Francis Schaeffer on the Problem with Thomas Kinkade’s Optimistic Art

Several months ago I wrote a post on the well known and now deceased “Painter of […]

Matt Schneider / 1.19.15

Several months ago I wrote a post on the well known and now deceased “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade. I addressed Kinkade’s tragic backstory of suffering and how his pain never came through in his I’m-OK-you’re-OK artwork. Most of all I lamented that Christians in particular promote his brand of sentimental artwork because it is safe. What I originally thought would be an obscure post actually got a lot of attention. I was surprised that it struck such a nerve. One redditor called me patronizing: “F*ck Matt Schneider. This piece was condescending and nauseating.”

I don’t usually criticize individual artists and thinkers publically, especially if they’re still living. I’d rather speak generically than pick on someone in particular. But because Kinkade is no longer alive, I feel his work is fair game for targeted critical analysis. Above all though, my heart breaks for Kinkade, who was a fellow Christian and sufferer. His life ended prematurely without recovery.

Perhaps if Kinkade were still alive and perhaps if he had addressed his addictions, he might have moved in new directions artistically, allowing some pain to break into his canvas. We’ll never know, but we can learn a lot by using the body of work he left behind as a conversation piece regardless of his posthumous inability to defend himself. People are allowed to like and defend his pretty pictures all they want. That’s fine with me really, but it also means others of us are likewise allowed to critique the very same paintings.

978491Even if my tone had a hint of snark in my original piece, I stand by the content of what I wrote, and I have some new thoughts. I recently read Francis A. Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible (1973), in which he articulates more effectively what I was trying to say about Kinkade and similar artists. Here are some excerpts from Schaeffer’s book and my connections to the likes of Kinkade:

The Christian world view can be divided into what I call a major and minor theme. … First, the minor theme is the abnormality of the revolting world. … There is a defeated and sinful side to the Christian’s life. If we are at all honest, we must admit that in this life there is no such thing as totally victorious living. In every one of us there are those things which are sinful and deceiving, while we may see substantial healing, in this life we do not come to perfection.

What Schaeffer describes is parallel to the doctrine that Christians are simultaneously justified and sinful: simul iustus et peccator. Kinkade and similar artists mostly do not (maybe never) expose the minor theme of sinfulness. They instead create a world of total victory without the slightest pain. Schaeffer continues to explain:

The major theme is the opposite of the minor; it is the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life. … So therefore the major theme is an optimism in the area of being; everything is not absurd, there is meaning. But most important, this optimism has a sufficient base. …

God himself has a character and this character is reflected in the moral law of the universe. Thus when a person realizes his inadequacy before God and feels guilty, he has a basis not simply for the feeling but for the reality of guilt. Man’s dilemma is not just that he is finite and God is infinite, but that he is a sinner before a holy God. But then he recognizes that God has given him a solution to this in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Man is fallen and flawed, but he is redeemable on the basis of Christ’s work. This is beautiful. This is optimism. And this optimism has a sufficient base. …

Notice that the Christian and his art have a place for the minor theme because man is lost and abnormal and the Christian has his own defeatedness. There is not only victory and song in my life. But the Christian and his art don’t end there. He goes on to the major theme because there is an optimistic answer. This is important for the kind of art Christians are to produce. First of all, Christian art needs to recognize the minor theme, the defeated aspect to even the Christian life. If our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art. … Older Christians may wonder what is wrong with this art and wonder why their kids are turned off by it, but the answer is simple. It’s romantic. It’s based on the notion that Christianity only has an optimistic note.

According to Schaeffer, Kinkade’s work does not equal fully Christian art (despite his personal faith and large Evangelical fan base). Kinkade’s work equals romantic art. And a helpful side note here is that this sort of false optimism typically doesn’t connect with younger people. But not just young people, also folks who know they are struggling, those who don’t always see the world through rose colored glasses, men and women who at times feel defeated and need their pain addressed before they can have hope. Artists like Kinkade step over the corpses of reality with their eyes averted and nostrils pinched while heading toward escapist sentimentalism. Ironically such fantasies can’t give us hope, only perverted versions of hope, and it’s too bad so many Christians promote this sort of safe family-friendly art.


A scene from “Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage,” a 2008 direct-to-video biopic, starring Jared Padalecki as Kinkade, seen here walking past one of his own paintings.

But let’s not ignore the flipside to the equation. What about artists who dwell only on the minor themes? Isn’t that nihilistic? Isn’t cynicism equally dishonest? Schaeffer anticipates these questions:

It is possible for a Christian to so major on the minor theme, emphasizing the lostness of man and the abnormality of the universe, that he is equally unbiblical. There may be exceptions where a Christian artist feels it his calling only to picture the negative, but in general for the Christian, the major theme is to be dominant—though it must exist in relationship to the minor.

In other words, good news ought to be the final word. While brokenness and guilt are equated with minor themes, the gospel most closely parallels the major. We need both to proclaim hope—joy beyond the sorrow. Joy is privileged, but it can’t stand alone. This is something Kinkade unfortunately never seemed to understand because his opinion of humanity and the world (at least the one on display for the world to see) was too enthusiastic to ring true with ordinary sufferers:

There are, of course, some works of modern art which are optimistic. But the basis for that optimism is insufficient and, like Christian art which does not adequately emphasize the minor theme, it tends to be pure romanticism. These artists’ work appears dishonest in the face of contemporary facts. …

There is a parallel in our conversation with men. We must present both the law and the gospel; we ought not end with only the judgment of the law. Even though we may spend most of our time on the judgment of the law, love dictates that at some point we get to the gospel. And it seems to me that in the total body of his work the artist somewhere should have a sufficient place for the major theme.

Schaeffer does a much better job explaining what I was attempting to explore with Kinkade’s art and life. Art that rings true—art that Christians ought to embrace—needs to in some way address both the minor and major themes of life. Perhaps this point isn’t imperative for a single piece of artwork, but in an artist’s full body of work over a lifetime, to have one theme without the other is either nihilism or sentimentalism. We shouldn’t applaud sentimental artists for safe aesthetics offering escapist fantasies. Truth and hope lie in light overcoming darkness, not ignoring it.

  Featured image: “Firelight Cottage” by Nathan Stillie.