Thursday, February 01, 2007

One Sided Posts about Thomas Kinkade

In doing research for various essays in my grad program I've had to read books of letters from or to a famous authors: C.S. Lewis, Mary Shelley, etc... Often times these books of letters only have one party's letters in a series of correspondences, which forces the reader to imagine what the other person wrote in reply. There is a strange joy to be had in reading these half known dialogues. In this spirit of such books, I've decided to post a series of posts I've recently made on a form about Thomas Kinkade's "art" and whether or not it is good Christian art. I'll leave it up to you to imagine how the other party replied. Please let me know if this format is too annoying.

First Correspondence:
Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. In regards to what art in dialogue with PoMo would look like, I would say that it would be art that addresses the relevant issues that form the foundation of postmodernism: alienation, comodification, the ubiquity of the media and advertisements, data overload, finding meaning as an individual in an increasing large global community, knowing Truth, etc...So it would be a work of art that would not just provide answers, but also acknowledge the validity of these problems. I can give a negative example of this, but no positive one pops into my head right now: Thomas Kinkade's art alludes to the answer to all these problems: Christ, however, he utterly fails to recognize the problems, or that any problems (death and decay for example) exist in the world. And here he fails because he shuts off communication with the audience. (In this sense he is a great example of how someone who fails to be in dialogue with modern issues can communicate as little as the PoMo artists who are utterly nonrepresentational.).

In music I believe these is a positive example of what I am saying in an artist like Sufjan Stevens who is able to communicate to a modern audience and recognize their concerns and yet allude quite successfully to Christ as the ultimate answer (isn't this the artistic equivalent to Paul's divinely inspired attitude of being "all things to all people"?)

I can't readily think of an example of literature, except perhaps O'Connor or Cormac McCarthy, but he is not publicly stated that he is a Christian.

Anyway, I hope that answered your question? If not, let me know and I'll try again.


Second Correspondence:
The commercial success of an artists in no way reflects his/her ability to create good art, or to speak to their audience in a meaningful way. The popularity of a pop group in music, for example, is not based on their ability to communicate to the important issues of their audience's lives; if anything, popularity often signifies that an artist has trivialized issues in order to appeal to the largest possible audience (think of the topics/themes of almost all pop music: childish accounts of love and sexuality, prideful boasting, ignorant materialism...). In addition, if popularity was evidence of good communication between artist and audience we'd have to judge postmodern art as good too (in regards to communication), because it is wildly popular in our culture and has been for decades, from films to music to those extremely popular "splatter" paintings that hung in 35% of the homes in the 1980's.

While I agree that it is good to meditate on beauty and peace, I do not believe that this must, or should be done at the expense of Truth, and I am deeply concerned about the effects and themes of Kinkade's work. Kinkade's work trivializes the suffering in the world, and in a sense is almost opposed to Christianity because it presents a world which in no way needs a savior. The idyllic settings might evoke a sense of peace and comfort, but they are not based on the peace and comfort of God, but of a false history. They present to us beautiful settings: rustic old cottages which function to suggest a past without sin or corruption or sorrow, a longing for a time (1700-1800's) where our country was free from godlessness, a time that never existed. This glorifying of the past is dangerous because it neglects the issues of the present. If Kinkade speaks to a modern audience, he is encouraging them to ignore our present problems in favor of an illusionary past. In addition, there is no sense of the groaning of creation, its corruption, or our sin and corruption. Kinkade paints the world as if Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple, a world that is peaceful and comforting because it does not need a savior, it is already perfect. So if Kinkade speaks to us, he speaks only of our desire for perfection, but not of our need of a perfecter in Christ. There is nothing wrong with dwelling on beauty, when, however, an artist exclusively dwells on fantasy he/she runs the risk of creating an idol, a poor alternative for the heaven that awaits us. Forgive me if I sound divisive about this, I certainly do not believe that there is anything wrong with enjoying his paintings, but I do question their status as good works of art which give glory to God.

