The following is a list of people you, as an enlightened individual, are not allowed to like: Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Bob Dornan, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Chris Cox, Dave Garafalo, Bob Saget, Dana Rohrabacher, Thomas Kinkade, Satan, Barney the Dinosaur and that cute little curly haired girl who's in the Pepsi commercials. These people are bad. They are evil. Their names are code for all that's wrong with the world. Should you, by chance, like one of these people, then you surely are of inferior intellect, and you're probably some kind of asshole. Possibly, you listen to Yanni.
Which is why I've remained in the closet, so to speak, regarding my true feelings for Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™. He adorns his paintings with those stupid Christian fish, espouses “family values” that I find simplistic and kind of scary, blends art and commerce in a way that smacks of crass commercialism, and yet paints paintings (“portraits of light”) that I really like. I mean, I really like them. Not ironically. And not just from afar. I have the calendar. I own the coffee-table book. I like crap.
(Also, while we're 'fessing up, I kind of like that little Pepsi girl.)
One of my friends doesn't understand how I can like Kinkade. When he looks at the images, most of which are überquaint street scenes from a time when things were simpler, home was sweet and where the heart was, and people knew the value of a hearty mug of homemade soup, etc., he sees bullshit. And he's fascinated that people want to adorn their homes with this bullshit, which suggests they value open space and vegetation and peace, quiet and tranquillity, when we know they're probably, as we speak, voting to bulldoze bird sanctuaries in order to make room for another strip mall. So how can they in good conscience (he wonders) decorate their homes with pictures of a past they're destroying as they race toward modernity? Pictures that mask, conceal and subvert what appear to be, according to our voting and spending patterns, our real values?
Studio in the Garden
And I suppose (I say to him) that instead they should just hang mirrors on their walls to reflect exactly how they live and what they value?
Actually, I need to make a correction. He doesn't look at the pictures and see bullshit. He looks at the pictures and sees a past we've sacrificed to efficiency and a free market. I'm the one who looks at the pictures and sees bullshit. I see a little country inn tucked away in a lush, wooded meadow with a walkway and a little white, wrought-iron picnic table surrounded by chairs and a cat and a dog; and I imagine that it's probably cold and crisp outside, and you can hear the birds chirping in the trees above; and it would feel nice to walk into the inn where there's surely a crackling fire and beautiful people sharing precious memories. And I don't think this picturesque inn truly exists or that the light would hit it in exactly this way or that this furry cat and lovably ragtag dog would really live together in harmony. And if this inn truly existed, I'm sure it'd be full of pretentious, close-minded fucknuts.
But it never really goes that far in my mind. The avenue between the real world and a painting isn't instant and direct in my mind, and my art doesn't always have to be political. Sometimes I just like the way the light hits the paint and the blue looks as if it's shimmering.
I'm a sap. Sometimes, when a mother and baby walk by me—especially if she looks kind of young and maybe has two kids, one of whom is in a stroller while the other toddles alongside it—I feel a pang in my heart. There's a television commercial featuring a schnauzer watching TV. At the end of the commercial, the dog looks at the camera and smiles. He actually smiles. And every time I see it, I say to myself in my head, “The dog fucking smiles.” And yet I can't help myself. I like the commercial and think it's cute. And though I would sooner vomit than live in a home filled with wicker and knickknacks and thimble collections and little decorative brooms with tole-painted wood hearts affixed to them, apparently I really enjoy looking at paintings of homes that look as if they'd be decorated this way.
