Thomas Kinkade’s Landscape of Commodity: A Critical Analysis on the Status of the Artist

Abstract: 

The contemporary American artist Thomas Kinkade produces extremely popular paintings; however, they do not garner serious critical attention within the vanguard art world. The purpose of this critical analysis is to identify and analyze reasons why, despite the popularity of his paintings, Kinkade is not considered a significant artist by the art world. Several factors are key in preventing Kinkade from achieving this status. Among these are the static message of his paintings combined with his outdated artistic practices and contemporary business practices. Kinkade’s paintings communicate a message of escapism. Moreover, the art world refuses to consider Kinkade’s work seriously because of the disparity between his pre-modern style and subject matter combined with the manner in which he intentionally “commodifies” his products without incorporating an awareness of this strategy in his art.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    The work of well-known contemporary American artist Thomas Kinkade provokes controversy. His paintings are not morally reprehensible—in fact, their imagery falls well within the scope of conservative American values. Moreover, Kinkade’s website explains that his art delivers “inspirational messages” and “inherent life-affirming values” (Thomas Kinkade Company, “The Artist”). Despite this approach, very few artists and critics in the vanguard art world consider Kinkade’s paintings as serious art. The purpose of this paper is to identify and analyze reasons why the contemporary art world does not consider Kinkade’s art to be serious and, correspondingly, merit critical attention. Specifically, I argue that Kinkade intentionally keeps his message constant while, at the same time, he commodifies and capitalizes on his art, and taken together these two factors prevent the vanguard art world from treating him as a member.

    In what follows, first I discuss the message of Kinkade’s paintings and then I examine his business practices. I conclude by summarizing how the message and business practices, in synergy, bar Kinkade’s art from achieving consequence in the eyes of the contemporary art world. The subject of this paper is important because it alerts us to some criteria by which members of a particular cultural group act as gatekeepers, admitting or refusing entrance to others. Precisely because Kinkade has not been admitted, art scholars and cultural historians have not paid significant attention to why his art or career troubles the contemporary art world even though some features also correspond to elements of that world. It is on this point that this paper contributes an important discussion about this particular artist, his activities, and the expectations of contemporary vanguard art that is considered cutting edge because of its newness, innovation, challenge, and provocation.

    The Message in Kinkade’s Paintings

    Throughout the body of his mature work, the message Kinkade presents is constant. In general, message is defined to be a “communication from one person to another; an inspired revelation; ethical or spiritual teaching” (“Message” def. 1–3). Specifically pertaining to art, the message is “something the artwork, as an utterance, understood in context, is broadly saying” (Levinson 82). A work of art in its entirety can be understood as a message. Also, we can understand a work of art as a vehicle that conveys an artist’s message. Especially in the latter sense, the message Kinkade communicates in his paintings stems from his account of a personal spiritual revelation, and it is a broad statement about how to live in American society. By examining the subject matter and style of his work and comparing this to paintings by other artists, we can infer the message of Kinkade’s paintings.

    Since the mid-1980s, the subject matter of Kinkade’s paintings has been outdoor scenes—landscapes and cityscapes. Within his landscapes, Kinkade has been known to include tamed vegetation, quaint cottages, stone lighthouses, and bodies of water (Harvey 17). Cultural landmarks, such as his most recent painting of Fenway Park in Boston, a baseball shrine, also appear as subjects of his art. Human figures and animals appear too, but only as inhabitants of the scenes he describes, never as focal points. I will return to explore the importance of this point later.

    Kinkade paints in a romantic realist style. The artist says that he considers himself “a romantic or imaginative painter,” and depth, mood, and light are the most important elements of his work (quoted in Raffety 239). Being a realistic painter, Kinkade constructs illusionistic space in his paintings. In other words, his landscapes appear three-dimensional because he renders them as scenes seeming to have spatial depth that recedes away from the picture plane and into an evoked distance. In addition, two factors that distinguish romantic realism as a style are its mood and light (Raffety 113). The self-proclaimed title, “Painter of Light,” is appropriate for Kinkade because a particular quality of light contributes to what makes his paintings readily identifiable. This quality amounts to clouds parting to reveal the sun illuminating a landscape. Frequently, warm light glows from within cottages and from lampposts dotting the scene. Kinkade’s illumination of landscapes seems at once dramatic and emotion-laden; for example, light comes both as a natural effect and because of comfortable human habitation in the scene. Additionally, Kinkade creates a specific mood in his paintings through color. The mood is romantic and sentimental because the artist uses many pastel colors. The overall tone is cheerful—light, bright, and pleasant. The mood involves serenity, too, as the elements together evoke harmony.