Third Correspondence:
I preface this all with the statement that what particularly concerns me about Kinkade is not that he creates works that disregard the existence and effects of sin, but that he almost exclusively creates such works. This, I believe, constitutes a lie about one of the central (scratch that, THE central) issue of our existence: we are fallen, we need Christ.

I agree with all the qualities of God that you outlined, how can I not? But one that was missing was Christ as savior, and again, I cannot see how Kinkade's works point to Christ as savior. As for their alluding to heaven, what they actual refer to is perfection, and as Christians we know perfection will only come for us in heaven, so to a believer we can make the connection between the idyllic painting and heaven, but that connection (as far as my knowledge of his "works" goes) is not inherent in the painting at all. In other words, Kinkade gives us a perfect world, but there are no symbols/images in that world that allude to heaven or God, just to perfection broadly. Which means that to an unbeliever they are seeing the deification of nature/the past, something that Kinkade took from the Romantic movement. In this sense, his works are almost transcendentalist (do they not evoke the very secular poems of Wordsworth? or Walt Whitman?). More on this later.

As for the paintings causing a sinner to long for Christ because they see the perfection in the painting, since the paintings do not point to Christ/heaven in their imagery or symbolism, how could the unbeliever make that connection? Is there something in the presentation of "perfection" that inherently points to Christ? On some level I would say yes, but for the most part, our society is filled with images of "perfection" (a false, worldly, human view of perfection, like Kinkade's presentation of perfect nature) that rarely ever point to Christ. For example, most commercials present perfect families, perfect relationships, perfect cars, perfect laundry soap etc...of course, from the stand point of God, these things are not perfect, but then neither is the rustic cottage and landscape of Kinkade's paintings. We are a culture obsessed with perfection, particularly finding perfection outside of Christ (I.E. plastic surgery), like in idyllic scenes of nature. Therefore, if Kinkade's presentation of "perfection" as past landscapes points to God's perfection, so do the presentations of "perfect" families in TV commercials.

As far as Biblical texts/principles that support the idea that art should reflect the fall, well since the entire Bible, the entire Bible is devoted to the fall and our redemption in Christ, I would say that this might be the cornerstone principle of the Bible. The Word of God does not present answers without addressing questions, or solutions without problems. David's psalms are an example of that. His poems range from lamenting his sin, asking for vengeance, and glorifying God's creation. Or take the Old Testament stories which give accounts of sin and redemption.

What is True if it ignores our need of Christ by misrepresenting the world as sinless and uncorrupted? If his paintings were of God (like David's psalms of praise), then Kinkade would be making art that is True, but his subject in his paintings is not God, but nature and a rustic past. This is a crucial distinction. The beauty, peace, order, delight, creativity (since Kinkade is directly stealing from a 19th century style, it is safe to say that he is far from creative), and perfection present in his paintings do not come from God, but from nature. Only if we assume that he is giving glory to God through nature can this be seen as Truth; however, since the works of art in and of themselves glorify nature, how different are they from the romantic/transcendentalist movements of the 1800's in American which gave birth to the New Age movement and the deification of nature in our culture? Perhaps I am mistaken about his work, is there a way that he clearly symbolizes in his work that the world he is presenting represents the perfection of heaven rather than the glorification of the corrupt world as a replacement for heaven? If he is clear on this, if he does show that the real world is not perfect but that heaven is, then perhaps I am wrong. But if a work of Christian art fails to meet the first criteria set by Paul in Phil 4:8, Truth, then can it be good Christian art?

This is what Hans Rookmaaker speaks of righteousness in regard to art:
"Righteousness in art does not mean that, in fiction or on the stage for instance, everyone must be upright and good. That would be against truth. Reality is different. The Bible includes plenty of descriptions of wickedness and evil...Righteousness is a Biblical term with many overtones, including mercy and grace" (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture).

