An Article On Art and Worldview; or, Thomas Kinkade vs. Dutch Calvinists

I read this article in an issue of Credenda/Agenda magazine recently, and copied it to save for myself because it was so insightful. I was going to retype the whole thing to share it with y'all, but fortunately C/A had it posted on their website, so through the wonders of the internet and "copy'n'paste" I don't have to, and you can still see it here. (If you'd like to see it on the C/A page ["in its original context," as Google would say] here is the link.)

N.B. From the inside front cover of each issue: "Credenda/Agenda is a religiously and philosophically Trinitarian cultural journal. The magazine is designed as a tribute to the good life, the life that can only be known in a world in subjection to the Trinity." The words "credenda" and "agenda" are two Latin words that mean respectively, in C/A's translation, "things to be believed" and "things to be done."

Kinkade and the van Xs
Joost Nixon

"Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch." Milan Kundera

I have always felt somewhat guilty for the odium the artwork of Thomas Kinkade inspires in me. No one likes to be considered ungenerous, and who wants to imply to friends and loved ones that the canvas hanging over the mantel is, shall we say, a trifle overvalued? You casuists out there might rejoice to hear that after doing a bit of research, all guilt decamped.

Guilt's departure was inspired by an examination of the public record. Kinkade, a well-known Christian artist, has given occasion for the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. His business practices with gallery franchisees have occasioned several lawsuits for fraud. He lost several of them. His former business associates recount nights of hard drinking at strip clubs. And taking the Grand Prize is Kinkade's habit of publicly marking territory, the most infamous instance undoubtedly being the Winnie-the-Pooh incident, which occurred outside the Disneyland Hotel. Lest we appear to digress, the original point of this article simply was to illustrate how theology comes out the end of the paint brush. This we will proceed to do, with the passing comment that theology comes out other places too. Ahem.

My intent is to compare Kinkade's works against some of the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Now please don't start whining about unfair fights. The Dutch Golden Age is particularly helpful when we want to talk about art and theology—not when their subject matter is explicitly religious in theme, but precisely when it is not. Of particular interest are the many still-life paintings to which the period gave birth. So our goal is not an artistic horse race, but rather to reason from the painting to the kind of preaching each artist heard on Sunday. The artists of the Dutch Golden Age we will refer to collectively as the "van Xs." And to help our evaluation along, we will employ the first three of Francis Schaeffer's four standards of judgment: 1) technical excellence, 2) validity, and 3) worldview.

The matter of technical excellence clearly is not at issue. Both Kinkade and the "van Xs" demonstrate some level of skill. They are able to render that which they desire (equally well, for purposes of argument), unlike some of us, whose figures always come out androgynous, no matter what we do.

The second criterion is validity. Schaeffer writes, "By validity I mean whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world view or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted." Here is perhaps Kinkade's greatest treachery. The Painter of Light™ has marketed himself more brazenly than a working girl in a Frankfurt bordello. Besides having over 90 galleries marketing his prints, Kinkade lends his name to such diverse products as La-Z-Boy recliners, night-lights, golf gear, and yes, even housing developments sporting cozy Kinkade cottages on cobblestone streets. Kinkade's art bombs the validity test.

The third criterion is worldview. Does the body of work created by the artist tell the truth? One NPR commentator compared Kinkade's paintings to a cup of coffee with fifty-three spoons of sugar in it. The flowers are always blooming, the lights glowing, the gardens weedless. To Kundera, who was quoted above, kitsch is simply art that "denies the existence of s***." This is Kinkade's premise. All the dogs in Kinkade's universe are the poopless variety. If he were one of the Sons of Korah, none of his psalms would ever cry, How long, O Lord? But scooping and moaning are a real part of the human experience, and this is what makes redemption so magnetic.