And I'm not alone. Kinkade—who doesn't even sell the original paintings but instead sells factory-made lithographs —bills himself as “America's best-selling living artist” and that same country's “most collected living artist.” He estimates that 10 million American homes boast Kinkade prints. In Orange County alone, there are 20 stores—many of them franchised “Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries” located in malls—that sell Kinkades. (According to Mary, who works at the South Coast Plaza gallery, which she says is the largest Kinkade gallery in the nation, there are six price levels for Kinkades, depending on size and availability. The prints in her store range from $635 to $13,000.) His publicly traded company, the San Jose-based Media Arts Group Inc. (MAGI), is a slick commercial enterprise that prides itself on knowing how to come between you and your money, claiming to have developed a “lifestyle brand based around the personality of the artist.” To this end, his name (Kinkade™) and even his tag line (“painter of light”™) are trademarked, and there's unlimited licensing, including Kinkade prints, mugs, cards, screensavers, Bible covers, wallpaper and Barcaloungers, and—in a most frightening Stepford/Levittown fashion—there are plans for an entire Kinkade Village in Vallejo, California. Just think, you could live in a Kinkade painting! (Which is really, really scary.)
MAGI's commodified art empire doesn't end there; the conglomerate has recently acquired two more tag-line-monikered artists: Simon Bull (A Celebration of Life™), whose deeply saturated, bright-hued paintings are meant to evoke Passion and Movement, and Howard Behrens (A World of Sunlight™), who paints with a palette knife instead of a paintbrush, making him—and I quote here—”a man of many contrasts.”
And so Thomas Kinkade The Businessman™ is probably a pretty calculating, repugnant person, and Thomas Kinkade The Individual™ appears to stand for everything with which I disagree, from the way he calls his paintings "silent messengers [of God's values] in the home” to the fact that he gives motivational speeches “on behalf of the traditional family” and his contempt for the art world and modernism (witness the Dec. 4, 2000 Christianity Today story wherein he discusses the “corrosive effects of Modernism” and then goes on to make this horrendously ill-conceived statement: “Modernism in painting is responsible for South Park and gangsta rap”) to his übercontrived just-folks persona. If I have to read one more time about how he wed his “childhood sweetheart” Nanette and how he tucks an “N” into each painting for her, I think I'm going to puke.
Like all salesmen gunning for Middle American money, Kinkade makes sure to come across as an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, salt-of-the-earth kinda guy. You could go fishin' with him. You could shoot some guns with him. You could vote Republican with him. The little ladies could do some shoppin' while he takes you out back and shows you his new fishing rod/power saw/palm pilot. He compares himself to Tom Sawyer. A really rich, yuppie Tom Sawyer. He's good people, Thomas Kinkade is, preferring the simple warmth of the Lord and family values to all that highfalutin, airy, intellectual shit.
“One of the most striking aspects of Kinkade's success is that his images are sought after by good people who wouldn't know a Romantic philosopher from a romance novelist,” says his press bio because Lord knows you can't trust educated folk. Too much book lernin'!
But, see, I do know a Romantic philosopher from a romance novelist. I'm versed in all that airy, intellectual shit. I graduated with a degree in airy, intellectual shit. And I'm liberal, open-minded and sarcastic. But I also like to look at Kinkades. What's wrong with me?
I think it's that I don't know what establishment to rail against anymore. I don't like the Middle America yahoos who cover their Bibles with Thomas Kinkade prints, but I also don't like the pretentious alternarati who tell me I shouldn't like Kinkade. Am I railing against the Establishment talked about in commercials: the faceless corporate monolith that, apparently, doesn't want you to Obey Your Thirst or Just Do It or eat loud Corn Nuts at work? Because last time I checked, that Establishment didn't exist. The anti-establishment is the Establishment (it has been for some time), so I find myself defending a person's right to listen to Limp Bizkit or Britney Spears just to piss off my overly hip friends.
How did it happen that the edgiest thing of all is the mainstream? And the most mainstream of the mainstream? Thomas Kinkade!
But I don't just like Kinkade because I'm the kind of person you'd think would hate Kinkade. I actually like him in a frighteningly earnest way. And yes, earnestness frightens me.
