2009 Photo by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller, flickr

At the end of the spring semester when final projects, final exams, and end-of-year budgeting all come due, I sometimes fall behind in keeping up with the news.  So I just found out last week that artist Thomas Kinkade died Easter weekend — from an apparent overdose of valium (drunk down with alcohol). He was 54. 

Surprised?  Yeah — so was I.  Thomas Kinkade, who sometimes claimed to be “America’s most-collected living artist,” was the guy who painted the idyllic nature scenes, which sometimes appear as desktop computer screen wall paper, with luminescent glows permeating serenely throughout the picture.  One of every twenty American homes is said to have a Thomas Kinkade painting, so Wikipedia says.     

I’ve always thought his art to be populist and designed to be commonly appealing — yeah, art critics are always going to sniff at such lowbrow stuff, but so what?  I still sometimes enjoy a good Southern Gospel quartet or even a country music station, even though all my music teachers in college scoffed at such and claimed a classically trained musician would eventually, inevitably “outgrow” it; I never did. . . .   

But I didn’t think his artwork was any more controversial than that.  Turns out that there is a stream of Christian art critics who find Kinkade art not just trite, but dangerous. Dangerous?!  Yes, you read that right.  

Here’s a line from the Kinkade obituary written by Daniel Seidell: “Thomas Kinkade . . . produced paintings that are far more terrifying than Munch’s [painting of The Scream, 1893] or Holbein’s [painting of The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1522], giving us a world deprived not only of Easter Sunday, but Holy Saturday, Good Friday, and Christ himself.” (Click here for the whole column.)

The objection to Kinkade’s pleasant paradisiacal visions put on canvas is that they offer a world 1) falsely depicted as unfallen; and 2) without need of redemption. In short, like pornography’s offer of the pleasures of sex without the encumbrances of love and relationship, Kinkade’s art is accused of offering a world free of distortion and unpleasantness without the inconvenience of needing to go through Christ, or Christ’s cross, to get it. 

The fear is that this idyllic vision will play and does play all too well and quickly to the already narcissistic and hedonistic sensibilities of affluent American consumers. All the more sinister is Kinkade’s art thought to be given the tortured life, alleged unscrupulous business practices, and then in a final, ironic coup de gras, the unsavory way into the afterlife taken by Thomas Kinkade, the man. 

I have to say that my first reaction when I read this line of criticism was that it was going too deep and being too critical with something that never claimed or aspired to be anything other than superficially pleasing. “Saccharine sweet” is not a compliment, but the occasional Diet Coke will not kill you either.

But the more I think about it — and the more I think about even my own response, my own soul’s visceral reactions to Thomas Kinkade’s paintings — the more I think there may be a valid point of concern here.  How about you?  What do you think?  


Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical.  He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/todd-mangum.

Comments 

 
+1 #6 George Stephens 2012-07-12 08:29
So then, are we to be suspicious of the architectural art of Christopher Wren because he moved his windows up to view God?

The joy of our faith is that it moves us up while enabling us to live down. It is quite true that Kincaide painted in the ideal, bur perhaps we should take his ideal as A) the thought of what the universe would be without the taint of sin (though, how he could paint Yankee Stadium in that context is beyond me) and B) a vision of what a man in inner turmoil and an understanding of the holy longed to experience.

Paul reminds us that we should never judge another man's servant. Call his art Kitschy or trash (and most American art is) but calling it dangerous is perhaps beyond us.
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0 #5 R. Todd Mangum 2012-06-28 16:36
"If his life and work taught us anything it's that sentimentality and a good marketing campaign are a powerful combination." :-)

And . . . (regarding the whole post): very well said. Thanks!
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0 #4 Steve W. 2012-06-26 20:00
@Todd: I think that's a fair assessment. If someone were to come to me proclaiming Kinkade's work as a masterpiece (or worse yet a "Christian masterpiece") I'd probably have a lengthy discussion with them about art and beauty as it relates to our world around us. If his life and work taught us anything it's that sentimentality and a good marketing campaign are a powerful combination. And yet I still can't help think that if there is a theological issue here (perhaps the neo-gnosticism Jason writes about) then Kinkade is a symptom, not the cause (Ross Douthat's book "Bad Religion" comes to mind). People buy these paintings because they resonate somehow, and it's that affinity that needs to be addressed. Or to paraphrase the famous quote about free speech, the answer to bad art is not less art, but more, better art.
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0 #3 R. Todd Mangum 2012-06-26 18:15
@Jason and @Steve: I suppose the question is whether (Christian enamorment with) Kinkade's art leads to a sort of "longing to escape," which lulls people to sleep, or -- Jason's point, which I had not put my finger on -- hardens them to people or discourages them from engaging in the hard work of forbearing with people (Eph. 4:2) or focus (even the imagination) on what is not our calling or mission. Steve -- you may be right that "dangerous" is too over-the-top, sensationalist a critique. . . . But some of these postmortem reviews have got me thinking. . . . There could be dangerousness in the seeming subtlety and triteness. On the other hand, I'm with you that I can get only so upset at cabins in the woods or placid streamscapes.
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+1 #2 Steve W. 2012-06-26 13:02
To be be honest I always get suspicious when people pronounce seemingly innocuous things as theologically "dangerous". It's a rhetorical strategy I find often goes too far. I've had a hard time taking Kinkade seriously as an artist (the painting of scenes from Disney movies prevented any serious consideration) and because of that I don't think it's helpful to try and force deep analysis of his work. I do realize that people, including Kinkade himself, have tried to advertise him as a Christian artist, but that speaks to a much deeper issue on the perceived dichotomy between secular art and Christian art of all kinds. In short, for me to be willing to label something as theologically "dangerous" I need to see clear evidence that it leads to bad doctrine or practice. The Western Church may lack a robust understanding of the fall and the continuing need for God's grace and redemption, but it's not because us Christian's have too many sappy paintings of cabins hanging on our walls.
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0 #1 Jason Armold 2012-06-26 06:00
I too have always had a bit of a reaction to Kinkade's work as well. While some of it was aesthetically pleasing in a "good for a psychologist's office" sort of way, the one things missing in the paintings really struck me. That one thing missing is PEOPLE. I have never seen a person in any of Kinkade's works. The idealized views and stunning landscapes are entirely devoid of human life. I'm not sure if that reflects a gnostic view of the world in which embodied beings are bad and must be excluded or simply an idealism which isn't grounded in any sound theology.
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