Why Thomas Kinkade Won’t Strike a Chord

by Paddy Johnson on April 10, 2012 · 28 comments Opinion

Thomas Kinkade, Winsor Manor

I keep reading Thomas Kinkade obituaries about how the art world establishment rejected the artist and they're mostly right. In my experience, curiosity for Kinkade's Media Arts Group art and various spin-off products probably reached an apex for artists circa 2004-2005, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything positive about the work. If he influenced artists work, it was as a dark cultural phenomenon, never a model to be replicated.

That’s all pretty obvious, but it’s worth breaking down where this distrust came from. As early as 2001, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker attempted to do so for 60 Minute’s Morley Safer, describing Kinkade's vocabulary as one of “formulas”. He’s right, of course—somehow every home in Kinkade’s work, whatever its treatment, ends up looking like tract housing—but the look of the paintings isn’t the real issue. After all, most contemporary art is allowed to look like total garbage, so long as the concept is solid.

The issue is Kinkade’s ideology, and particularly his nostalgia; his paintings endlessly trumpet a nonexistent past when times were simpler and morality more pure. There's nothing wrong with this, but it stands at odds with a contemporary art world that looks to the future for inspiration. We value complexity and innovation, and distrust saccharine pictures of the past.

This comes through in the thoughts of Joan Didion, herself no fan of the artist. “A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.”

Didion's take overstates the influence of photography—every house with the lights on looks a little bit like it's on fire when viewed through the lens of a camera—but that the images disturb her says much about Kinkade’s brand of nostalgia. Intellectuals simply do not trust, or value, a worry-free world.


Aaron Poehler April 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Probably because anyone with an iota of intelligence realizes that a “worry free world” is an oxymoron?

Lorna Mills April 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm

But the delphiniums were always awesome.

Eno Laget April 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm

only the (not so) good die young.

Les Hutchins April 10, 2012 at 9:51 pm

This kind of false nostalgia is beloved by reactionaries for a reason.

D. Jackson April 10, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Kinkade real issue was a complete lack of ideology. He leaned heavily on religious sentimentality as a marketing tool and worse his art merely filled a market need. His paintings were calculated to bring about an emotional response that they didn’t deserve, he didn’t innovate or capture anything worth looking at or thinking about he simply rolled out cliches in order to win over fans. One can barely argue that Kinkade would use the public response to his last painting to “improve” his next in order to speed the next sale, with no loftier goal in mind than to satisfy the tastes of his audience. I suppose it is possible that his work could have deserved more consideration, but it would require Kinkade’s entire persona to have been made up to imagine that there was some subtext we were all missing.

Paddy Johnson April 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I love this comment, though I think nostalgia of any kind is implicitly linked to ideology so I don’t wholly agree. His subject matter and the way he shows the work is different than what we’d do in Chelsea and there’s a reason for that. We have different values.  

Other than that I completely agree. 

Guest April 11, 2012 at 10:28 am

I think there’s something else going on, too. People are generally suspicious of Kinkade’s motives. I, and I think many people, assume that he was a business man churning out products for which artistic merit is beside the point. Obviously, the cynical within the artworld would say the same about lots of artists, but I think there’s generally a lot of pressure even from the market for artists to care about their own work. 

When I think of Kinkade I think of innovations like inkjet prints with a single stroke of paint applied by the artist so as to substantially increase its retail price without doing anything for it as an artistic work. I think of selling art in malls.

Ben C. April 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Serious question: What’s up with the little red blob with the green halo in front of the bench outside the front door? An alien spirit? Trompe l’oeil “acid attack” on the surface of the canvas? A bloody booger? Maybe Thommy K.’s surrealism is less tepid than we thought.