Contrast Kinkade's worldview with the Van Xs of the Dutch Golden Age (seventeenth century). These Dutch artists, so able to render a beautiful, stain-free world, intentionally painted mortality into their still lifes. To these Dutch Calvinists, the world was a place of beauty but also a place with rats and picnic ants and the relentless march of time. God created the world, and it was all very good. But then came Genesis 3, and now creation groans. In order to reckon with the Fall of man in their still lifes, they included symbols known as vanitas. If the subject was a feast, the artist rendered the food as slightly past its prime. If you look carefully, you might spy a mouse coming for the leftovers. In paintings of flower arrangements, the artist included bugs, and some of the flowers would be drooping. Their point, almost at polar opposites with Kinkade, is that life is short, and that the pleasures of the material world, like feasts and flowers, are passing. So put your spiritual house in order.

Returning to Kinkade, we might observe that his antless picnics are a result of the theology of our day. And what is that? Why, Pelagianism, of course. Setting aside the speculation that Eden's pre-fall beauty must have been more terrible than a Kinkade painting, Kinkade's body of work never gets around to the Fall and the pervasive nature of original sin. And when there is no Fall, there is no need for the gospel.

(Copyright © 2007 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.)



Courtney said...

AJ, very interesting piece here. Of course I think that maybe Kinkade is an unfair target, and I certainly wouldn't name his artwork a strong representative of this period, but I like the criteria of comparison used by the author, and the explanation given for his evaluation.

And anyone who can quote Kundera on kitsch scores major points in my book.

Thanks for so consistently providing the intellectual glass of hard lemonade. Always refreshing and makes me a little loose at the tongue.

The Team-mate who is currently listening to Incubus and wishing I wasn't in the middle of so many books so I could pick up some Kundera again.

Darth_Harbison said...

This is also why I get ticked off when Christians see swearing, violence, and sex in movies and freak out, saying that those things shouldn't be in movies. If you ask me, if you try to represent the world without those things (although they obviously aren't all always necessary), you're giving a bad, unrealistic (and consequently unbelievable) picture of the world.

Obviously I'm not exactly the biggest fan of those sort of things, but whether I like it or not they exist, so if I want to be realistic I have to acknowledge them. Glorifying them is one thing, but acknowledging them at all is something different that we have to do.

. . . and I suppose I've gone off-topic a bit, but . . . oh well.

The brother who was hoodwinked into seeing Transformers a few nights ago.

Mike Morabito said...

AJ, thanks for reposting this. I have kept forgetting to read through this, but I finally read it, very good stuff.

I really don't have much to add, but I am not really under a barriage of Kinkade paintings, so I don't have any feelings about his stuff either way etc.

Although I enjoyed reading the funny stories about some of his antics though.

One thing I wonder is, how would christians treat him differently if he wasn't a christian? (ie. I think our christian culture glorifies things that are popular in the mainstream even they have only the slightest tone of christianity on them.) But if we saw him as on a journey, rather than already there (as a Christian) maybe people wouldn't hate him as much...I don't know.

Other rambling thoughts include:
-Should we get a person's theology from their artistic work? I'm enjoyably ambivialent, I could see profound reasons on both sides of the argument.
-I prefer the realism of the dutch guys I suppose, but is it wrong to have art that supposes a more happy picture? Maybe, because real life isnt so happy all the time and lets people continue to subscribe to false reality.
-Also, I wonder if "Happy Art" could possibly conect people with a happiness that goes beyond the art.

Wow, I guess I did have more to say than I thought about this. Good repost AJ - made me think.

The former roommate who enjoys thinking out loud.

bellevoce said...


It's funny that you post this now as I just went into a Kinkade gallery. I was hanging out at the Tyler mall with a friend and he wanted to go in. I personally regard Kinkade as very kitsch and was a bit ambivalent about going in. Once inside, the people trying to sell the paintings made a joke that my friend (yes, a boy) should buy me one of the paintings instead of a ring. Horrified, I walked out of the store as half of a joke, then back in to appease the taste of art of my friend.

While most of the art blended together in quaint blurs of kitschy color, one piece stood out to me. I can't remember the name, but it was a painting of Jewish men praying at the wailing wall. It stood out distinctly from the rest of the entire "gallery"/store. Check it out, it's probably on google :)

Fellow teammate of the "Killer Goombas" (i.e. MS team)

p.s. My favorite artist: Alex Katz - google him too!