    Comparison of Kinkade’s Work With That of Other Artists

    Contrasting Kinkade’s version of romantic realism with that of other artists enables us to further identify as well as better understand his message. The romantic style of Kinkade’s landscapes recalls the work of pre-modern artists such as American landscapists Thomas Moran (1837–1926), Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), and Thomas Hill (1829–1908). What Kinkade shares with his American predecessors is the creation of dramatic representations of landscapes. However, Kinkade’s paintings also differ from his predecessors in another way. His paintings are structured to metaphorically invite the viewer into the scene. In other words, because in his paintings the illusion of deep space is rendered so realistically, their presentations of landscapes appeal as scenes belonging to a world that a viewer can enter. Moreover, Kinkade organizes the space and provides features that the viewer can imagine. For instance, the vast wilderness of Thomas Hill’s View of Yosemite Valley (1885) is awe inspiring but inaccessible to viewers of the painting (Clapper 92). There is no path or road depicted on which to tread, and the massive mountains do not give way to any shelter in which humans can feel comfortable. This situation creates a barrier between the world the painting depicts and the viewer. In contrast, in Kinkade’s paintings signs of man’s presence, including pathways and sidewalks, function to invite viewers to imagine themselves walking through the scene it invokes. The viewers can easily imagine that the scene is accessible to them because they can see visual representations of real-life features of access to a site. This quality is important to note when constructing an idea of Kinkade’s message.

    Comparing the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) with those of Kinkade provides additional insight. Fragonard painted in France during the eighteenth century, employing what we call a Rococo style—light, elegant, and sensuous (“Rococo” def. 4). Kinkade’s handling of nature imagery recalls the wispy modeling of trees and brush by Fragonard, especially in his Progress of Love series (Fragonard). However, unlike in Fragonard’s paintings, the lack of overt figures in the foreground of a Kinkade painting allows viewers to imagine themselves in the scene. Furthermore, Kinkade avoids including specific types of people—that is to say, he avoids providing an avatar, an image that stands in for the viewer, including characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic level. Because he does not include images of people, anyone can mentally traverse the pathways of the painting. This technique further contributes to the message of the work and will be important to note later in the discussion.

    Outdoor scenes as subject matter and the romantic realist style described previously are intimately tied to the message Kinkade means to convey. Painting outdoor scenery as a subject matter in a romantic realist style implies a message that the outer world that humans inhabit is a beautiful and incredible place. The representation of the world around us as a dramatic place using the mood, light, and depth of the romantic style exhibits the grandeur of nature. Furthermore, the artist of a romantic realist painting intends the viewer to feel awe at the natural scene depicted.

    The message of the beauty of nature suggests a specific function for Kinkade’s work. By choosing to paint this subject in this style, Kinkade implies an inspirational purpose to the images. He intends to inspire his audience with the beautified landscapes he creates, and, like any romantic realist painter, to fill the viewer with awe. Kinkade’s website states that he strives to “bring peace and joy into [people’s] lives through the images he creates” (Thomas Kinkade Company, “The Artist”).

    An additional purpose involves the therapeutic. According to Kinkade, the intent of his paintings is to “provide hope to people in despair” (Clapper 82). Correspondingly, by imagining the paintings as windows into a real world, one that is beautiful, serene, and harmonious, the viewers are able to metaphorically enter and there escape the pressures and stresses of their everyday life. This perception occurs because Kinkade delivers scenes that do not have a specific character as the focus, scenes in which the viewers can imagine themselves as the main character of that beautiful world. The world in the painting seems accessible to the viewer because the subject matter includes evidence of the presence of inhabitation in the form of cottages, roads, bridges, and other amenities for humans. Because the viewer can imagine inhabiting this beautiful space safely, the function of Kinkade’s art becomes one of escapism from the everyday into an imagined haven world that the paintings depict.

    The function of Kinkade’s paintings completes the message he means to convey. In addition to showing the beauty and grandeur of nature through landscapes in a romantic realist style, his paintings act as a means of escape from reality for the viewer. Thus, the message of Kinkade’s paintings is not only the beauty of nature, but also a message that the viewer can escape any unpleasant aspects of life by gazing into this work of art. It is predicated on a way of living that is harmonious with and beautified for its integration with nature and simplicity in the type of life it imagines for viewers.