Cameron Masters April 11, 2012 at 11:08 am

Part of the genius of these paintings (however sick) is that you can project yourself (if you’re an Anglo Christian from North America) into the painting. They’re specifically white, upper-middle class, semi-rural and idyllic, and seem to suggest that there’s a nuclear family huddled around the fire with a Golden Retriever inside. People in the art world shouldn’t be shocked by its popularity — it’s not like most Middle Americans took down their Rauschenberg prints to hang reproductions of these paintings in their (less-than idyllic) suburban houses. 

Alan Lupiani April 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Kinkade represents the same crap-tastic aesthetic that resembles “Malls of America” all over this country. The fact that we are giving this artist’s work the time of day, makes me wonder how long spectacle and branding will continue to compete with meaningful content, transformation, and transcendence in contemporary art. Rockwell looks like da Vinci next to this guy and I am hard pressed to call Rockwell an artist.  Have to thank the Googy for that concern.   Next thing you know, a freshly minted art star will be giving this guy a retrospective in some kiosk @ the local flea market and we will all be “oohing” an “ahhhing” over the intellectual brilliance created by, “unforgettable social sculpture that mirrors thinly veiled American banality, mixed with a hint of draconian induced xenophobia which has motivated the US to take over the world.”

purple April 12, 2012 at 7:13 am

I grew up in the area he is from, and when I was only 14 got a call offering me a job to paint his paintings.  When I said, “but I’m only 14″ their answer was….”well can you get a work permit?”  That’s really all I needed to know about their production and business practices.  But really, how many “great artists” out there really don’t make their work……loads…..we’re a little obsessed with production and the business of profit, expecting “artists” to churn out multiples that would be impossible to do alone.  Yes he preached to sell his paintings, but is that really any different than putting on the act/charade of what the Art World thinks an artist should look like/dress like/sound like now?  

Dr. Charles MitchellNeyrab April 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

I wonder if some you fruitcakes and nuts would know the difference between a valuable attractive painting and a cartoon.  You evidently have a very negative view of everything.  A painting is not just a portrayal of the painter’s life; it is an item to be enjoyed by the viewer.  What a bunch of negative nutcases.  Probably your best bets would be to see a psychiatrist or guru and attempt to straighten yourselves out.  Art Fag City!  Now that really sounds like an entity qualified to evaluate porta-potties or insect spray  –  certainly not art!  You poor things ought to try to get a life (or lives).  What a bunch!

Will Brand April 12, 2012 at 10:46 am


Will Brand April 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

2012 AFC Porta-Potty Rankings:
1) Callahead
2) Johnny on the Spot
3) Rent-a-Throne

Betty Pieper April 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Wow. Tell us what you really think…and maybe cough it up for someone who might understand that reactionary vitrol.

Alan Lupiani April 12, 2012 at 11:09 am

alien spirit has spoken.

Jesse P. Martin April 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm

“Fruitcakes and nuts” might be redundant, figuratively or otherwise.

scapone April 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Dr. MitchellNeyrab, can you recommend a guru? My last one fled the country. Thnx XOXO

Greg Hoskins April 13, 2012 at 12:18 am

Why, yes!  I can tell the difference between a valuable attractive painting and a cartoon.  The Kinkade’s are cartoons.

Hhalle April 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm

His paintings always look like something done in frosting for a sheet cake.

Jesse P. Martin April 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm

I regret to report that the benched bloody-blob-booger does not appear to be in the actual painting: http://bit.ly/HLPLGG

Anonymous April 12, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I believe the very REASON Thomas Kinkade’s work has had such a wide appeal to everyday people, who buy art, is BECAUSE it takes them back to a simpler time.  Art- music, theater, visual art, is meant to speak to patrons on a deep level, to transport them  to another place and time.  Art often offers escape, a little fantasy, if you will.  This is a complex and often frightening world, all the more reason we need art and artists.  We certainly do not need more harshness and ugliness.

