Critical Thoughts on the Evangelical Embrace of Thomas Kinkade’s Art

A year and a half ago I wrote a post on Mockingbird about Thomas Kinkade, […]

Matt Schneider / 1.14.16

Kinkade Church

A year and a half ago I wrote a post on Mockingbird about Thomas Kinkade, the prosperous “Painter of Light,” mostly responding to a then recent article highlighting his death due to a drug and alcohol overdose. I attempted to offer a thoughtful interpretation of Kinkade, his art, his unfortunate demise, and the Evangelical embrace of his work—how I see all of these things as interrelated. Some people disagreed, and others even regarded me as being arrogant about art and taste.

Admittedly, what I wrote was tongue-in-cheek at points. I’ve never respected Kinkade’s art, so I poked some fun at his expense, which in retrospect may have been insensitive, given the timing. The problem is that the post went quasi-viral, so many people I never expected ended up reading my analysis—namely, balking Kinkade fans. I later discovered that there is even an entire Reddit page devoted to skewering my post and me personally. My emotions about this are a mix of honor, humor, and horror. So I wrote a follow-up in which I tried to explain myself a little better, especially that what I’m mostly critical of is the Evangelical embrace not only of Kinkade but also sentimental/romantic art in general. Of course, hardly anyone read the follow-up, and I’m sure even fewer will read this lengthy—by internet standards—essay.

I only bring Kinkade up once again because my original post on him is living an active second life right now. For some reason a lot of people are reading it, and it is currently on the first page of Google search results for “Thomas Kinkade” (try it, or see Figure 1).

In December when many people were searching for Kinkade Christmas knick-knacks, those who came across my post added their comments, often filled with ad hominem vitriol aimed toward me personally. The sentiment in each comment is pretty much the same. I get to weigh in on whether or not to approve or reject each one before they appear in the comment thread, and I usually err on the side of rejecting the ones containing hateful language.

Thomas Kinkade Google Search

Figure 1. At the time of writing this essay, my original blog post, “The Drunken Downfall (and Death) of Thomas Kinkade,” is on page one of the Google search for “Thomas Kinkade” immediately after his company’s links and the Wikipedia entry on him.

Here is just one note as an example–because if you read one, you’ve basically read them all:

Matt, you’re an idiot. How can you possibly know what the world wants in terms of art? Kincaid’s (sic) immense popularity is proof that you don’t know. His art was ridiculed by people like you who insist that ‘real art’ must contain sadness and horror; that’s ridiculous.

Every artist wants to be appreciated for their contribution to the world and it was know-it-all pseudo critics like you that made Kincaid so despondent. There is absolutely no good reason to pan his work other than downright meanness. I guess that’s your contribution to the world?

After hearing several such complaints, I figured it was a good time to offer up further thoughts on Kinkade as clearly as possible with some challenging positions about his art and those who defend it.

(1) From a theologically orthodox Christian point-of-view, Kinkade’s comprehensive body of work is despairing because of its sentimentality. Consider the following theoretical framework from Jerram Barrs, a professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Barrs describes good (or great) art this way in his book Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (2013):

All great art will echo … three elements of Eden: (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that is lost to us, and (3) the promise that Eden will be restored. (p. 26) …

All art that is worthy of the name is bound by the glory of the reality God has made and the shame of the human world as we have corrupted ourselves and fallen from that original glory.

All genuinely great art will appeal universally because of this element of truthfulness to the world as God made it and to the world of our human existence. Think of the worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare’s tragedies Hamlet and Macbeth. (p. 58)

Kinkade set out in his collective body of artwork as we know it (unless there is a hidden cache of surprises in an attic somewhere) to do exactly the opposite of what Barrs describes above. In fact, Kinkade is on record as having said:

I love to create beautiful worlds where light dances and peace reigns. I like to portray a world without the Fall.

—Thomas Kinkade

Echoes of EdenThis makes his work romantic, sentimental, and escapist—kitsch, in other words. Kinkade paintings might make for colorful decorations, but they’re not profound as far as art goes. Kinkade is not alone though. He’s up there with the likes of the Celine Dions, Hallmark Cards, Joel Osteens, Oprah Winfreys, and soap operas of the world, all of whom are massively popular and big-time money makers. Notoriety does not mean their work is therefore good—it is a logical fallacy to appeal to popularity (like the note I received above insists), arguing something is good simply because a lot of people buy it. Pornography sells well too, but that doesn’t make it good or even art. Osteen, Oprah, and soap operas have mass appeal because they don’t challenge us; they show us what we want to see—like Kinkade’s entire body of work.

I’ll grant that one single Kinkade-esque painting isn’t a problem on its own. What’s problematic is when an artist devotes his entire career to willfully ignoring the present marring of this deeply fallen world. Such a collection offers no hope of future restoration because it escapes to the good ol’ days of a world with no Fall. But I don’t live in or know that world where peace reigns, and neither do you. Art such as Kinkade’s is as escapist as a drug that feels good and helps us ignore the pain for a fleeting moment. It neither resonates with our suffering nor does it offer up hope for a remedy. Kinkade is stuck on Eden in its short-lived golden age, but all of us live east of Eden where chaos reigns and darkness dances between the first and second Advents.