    Kinkade’s Exclusion From the Contemporary Art World

    Contrasting current ideas about what constitutes good art with Kinkade’s paintings allows us to realize that Kinkade’s body of work does not fit the model of good contemporary art. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, not only have modern ideas about art permeated art-making, but postmodern critique has become the norm. There is little room left for traditionalists who cling to pre-modern ideas about art-making in the arena of high art. Modernism placed a high value on the innovation of image and of message; previously, this was not the case. In fact, during the nineteenth century, it was common for artists to copy other paintings brushstroke by brushstroke, and have the copies copied (Mainardi 123–47). Thus, when comparing Kinkade to other artists, it makes more sense to compare him to pre-modern landscapists rather than with his historical contemporaries or even with early twentieth-century artists. He has in common with the nineteenth-century artists the tendency to copy works in exact replicas, not by hand but by using today’s technology of high-tech prints. Also, Kinkade’s choice of images changes very little. Whether landscape or cityscape, his paintings depict beautiful outdoor scenes within close reach of human amenities. Professional art critics have labeled Kinkade’s work uninteresting as art. One historian-critic, Kenneth Baker, described Kinkade’s techniques of painting as “a vocabulary of formulas” (Clapper 78). The formulaic quality of Kinkade’s art refers to the lack of innovation apparent in his work concerning subject matter and the style in which he paints. This quality sets him in opposition to the basic premise of change and innovation of subject and style that came with modernity.

    Kinkade makes concessions neither to modernism nor to postmodernism. When engaging in postmodern art, it is no longer sufficient to present just one side of an issue. The postmodernist will expose things for what they really are and break down cultural myths (Way 26 March, 2008). Kinkade presents a one-sided view; we can imagine that the world is a serene place by looking at his paintings. He does this by offering the viewer images of serenity and comfort, scenes and places that are rarely, if ever, found in reality. Although his paintings depict scenes containing features that can exist in the world, Kinkade idealizes these scenes by painting in a romantic realist style and editing the composition of the painting to exclude unappealing objects that may be found in the real world, such as refuse or anything else that suggests disharmony or lack of serenity.

    A related point is that many of Kinkade’s works depict eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life instead of contemporary life or issues. For example, Kinkade’s New Horizons (April 2008) painting “takes us to a timeless harbor of the 18th Century” (Thomas Kinkade Company, “Online Gallery”). Although Kinkade depicts all four seasons, it seems as if those seasons are stuck in time, and that the perfect, peaceful moment lasts year-round in that place. This perception is because there is no evidence of the passing of time as a force of change that could render the scene disharmonious in any respect. Thus, Kinkade’s paintings show signs of being mythic. A myth is a parable about human experience that exists outside of linear time and usually includes a hero overcoming a challenge and triumphing (Armstrong 7). In general, Kinkade only offers one strategy to deal with the problems of the world—that is, to ignore them. Nowhere in his paintings are there depictions of strife or challenge. He depicts only a pleasant world. Although Kinkade’s paintings are mythic in their timelessness, they do not present a challenge to overcome and thus cannot be considered true myths. The lack of reference to time passing in his paintings implies a static view of life itself.

    In summary, Kinkade spreads a static message through his art and maintains outdated artistic practices from a pre-modern time. This disparity between modern and postmodern ideas about good art-making and Kinkade’s message encompasses one aspect of him not being accepted into the community of contemporary vanguard artists.

    The Commodification of Kinkade’s Artwork

    The second major aspect of Kinkade’s exclusion from this status involves how he commodifies his art, and yet does not concede to current art styles. A commodity is “an article of trade; any concrete thing desired by purchasers, possessing utility, and available in limited supply” (“Commodity” def. 1–2). To commodify is to treat something as a commodity. Kinkade runs a business with his art in a way that is common among his contemporaries. In 1989, he launched Lightpost Publishing with businessman Ken Raasch to create reproductions of his paintings (Doherty 20–27). In 1990, Kinkade incorporated his marketing and distribution company, Media Arts Group (Harvey 16). In 2004, he bought Media Arts Group and renamed it The Thomas Kinkade Company (Art Business News, Completes). All of the sales of Kinkade’s products go through his company but the original paintings are not available for purchase. Instead, he uses the paintings as the basis for prints ranging from limited-edition photomechanical prints on canvas, which he sells for thousands of dollars, to low-cost, 8 × 10-inch prints. His images are printed on plastic film that is placed on top of canvas. Prints on paper are also available for purchase (Clapper 77–78). Along with prints, Kinkade also produces and sells a plethora of household items including pillows, purses, clocks, mugs, fabrics, and cards. These products replicate either the image of an entire Kinkade painting or a large part of it, and sometimes incorporate text intending to inspire (Rogers 18). Warner Books, Inc. and the QVC television shopping network produced “Lightposts for Living,” a collection of Kinkade’s self-help books. EMI Record Company produced a CD titled “Music of Light,” with Kinkade’s matching paintings of light to go with the music (Art Business News, Kinkade Art). As well as smaller products, Kinkade offers consumers a larger slice of his paradise. Media Arts Group teamed up with the La-Z-Boy Furniture Corporation to produce furniture based on Kinkade’s imagery, and the Houston-based U.S. Home Corporation has planned entire communities whose designs are based on Kinkade’s work (Harvey 16). The prints and other objects with Kinkade’s images on them are commodities, and must be marketed to successfully run a business.