Concerning showing the purity of God through a pure painting, how does this show the purity of God? God is pure unlike the world, how would painting the world as a lie (pure) give glory to God? Purity ought to be in art, but that means purity in relation to sin, does the art promote or cause sin? But that does not mean that we can ignore the existence of sin, because to do so is to ignore the need for a savior.

Kinkade's style comes from the romantic landscape paintings of the 1800s. Here's Rookmaaker's description of that period:
"peaceful, restful, rustic, with a kind of contentment and almost sentimental poetry. There are the woods, the old oak tree, the stream and little waterfall, the peasant folk with their cattle, and the beauty and golden sunshine of a fine summer's day. There is nothing of the agitation and problems of the larger world with its ever-changing culture, its revolution and counter-revolution. It is the world of contented people living away from the turmoil amidst the beauties of the world that remained untouched by the new industrialization. It is the world 'at its best', it is almost eternal (even if almost secular) bliss"....It was a kind of escapism."

And that is what I believe the function of Kinkade's paints is, to allow people to escape the Truth about the world, its corruption, their sin, and need for Christ and to dwell on the false presentation of the world as perfect. Yes, creation reflects God's perfection, but creation itself is not perfect. To present creation as perfect is to confuse creation and creator, to form an idol and to lie about the True reality of the world.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I agree with the mass of your observations: as my internet-namesake put it, "It is the duty of authors to tell the truth about reality. Either the characters in a story are evil, or the story itself is."

At the same time, despite the fact that I'm not a fan of Kinkade, I am equally unsure that I can condemn him on philosophical grounds.

My first question: Is Doestoevski's novel Crime and Punishment "Unchristian" because it focuses on the evil in mankind but only offers the merest glimpses of hope? I suppose you could say that it is Christian because of those glimpses.....I seem to be defeating my own objections.

I's just that I have come to reimagine the value of "escapism" this year, working at a job I am sorely ill-suited for but whose saving grace is that it allows me to listen to whatever music/radio drama/books on tape I want. And I find that some days, the thing I am truly in the mood for is recordings of Tolkien's hobbit-songs. That is, songs of an imaginary and idealized people so untouched by sin that, as Tolkien put it, they "would not survive in our world even as slaves." But in a dreary workplace, when I'm tired and anxious about outsourcing and uncomfortable with the institutionalized greed with which I find myself surrounded--there, sometimes it's merely good to experience a life far more immediate and simple, even if it is imaginary. And if Kinkade does that for others, who maybe don't have the luxury of training and theological thought and whatnot, is that really a bad thing? I have certainly not yet heard that anyone took Kinkade seriously enough to base their life off his paintings. There just isn't enough meet there.

Now if anyone were to say that Kinkade's art is an example of what Christian art ought to live up to....well, you tie him to the metaphorical stake and I'll bring the beautifully imagined kindling.

noneuclidean said...

I understand your concern. Even as I was writing these posts I had an urge to end each one with some statement like: "...but if you enjoy his stuff than that's good for you!"

But I resisted that temptation because I think that even these little things can, and do have an impact on people. People may not base their life on his paintings, but his paintings say something about the world that does affect people to some extent. No work of art exists in a vacuum, people interact and are affect on various levels.

I think the heart of what your getting at is not really escapism, but joy. Escapism all that involves suffering in this world, but joy doesn't. There are many things that can give us joy and lift our spirits but do not ignore the falleness of the world. For me, Star Wars brings me great joy, at times silly joy in its sci-fi geekiness, but there is still suffering, sorrow, and sin in the saga. LOTR is the same. And I believe that it is quite possible to create a painting that expresses that since of joy that can lift our spirits out of the horrors of this world without trivializing those horrors. But I could be wrong. If it works for you...

Stejahen said...

Good Post. It's odd, I found an excellent book on sketching co-authored by Kinkade before he was famous. It has many paintings and sketches by him of things broken, dirty and very much in this world. Very different from what he now regularly puts out.

It must be hard for an artist who finds something that sells, not be tempted to do that thing over and over again and make a buttload of money.

This is the book:
I'll have to scan some images and make post them.