Yes, I’m alive! Just haven’t had the time or energy to update anything since I can’t remember when. And Kevin Raybould has a real job, and Tom has a new job and a new house. So thanks for hanging in there.
I don’t have anything important to say. This story caught my eye today, though, and I felt moved to comment.
It seems that gut-wrenchingly sappy hack Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light™”, died last week. Nobody noticed, because nobody cared. But the stories that have been rounded up on him are startling, even granting that you knew how schlocky he was to begin with.
For those who have been living in the bliss of undeserved safety, let me explain that Kinkade was a painter – with real technical skill – who specialized in doing kitschy garden scenes, often featuring cottages and winding paths with cute little bridges, marked by improbable amounts of yellowish-white light streaming from every window or plausibly luminous or reflective surface. His cottages often looked as if they were on fire. They were invariably surrounded by flowering bushes and sprays of water that appeared to be fluorescent. Most have a kind of 19th-century air to them (though, weirdly, he also did a NASCAR series – and you haven’t seen NASCAR until you’ve seen NASCAR as interpreted by Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light™”). He traded in an openly manipulative sentiment, selling old-fashioned fantasies to old-fashioned people, often with an explicitly conservative Christian message attached (and I mean attached: you could buy reproductions of his paintings with Bible verses on little plaques screwed onto them). He became insanely popular with evangelical Christians, and did over a hundred million dollars of business a year; he is often said to have sold over 10 million of his crap-awful “art products” (see below), and it is estimated that 5% – 10% of all homes in America have at least one of his “products”, though that may be an overestimate because most people know better and those that don’t tend to buy multiple copies.
Aside from just having unforgivably sleazy taste and goals as an artist, though, he plumbed the depths of schlock in truly original ways. Obviously, nobody can sell 10 million paintings. You can sell 10 million prints, but then it’s hard to call each of them an “original”. What Kinkade did was create prints of his horrid paintings and then have hired workers – “master highlighters” – daub white paint on them in a few spots each to increase the eyeball-searing light effects and allow him to sell them as “hand-painted”. He also created his own franchised chain of (for want of a better term) art galleries selling only his stuff, and marketed an increasing range of knockoff “art products”, featuring reproductions of his paintings on coffee mugs, glow-in-the-dark nightlights, posters, and in a huge range of differing frames, print sizes, textures, and reproduction media. Eventually he started selling his endorsement for traditional-styled furniture, Christian-themed straight-to-DVD movies, and a line of ghostwritten Christian-style romance novels set in quaint little villages filled with cottages and rose gardens, which get uniformly awful reviews. He even endorsed at least two “planned communities” (tract developments) that supposedly reflect the architectural themes in his paintings and are marketed using his name.
But all was not well in fake-nostalgic treacly kitsch paradise. For reasons not explained, his marketing machine went bankrupt not long ago, and he wound up in bitter legal disputes with his distribution chain, in which – shockingly – he was charged with fraudulently playing on his
victims’ collectors’ Christian sentiments to get them to buy his crap. Hard to believe, I know. Eventually, it led to this:
Kinkade was only 54, and his family told the media that he died of “natural causes.” This comes after years of reports of drunken public misbehavior: cursing at people who tried to save him from falling off bar stools, heckling Siegfried & Roy, grabbing a woman’s breasts at a publicity event and, most memorably, urinating on a Winnie the Pooh statue at the Disneyland Hotel while proclaiming, “This one’s for you, Walt!”
Kinkade’s explanation: “there may have been some ritual territory marking going on, but I don’t recall”. OK then.
This set of articles at Salon is just staggering. Multiple DUIs, increasingly unhinged and schlocky marketing plans, disgruntled ex-employees, and, over it all, the pervasive evidence of just plain not giving a shit about anything except making money and promoting himself. (Yes, he gave himself the nickname “Painter of Light”, and then trademarked it.) Two of the articles at that link review one of the planned communities marketed under his name (“Hiddenbrooke flacks describe the community as being merely ‘inspired’ by Kinkade. Says Fran Leach, marketing director for Taylor Woodrow: ‘We couldn’t build a Thomas Kinkade home because it’d be priced prohibitively’” – the prices are $400,000 and up, and the homes completely lack trees or landscaping), and the first of a series of novels he claims to have “co-authored” (nobody believes this) that seem to have been intended as a writing cue for angry reviewers (from Amazon: “the plot sags under a surfeit of trite, blatantly proselytizing Christian subplots and syrupy sentimentality”).