But it doesn't really cause me too much distress that I happen to like something that's the painterly equivalent of really evil Velveeta. What you like—what really touches you—generally hits you on a primitive, subterranean level. You can justify it afterward and try to explain why you're drawn to something, but oftentimes, it's as futile as explaining why you like the color red or dislike the taste of broccoli. You just do, or you just don't, and that's okay. Unlike human relationships—where your heart and mind ought to be in accord, and, if they aren't, you're basically fucked—art (and I use that term really, really, REALLY loosely) doesn't always require the consent of your mind. You don't have to be logical; you can just follow your heart.
Which is not to say that art shouldn't engage your mind. Good art generally does. But sometimes you just don't want to think anymore, which is where Kinkade comes in. When I look at a Kinkade painting, I don't think; I just feel warm and cozy.
Which, of course, is what everyone who likes Kinkade (which, according to his sales records, is, like, everyone in America) feels when they look at his paintings. This feeling is what he is selling: warm, cozy, soothing, earnest, sincere, vulnerable, whimsical, innocent, enchanting, comforting, simple; all the Hallmarkian sentiments that comprise nostalgia. What's amazing is the way in which he can repeatedly and successfully manufacture this emotion, one which—at the time you feel it—seems authentic and in such a way that a person like me, who prides herself on being too smart and cynical to be manipulated, doesn't mind being manipulated because the Kinkade feeling is so good and so strong I don't care that it's calculated. Kinkade isn't art; it's narcotic. Soporific. Like a glass of wine, or a warm bath, or a backrub, or an episode of Friends, Kinkade just makes you feel better. And like religion, the tacit promise of a Kinkade painting is that you can just look at the image and let it hush your worried mind, and everything will be taken care of.
Three years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide. Some time after that, I went to dinner with my family at a restaurant in Fashion Island. As happened quite frequently during that time, I began to feel as if I just couldn't take it anymore, couldn't pretend to smile and couldn't pretend not to be in anguish, so I excused myself to go for a walk and be alone with my thoughts. It was dark, and I was walking quickly, angry at the way one person's death causes a ripple in the lives of those close to that person, but the world in general remains unchanged—cash register drawers still bounce open and restaurants still serve dinner and people still joke and laugh and slap one another on the back, and you can be in so much pain that it seems the only proper way for the world to respond would be for everything to go dark because you've gone dark, and suddenly you're no longer connected to the rest of everyday life, and being in public is just a reminder of how estranged you feel. And then I began thinking that at any given time, there are great numbers of people walking around feeling that way, dealing with their own enormous amounts of pain and tragedy, so who am I to think that the world should somehow register mine, which is horrible to me but, in terms of the world at large, probably akin to a blip—my friend's life was a blip—so what's the point of it all anyway?
And as I was thinking about all this and wiping at the tears and working myself into greater and greater despair, I found myself standing before a giant Kinkade in the display window of the Kinkade store, and for a second, I relaxed and looked up at the picture. I can't remember what it was—probably some cheeseball enchanting cottage with a thatched roof and a walkway and flowers and little lights—but it was like when you're a little kid and you fall and hurt yourself, and you're scared and crying and your mom picks you up and holds you and soothes you and that's actually enough to make you feel better.
Sometimes that's enough.
A couple of days ago, after I finished writing this story, I was looking through some Kinkade promotional materials, and I found—much to my horror—a story quite similar to my own. "For Diane Winters, the inviting warmth of a Thomas Kinkade cottage scene provided hope and healing through the tragic deaths of her daughter and son, her own battle with breast cancer, and months of dark depression.” Then there's a quotation from Winters about the paintings saving her life and a quotation from Kinkade about how he's moved but not surprised because he hears that kind of thing all the time. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Not only is my own authentic, emotional, Kinkade story involving the death of a friend—something that's sacred to me—unoriginal, but it's also already being used as a marketing device. I'm reminded of the time I was talking to a recovered heroin addict who was telling me about watching an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 depicting heroin abuse and how he felt, at that moment, that his own, authentic, personal hell had already been bottled and sold right back to him. That's how I feel. Compromised in ways I didn't even know were possible. Damn you, Thomas Kinkade!