Among the emotionally tortured, black beret-wearing, Birkenstock-clopping world of high art, Thomas Kinkade was an apostate of paint, even though he managed to sell $100 million of it every year.
Kinkade, who went to that backlit mountain cottage in the sky over the weekend, liked to indulge in the conceit that he was the heir to the legacy of Norman Rockwell, which is a bit like equating a Yugo with a Rolls-Royce because they are both cars. By any reasonable standard of what constitutes artsy art, Kinkade's canvases were the General Motors of primary colors.
Which eventually prompts an age-old question: What is art? And who is an artist? The Cartesian answer would suggest art is whatever you think it is. One person's masterpiece is another's "What in the heck is that!?"
Many years ago the Chicago Art Institute staged a wonderful display of the works of Paul Gauguin. Prior to entering the exhibition hall, I passed by a massive canvas painted totally in black. How hard was it to do this? Yet in the eyes of the venerable Chicago Art Institute, a giant black square was considered — art.
Exiting Gauguin, I came upon another massive canvas also entirely black. Was this art? Or plagiarism?
Whatever it was, the thought crossed my mind to go to Home Depot, buy some canvases, a can of black paint, and get to work.
Once, while doing a travel story in Lucerne, Switzerland, a local tourist official encouraged me to make sure to visit the town's Picasso museum, which she noted housed many works from the artist's "senile period." She was quite right.
It is highly unlikely New York's Museum of Modern Art, or the Dalí Museum, or any other refined galleries will ever offer a Kinkade exhibit. After all, Kinkade spent his entire career belittled by the snooty art establishment as too redundant, too superficial, too talent-challenged. Maybe so.
However it can't be denied Kinkade touched millions of Americans with his idealized and accessible notions of rural, bucolic life. It is estimated one in 20 U.S. homes have a Kinkade hanging around somewhere. The nation's high priests of art might well have viewed Kinkade as not much more than a Rockwell wanna-be with a brush. The rest of the country saw him as the Elvis (velvet optional) of easels.
In much the same way the argument that children reading even comic books is a good thing because they are at least reading, so too Kinkade introduced large swaths of the public to the idea that buying and displaying a poor man's Jamie Wyeth painting in their home is a good thing if it begins to cultivate an appreciation of the form. And it is.
Kinkade was often vilified by the pursed-lipped arts patron crowd for his aggressive mass merchandising of his work. Try to imagine Rembrandt showing up on QVC to pitch reproductions of The Night Watch, or Michelangelo selling his Sistine Chapel collection, including cocktail coasters, from a shopping mall storefront.
But pre-Kinkade, was there ever a more shameless hustling self-promoter of his work than Andy Warhol, who became the darling of the "Isn't that … interesting?" crowd for creating Campbell soup cans as the epitome of a creative vision?
Or put another way, the artist Christo is renowned around the world for his eccentric performance art exhibits of massive bedsheets draped over, say, the Reichstag — which, frankly, make no sense whatsoever — while Kinkade is dismissed for a dreamy portrait of Graceland?
Would I ever buy a coveted Kinkade? No. Not my particular taste, which tends to run somewhere between dogs playing poker and a treasured poster of Raquel Welch from One Million Years B.C. Now that's art.
But that's life, too. There are, for reasons I will never understand, people who actually love Neil Diamond. Why? I have no clue. Mystery abounds.
Nirvana? Or Sinatra? Vodka? Or gin?
Edward Hopper's Nighthawks? Or Thomas Kinkade's Christmas in New York? Different strokes.
In the end, it doesn't matter what the critics, or the art historians, or the elites of the gallery world thought of Kinkade. What does matter is that millions of people looked at a Kinkade painting and felt good or spiritually enhanced by the experience. And isn't that the point of the creative process?
Was Thomas Kinkade an artist? You betcha.