Kinkade Marriage(2) A major problem with the phenomenon of Kinkade’s art resides with those who endorse him, especially Christians: Considering the framework Barrs gives us (and a similar argument I highlighted in my previous post appealing to Francis Schaeffer), Christians cannot in good theological conscience support the likes of Kinkade’s art. He self-identified as an Evangelical, and many Christians in general, Evangelicals in particular, naively endorse his artwork. For instance, there is a Thomas Kinkade Lighting the Way Home Family Bible; Billy Graham commissioned Kinkade to create a painting for his library; and there is “Religious & Spiritual” section on The Thomas Kinkade Company’s website. But Kinkade’s art is to painting as Contemporary Christian Music is to Rock music. I for one would rather listen to David Bowie (R.I.P.) in my car any day over the “Family-Friendly Radio Station.” Bowie will stand the test of time over and against such pabulum because he gets at the truth in ways that resonate, something Kinkade was unable to do despite his good intentions.

Many Christians promote such sentimentalism because it appears safe, but as musician Michael Gungor explains, Christianity has never been a safe religion. It’s unfortunate then that Evangelicalism often retreats to superficially inoffensive art. Gungor, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian culture reflects on his upbringing in his book The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators (2012), saying:

In the conservative environment in which I was raised, the lines for acceptable art had been clearly laid out. I was led to believe that if I wanted my art to be pleasing to God, it needed to fit into a set of narrow and utilitarian boxes. Good art was that which preached a perceived Christian message or had a practical use in a worship service. Art had no value in itself. There was no room in my belief system for experimenting or pushing creative boundaries. As a result, my art stayed safe, stale, and boring (by my current standards anyway). (p. 111)

41AuDBqlmhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Such utilitarian and stale art is reduced to a jingle or even propaganda. We should lament this position Evangelicalism often holds toward art, as evidenced in Kinkade’s popularity.

The good news of the Gospel, however, is not safe, stale, and boring. God can handle—and his people should be able to handle—artwork that reflects the truth about the ramifications of God’s broken creation yet holds out for its future restoration, refusing to escape to mere nostalgia about an idealized golden age humanity only knew briefly and destroyed long ago.

(3) I am compassionate about Kinkade’s addictions and his premature death, and I hope you are too: Kinkade was obviously a deeply afflicted soul. The sad thing about his life’s story is for a long time he was hiding behind a mask of a supposedly wholesome individual who painted pretty pictures, but his insides did not match his idyllic outsides. I imagine leading such a life must have been extremely exhausting, possibly contributing to his downward spiral.

I’m therefore curious: What if Kinkade had allowed himself (or were allowed by his fans) to explore his personal pain and the suffering of this world in at least some of his artwork? Could such creative and imaginative expressions have possibly brought about desperately needed healing, maybe even saved his life? We’ll never know, but I wonder with genuine grief for him and those like him.

Buddy ChristKinkade’s art remains highly problematic for his fellow sufferers who are still living with the pain of this world though. Their dereliction, depression, and sense of hopelessness go unacknowledged in the art of Kinkade and other artists like him. I say that not as someone who stands above this messed-up planet but as someone who has to deal with its realities all of the time, who contributes to them even. When I try to appreciate Kinkade’s art, it simply doesn’t connect with my human predicament. I need the hope of a remedy, but what I get instead is a distraction.

(4) Finally, if all you want are some pretty decorations, you can honestly do worse than Kinkade: I should clarify that I harp on Kinkade not because I have a particular distaste for him, but because he is so broadly famous both among Christians and non-Christians alike. As a matter of fact, there is much worse art out there sold in places like the gift aisle at LifeWay bookstores, on QVC, or at HomeGoods. But few of the artists with work sold in these places have household names like Kinkade’s. He’s admittedly low-hanging fruit, an easy target, but one I’m betting a lot of people will recognize for the sake of a larger point about sentimental art in general, especially romantic art promoted by Christians.

Far be it from me to suggest you should entirely avoid buying stuff like Kinkade’s and hanging it up on your walls. I admit to owning some decorative kitsch including an ironic Buddy Christ statuette on my office desk. But none of it is art in the deepest sense. Good art that has something of real significance to offer often doesn’t make the best decor. Yet good art is good and worthy of gallery walls because it uncovers seemingly hidden truths in the world, exposing reality and helping us (as Bob Dylan said) to crawl out from under the chaos of the world and fly above it—to see the world with honesty and clarity. Thankfully, though, no amount of bad art (or careless blogposts) can disqualify us from the love of God.


Bonus: If you still think Kinkade ought to have his place among the great artists of history after watching this video, I don’t know what to say—you and I are probably from two very different planets.