    Making something a commodity involves marketing it. Kinkade markets his work very effectively. The prints for sale follow a ten-tiered hierarchy of correlated quality and price. The master edition has hand highlights in oil paint by Kinkade himself with an authentic signature. The studio proof is highlighted by a master highlighter and by Kinkade. Next in prestige are the Renaissance Edition, International Proof, Publisher’s Proof, Gallery Proof, Artist’s Proof, Examination Proof, and Standard Number. Characteristics that define the type of reproduction are determined by hand-numbering, stamps on the back, foil seals, signatures, apprentice or master highlighting, and certain prints being available only at the Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries (Clapper 78). These works become collectible because of the limited number of reproductions made at each stage (Wilson 96–97). The price per print does not change but the number of prints increases; thus, the seller gains a profit. Finally, if the consumer is not interested in having a piece of art on the wall, they can purchase a utilitarian object with the same image on it. The prints and objects are sold through galleries and shops. Around two hundred Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries exist in the United States. Also, hundreds of authorized stores sell the same range of print types by Kinkade as well as prints by other artists. The marketing strategies within the Signature Galleries ensure that the prints seem desirable to the consumer, emphasizing their status as a valuable art object. This status is achieved by creating a warm home-like atmosphere inside the Signature Thomas Kinkade gallery through lighting and furnishings, in contrast to the plain white walls of a typical art gallery on which paintings are displayed. This atmosphere helps potential buyers of the art to envision it in their own homes. The prints have a shiny surface, ornate frames, and spotlights on them, further enhancing their appeal to customers (Clapper 79–80). The prints and products with Kinkade images on them are treated as commodities and marketed effectively.

    Comparison of Artistic Business Practices

    Contemporary artists work much in the same way as Kinkade does. Offset and giclée prints are widely accepted in the art world as valid products. Artists, especially those whose subject matter is wildlife, marine life, or Western art, use printed reproductions of their paintings to earn a living (Doherty 20–27). Numbering the prints is common to create shortage and raise the value of the prints. Signing the prints by hand shows that the prints are authentic (Clapper 79). Paintings are normally shown in galleries as promotion. They are then sold to a collector through an art dealer, which is the function of Kinkade’s personal company (Rudd 118–119). Placing the artwork into a home atmosphere rather than a gallery is a relatively new way of displaying it publicly (Clapper 80). Also, successful contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami have taken advantage of consumerist marketing and blurred the distinction between commodities and fine art. Koons appropriates existing consumer items and places them within the display structure of fine art, namely, frames and display cases in museums and galleries. Murakami, working with fashion designer Louis Vuitton, creates art-like consumer objects and further muddles the distinction between high art and consumerism by setting up a working cashier in the museum gallery so that viewers at an exhibition can also buy art within the space of the exhibition (Way 23 April, 2008). Likewise, Kinkade’s approach to art is to commodify it and then capitalize on it, in line with the contemporary approach of artists.

    However, artists such as Koons and Murakami use current subject matter and styles in their work and employ current ideas about business while also exploring them critically in their art or addressing them in ways that question the relationship of business and economy to art practice. For instance, Koons takes existing consumer objects such as posters and appropriates them as his own artwork, which is a distinctly postmodern gesture that simultaneously undermines while also confirming certain ideas about the importance of authorship. Yet in Kinkade’s paintings, the subject matter and style are pre-modern but his business practices are current, as described previously. Moreover, he does not include business practices as a part of the content of his art. Instead, Kinkade’s use of pre-modern subject matter and style combined with current business practices sets him apart from the nature of the work of artists such as Koons and Murakami.

    Conclusion

    For these reasons, the contemporary vanguard art world does not treat Kinkade as a serious artist. His static message of escape from unpleasant aspects of the world was abandoned long ago by the modernists, and is no longer a topic of conversation for artists. Although current artists take full advantage of the process of consumerism with their work, there is a distinction that sets Kinkade apart even from these mavericks. While current artists work in current styles with current business practices, Kinkade uses a pre-modern romantic realist style but markets his work in the currently accepted way. Because all of Kinkade’s products have carried the same message in the same style since he began making art, he focuses more on marketing and selling these products instead of developing a message with his artwork. This practice is the fundamental distinction that makes Kinkade a businessman rather than an artist. As art historian Robert Rosenblum commented, Kinkade “doesn’t look like an artist who’s worth considering, except in terms of supply and demand” (Clapper 78). Kinkade is a good example of how to market a product and capitalize on it, but not an example of a serious artist with a significant new message. For now, Thomas Kinkade remains simply a well-trained painter who is adept at selling his products, without significance in the contemporary art world.

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