I realize that to many art critics, it appears unsophisticated to approve of Kinkade’s work, as it did to value Bob Ross as an artist.  I think this is a snobbishness, and maybe a little jealousy from some, that is unbecoming to the art community.  Bob Ross, while I realize that he used a formula to do his painting, did more to encourage people to pick up a brush or knife than any other artist in recent times.  Everywhere I go I see Thomas Kinkade pictures.  Evidently there must be some appeal to his work. 

One thing I will never understand is why, to be viewed today as an “Intellectual” you have to disconnect you mind from your heart and values.  The true meaning of “intellectuals” has not changed.  The term has been hijacked by wannabes.

I am an artist. I do not use formulas.  I paint with my head and my heart.  I only hope that my art will be enjoyed by as many people as Thomas Kinkade’s.



Kim Matthews April 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm

It’s the dishonesty that I find so appalling, not the dreadful kitsch. If it’s Kozy Khristian Kountry Kottages you want, fine. But the truth is, this guy was a drunk and a crook. Contrary to Dr. Charles thinks, we’re not the cynics: Kinkade was. I guess the ugly truth of Kinkade’s work is that charlatans continue to take advantage of their fellow Christians, selling speculators worthless pieces of mass-produced tripe, false hopes presented as business opportunities, and “cottages” in gated communities. But don’t worry, true believers: his legacy will live on.

Kent Clark April 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm

He is a good painter but his colors are the problem. I guess he saw a niche that the “artworld” left vacant and filled it with pretty pictures. He appealed to the masses that the artworld disdains. The elites have a bandwagon of their own you must master and duplicate. Also, Kinkade didn’t even invent that “Kincade look” in his paintings. It was quite prevalent during the 40s. He stole it just as so many abstract painters do today. I remember seeing those pastel cottages and gardens sold in galleries that carried paintings on velvet when I was a kid. He was shrewd and found an opening and took it. Many artists the artworld favors do the same thing but their art is safe for the elites. SO many artists are not authentic because they do only what is acceptable by the artworld. It gets down to a matter of taste. Kincade was pretty good as a painter as his early work shows but he sold his sole at the marketplace, as we used to say in the 60s, but then so do thousands of others. He just sold it at the working man’s marketplace and that is enough to cause trouble. He opted for money over critical acclaim. He promoted himself but so do all artists who end up being able to live off their art. He TRIED to make  the world look beautiful and that is enough to be barred from the museums. Only the cynics are allowed. I’m not saying he even succeeded, just that it was his aim and that aim was enough to cause all the hatred by the elites. Take away his pastel colors, see his work in black & white, and some of his work shows that he’s a decent painter. Also he was no fool. He knew what he was doing and the choice he was making. He thumbed his nose at the “intellectuals” and did it his way, something you can’t say for many contemporary artists who pose as being cutting-edge. Ironically these are the ones who are playing it safe. It’s hard to point fingers. 

Jackebel April 14, 2012 at 9:59 am

While they are cutting the tops off mountains, spilling oil in the Gulf, creating acid rain, etc. etc. etc. you can draw the blinds and look at you Kinkade. What, me worry?

Aubrey Laret April 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I can’t believe people actually put so much thought into their dislike of these pictures. To me they’re just crap.

Adam Owett April 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Great piece.  I’ve been fascinated with Kinkade for years.  For me it’s just as important to judge artists by their effect on culture and the individuals who delight in their work, not just in comparison to works that suit my taste or are lauded by the fine art establishment.  I also think, as tasteless as it might sound, that artists that make a lot of money are worth taking seriously.  Money talks, and if “commoners” are forking out their hard earned cash for a Kinkade, it’s culturally imporant to understand why.

So how are artists like Kinkade are undervalued?  Arguably, just in volume alone, they have changed how the “rest” of the world sees and appreciates “painting” as much as “fine” artists. KInkadians, and the like have also influenced numerous current styles of art, both pop and fine.  Think about Keane’s ubiquitous big eyed subjects…then fast forward to the birth of manga.

Christophla April 23, 2012 at 12:28 am

I highly doubt the man even painted half of these paintings himself…

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