Art in Its Own Light

The glowing controversy over Thomas Kinkade.


Thomas Kinkade, America's self-styled "Painter of Light," is taking his work abroad. Three galleries in Britain will soon be marketing his enormously popular prints and, presumably, his Kinkade mouse pads, Kinkade wallpaper borders, Kinkade plates, Kinkade puzzles, Kinkade teddy bears, and other paraphernalia that bears his name. The controversy he has sparked about the nature of the contemporary art world will probably become another of his exports.

Who is he? Kinkade is a 43-year-old northern Californian whom the Orlando Sentinel says is the most collected living artist in history. He is known for landscapes, garden scenes, and cityscapes marked by a characteristic haze, what his publicity material calls the "Kinkade glow." Much of this scenery is given a religious dimension through the titles that Kinkade–a born-again Christian–appends to it: He calls one recent Yosemite landscape The Mountains Declare His Glory, a scene of garden steps becomes a Stairway to Paradise, etc. The content of his work is both sentimental and undramatic; his fans might call it "tranquil." It looks like a lot of greeting card art, and in fact Kinkade has a deal with Hallmark. You can see some of his work, in the form of birthday cards, in any big drugstore display.

Kinkade is not relying on word of mouth for sales. He has trademarked the "Painter of Light" moniker and through Media Arts Group Inc., the corporation that markets him, has deals with 300 "signature stores" and 4,000 authorized dealers around the country that specialize in his prints (he keeps his originals) and spin-offs. MAGI posted $138 million in sales last year, a 53 percent increase over 1998. A recent MAGI letter to investors treats Kinkade quite openly as a brand name: "Our unique business model incorporates the Thomas Kinkade lifestyle brand, branded products, controlled branded distribution and strategic partnerships with some of the most well known companies in the world. We have the people, knowledge, processes and strategies necessary to create the leading art-based lifestyle brand." Indeed, MAGI goes so far as to claim that its Kinkade lifestyle strategy has "changed the paradigm of art."

An "art-based lifestyle brand," it turns out, goes well beyond painted plates and Christmas decorations. For example, Kinkade now has a deal with La-Z-Boy, which sells furniture sets under his name.

For some, such branding sits uneasily with Kinkade's pose as a romantic. (On one of his Web sites, he describes a new painting as "the poetic expression of what I felt at that transforming moment of inspiration.") It seems even more at odds with his public religiosity and his description of his works as "silent messengers in the home relaying messages of peace, hope, and joy."

One result is that Kinkade has been reviled as a "damning indictment of our society." The art magazine Flak calls him "insidious" and suggests that his public pose is merely a manipulative stratagem. Flak notes that Andy Warhol's art assembly line is a precedent but asserts, "We had to wait until Kinkade and MAGI to see the process come to fruition–art, freed from its high-culture moorings, has drifted over the century into the arms of capitalism, so much so that in 1999, the entire concept of an artistic being–personality, style, body of work and consumption–is coldly and very quietly manipulated by corporations."

Flak's doubts about the Kinkade persona are not unreasonable. But so what? From the sheet-wrapped Bohemiens of post-revolutionary Paris to the strategically furnished art studios of fin de siècle modernists to the boho-dancing abstract expressionists of mid-century, the art world of the past 200 years has relied rather heavily on poses. But Flak's suggestion that Kinkade is a threat to art is as overwrought as MAGI's claim that it has invented a new art paradigm. Kinkade is neither a paradigm nor a "process come to fruition"; he's a niche.

Kinkade is about subculture, specifically the sizable but relatively underserved Christian subculture. Indeed, a reported 80 percent of Kinkade's customers have never before owned an artifact they considered to be art. The Kinkade phenomenon thus joins with such genres as slickly produced religious pop music, specialized cable programming, and popular religious fiction in addressing this subculture's needs. Whether this audience in fact owns art after putting down its money for The Mountains Declare His Glory may well be a subject of heated debate for Flak's audience. But it's a moot point for Kinkade's.