It’s in no way surprising that sleazy manipulative right-wing Christians turn out to be tasteless, self-aggrandizing frauds, or criminal hypocrites. But Kinkade’s an interesting case. His real crime – aside from whatever financial complications he got into, which aren’t very clear – was simply a total lack of serious intent in anything he did. One-time Lean Left antagonist Joe Carter wrote this interesting piece about Kinkade a couple of years ago, noting that he was not only a competent painter but had shown signs of real artistry early in his career, and then slid into superficial commercialism. Quotes from Kinkade himself made it clear he was only trying to give his audience what it wanted, meaning what would sell. Toward the end it just didn’t matter: movies that nobody would watch, books he didn’t write, and a second planned community (apparently now defunct) whose developer announced its “homes will be reminiscent of Thomas Kinkade’s charming cottages” – the homes were seated in one of the most expensive gated communities in America, and ran from 6,000 to 11,000 square feet at prices up to $8 million. Since nothing about Kinkade’s sterile fantasy world was real to begin with, it just didn’t matter whether his “art products” were fake knockoffs of his own work, or he really wrote his own books, or the “Kinkade community” homes he kept flogging looked anything like the houses they were supposedly based on. Kinkade sold fakery – sentimental fantasy scenes that were as unreal as the saccharine white America of 1950s sit-coms; by the end it was as if he were in a competition with himself to see just how far from reality his fakery could get, but since it never touched reality to begin with he could hardly be said to have degraded himself. (OK – pissing on Winnie the Pooh – that’s bad.)
It is often commented on that Kinkade’s paintings – especially the garden scenes, not the city crowd scenes – virtually never have human subjects in them. He explained that he felt having a particular subject would be distancing for people who didn’t feel that subject represented them (an interesting implication regarding how he expected people to react to his paintings), but many critics have found something symbolic in it, too. There is something anti-human about them – not just the absurd, almost Maxfield Parrish-like fantasy elements, but their incessant idealization of a particular type of English country village lifestyle completely devoid of any questions of class, economics, or time period. (Why do millions of American right-wing Protestants long to live in an unheated cottage in an 1890s Anglican parish during the destruction of the piecework system that put most of those cottagers out of their homes? Because they have absolutely no idea what any of that would mean, and never gave it a moment’s thought.) Kinkade’s non-existent cottages in n0n-existent villages are the equivalent of Tolkien’s hobbit Shire, and have the same kind of appeal to dreamy fantasists who are sure they would love to live there but have not the slightest idea what such a life would be like (backbreaking subsistence farming, and no electricity – oh, and being enslaved to evil by the Dark Lord); in this, they actually benefit from the fact that their fantasy can’t come true. Putting a real person in these other-worldly fantasy scenes would break the illusion (see the hilarious parody images from the Salon link above). It isn’t just that it would disorient the viewer – it would force the viewer to realize that Kinkade’s paintings not only aren’t from the 21st century, they aren’t from anywhere or any time at all.
And that finally sums up Kinkade’s depressing, in some ways sadly funny, career. Creepy Christian schlock-meister turns out to be a depraved drunk and fraud? Not news. But that the pandering fantasism of his fake-art empire should be so openly manipulative, and so unabashedly unreal, was unique. He sold an impossible vision of paper-thin superficiality, and was shallower even than his own paintings in the way he went about it. Then he started behaving like a drunken buffoon, and finally died suspiciously young. One has to wonder what his sycophantic fans will make of this. I imagine many of them – a number that reaches into the millions – will be shocked by this utterly unshocking story arc. But viewed from the long perspective, it’s obvious that he finally died as he lived – or as he chose to live from the point when he abandoned his once-authentic art career and became the only thing he ever aspired to, or cared to share with his legions of slack-jawed purchasers: Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Himself™.
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