfair to Kinkade in a 2006 expose, where if I understand Vallance correctly he feels Kinkade was treated as a garden variety psycho. For Vallance—writing in a section called “The Urination Ritual”—“Pooh-pissing [is] the next step in the grand legacy of piss art”—a kind of “performance art.” Vallance links Kinkade’s “work” with Marcel Duchamp’s decision to exhibit a urinal as a sculpture, with Jackson Pollock urinating in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, as well as with work by Warhol and contemporary artists Paul McCarthy, Mike Bidlo, and David Hammons. It is left to another contributor, Micki McElya, to bring Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ into the discussion, explaining that “aesthetically, Kinkade shares with Serrano a reliance on the manipulation of light effects and the use of light as symbolic of God’s presence and the individual’s potential for salvation.”

Aren’t the aesthetics of garbage just another form of garbage? In any event, it is a relief to turn to a couple of contributors who have not tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how we feel about Kinkade’s pictures. (Speaking for myself, I feel nothing.) David Morgan, in his essay on “Thomas Kinkade and the History of Protestant Visual Culture in America,” suggests that there are mid-nineteenth century Currier and Ives prints that are every bit as programatically moralistic—and banal—as Thomas Kinkade’s prints, and for me that somehow cleared the air. In “Repetition, Exclusion, and the Urbanism of Nostalgia: The Architecture of Thomas Kinkade,” Christopher E. M. Pearson shows how Kinkade’s presumptive Americana is in fact grounded in a fantasy about English cottage architecture, and again I enjoyed the level-headed deflation.

I think Pearson is also probably correct when he argues that “while catering to an urge to flee the real or inferred threats of an urban environment, Kinkade’s secluded dwellings in fact represent in idealized form the actual circumstances of many suburbanites, who in an apparent effort to find community and communion with nature choose to live in clearly demarcated single-family houses situated many miles from work or traditional civic centers.” Near Vallejo, California, there is now an upscale housing development known as Hiddenbrooke, with houses roughly styled on Kinkade’s cottages, their basic suburban forms dressed with bits of stone and gable. “The four different house models are named after Kinkade’s daughters,” Pearson explains: “the Winsor, the Merritt, the Everett, and the Chandler.” There are also “‘period’ lampposts, a fountain, and a small gazebo, as well as rustic street names like Stepping Stone Court and Rose Arbor Way, which reference titles of Kinkade’s paintings.” The homes, priced at around $400,000 when they were launched in 2002, sold very well.

Pearson’s essay on Kinkade’s fictional architecture and its nonfiction spinoffs strikes me as the soundest work in Boylan’s collection. There is a certain elegance about the way that Pearson traces the schlock-fantasy iconography of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings into the real life unreality of Hiddenbrooke. And after the tutti-frutti coloring of Kinkade’s own hideosities, I found something pleasingly deflating about Pearson’s plainspoken photographs of Hiddenbrooke, with its neatly clipped lawns and spic-and-span sidewalks and general air of sunshine banality.

For true believers in Pop Americana, of course, this will be one more chapter in an updated version of Robert Venturi’s and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas. Can the intellectuals who have apotheosized the strip malls be wrong? Can the millions who have purchased a Thomas Kinkade of one sort or another be deluded? I see no reason why this cannot be the case. The point of democracy is not that the majority is correct, although that is a thought that never seems to be very far from the thinking of many of the contributors to Boylan’s book. My own feeling, after contemplating the Kinkade industry, is that, so far as the Painter of Light is concerned, we are all a bunch of Winnie the Poohs and he has urinated on us all.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.