In today's episode, we discuss one of the most popular and controversial artists of the last century, Thomas Kinkade (1958–2012). Kinkade's works often depict a pristine, idyllic, timeless past that continues to resonate with viewers. Many in the art world, however, have consistently criticized Kindade for glossing over the more problematic aspects of our collective past, as well as for his business and studio practices.
Check out the Slideshow below for images that we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), in which Tina discusses Kinkade's way of packaging European history for American audiences. At the bottom of the page, you'll find News Updates on this story and Links to other sites for more information.
Tina: In The Spirit of Christmas, are we in America or Europe--and if Europe, which country? There's really no way to be sure. On top of that, Kinkade's paintings often don't emphasize any individual people or offer any narrative, as Sarah explained. This refusal to present specific settings, identities, and narratives makes it easier for Kinkade's customers to project themselves into his works--to pretend that they themselves might be part of the scene, to make up their own stories about what is happening, and to imagine that the painting must be depicting their favorite romanticized time and place, whether that's an American mid-western town in the mid-20th century, an English village in the late 19th century, etc.
That said, I think that ultimately, these paintings are about *Europe*--or more precisely, they're about packaging a generic fantasy of Europe for American consumers, who can then imagine that they are the inheritors of (a Christian, middle-class, white-washed version of) Western culture. In this regard, his paintings are similar to Disney's animated films of classic European fairytales, which are obviously set in Europe, but never go out of their way to explain specifically where and when the stories are taking place, though there are some clues. (In fact, the historically vague costuming of Disney princesses--which is comparable to the "timeless" costuming of the figures in Kinkade's paintings--has inspired one illustrator to re-imagine their outfits with more historical accuracy.) Because Kinkade has designed his work so that we can't pinpoint whether The Spirit of Christmas is taking place in Europe or America, it "proves" how much America is similar to a generic version of "Europe"--for example, in the style of its architecture, and its clothing. Of course, to equate America and Europe not only ignores the complex demographics and heterogeneous culture of America past and present, but also flattens "Europe" into one monolithic (Christian) culture, which is a fiction. But by flattening European culture, equating Europe and America, and then associating this Euro-American culture with the Christian holiday of Christmas, the painting argues that Western civilization is--or "should"--be monolithic and, beyond that, Christian. (It's this kind of reductive thinking that leads some to posit a polarized binary between "the West" and "the East.") Furthermore, by associating this idealized, homogenized, Christian society with the beauty of nature and the positive feelings we associate with the holidays, the painting makes that society seem not only unquestionably good, but also inevitable (like the changing of the seasons), reinforcing the political beliefs of many of Kinkade's most passionate consumers.
Thomas Kinkade profile in the New Yorker, 2001
Thomas Kinkade profile on 60 Minutes, 2001
"The Village," Kinkade's planned community in Vallejo, CA
Dec 4: The Thomas Kinkade Company Announces the Limited Edition Art Release of The Polar Express, wspa.com
Dec 11: Thomas Kinkade and the Jesus of Zionsville, Hyperallergic