Search Term Friday: Thomas Kinkade

One of the most popular search terms bringing people to the blog is this:

thomas kinkade

And I have mixed feelings about that. 

The artist Thomas Kinkade passed away April 6, 2012. A huge commercial success, Kinkade's art is ubiquitous, particularly in Christian circles. It has been estimated that one out of every twenty homes has a Kinkade hanging on the wall.

But with that success came much criticism--artistic, theological, and psychotheological.

Chapter 10 of my book The Authenticity of Faith is entitled "The Thomas Kinkade Effect." As I describe it in the book, the Thomas Kinkade Effect is the impulse in Christian aesthetics to avoid the ugliness, brokenness and darkness of human existence. As Kinkade observed about his aesthetic vision, "I like to portray a world without the Fall."

But a world without the Fall isn't the world we live in. Consequently, many have chaffed at a lack of honesty in Kinkade's work. The beauty in Kinkade's idyllic paintings seems shallow and superficial. Pretty, but not honest.

My interest in Kinkade has been psychotheological. What does the appeal of Kinkade's work to Christians reveal about us, psychologically and theologically?

Chapter 10 of The Authenticity of Faith and posts on this blog have explored that question. And in those explorations the theological impulse behind Kinkade's art has taken a bit of a beating from me.

And yet, ever since his death, my mind has often thought of Thomas Kinkade. And while I stand by my analysis and naming of the Thomas Kinkade Effect I also wanted to publicly say this:

Thomas Kinkade, you brought beauty into the world. For that I am grateful.

May you Rest in Peace dear brother.

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14 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Thomas Kinkade”

  1. I have always thought of Thomas Kincaid being to painting what Helen Steiner Rice is to poetry. Their works are good, often beautiful. Being a reader of poetry I have enjoyed a few of Rices' poems on occasions, yet understanding that a certain conservative way of thinking that would embrace her work would not appreciate Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas or Wendell Berry. For them, these poets wander too close to the edge, while Rice keeps it "Homey, with a Sunday morning flavor".

    That is what Kincaid does. I can look at his paintings with some enjoyment, while knowing that others find in them a nice warm cocoon. I believe they are honest, but that is as far and as radical as they want their art to take them.

    I, however, need words that bite at my heels. Maybe it is a little of the "Black Dog" in me. But I find that poems such as Wendell Berry's "The Year Begins With War", his first Sabbath poem of the new year of 1991, in which he speaks of our "greed and giddiness" for war, keep me awake and alert to what is around me. Cocoons, while being warm and fuzzy, I fear, would make me lazy and hard. And that is what i see can happen even from a beautiful painting.

  2. A couple of days ago I woke up from a nightmare of sorts and tried to write out what it was that I felt. I'll spare you the more gory details but below is the tail end of my "writing". Perhaps Kinkade's photos brought comfort those who awaken in the middle of the night with nightmares. You're right, you really can't discount such comfort.

    It is a nightmare.

    But it is ok.

    How much facade I put

    on my life.

    Filters and sugar coating.

    Tonight I am stripped of all of that.

    And feel alone.

    Should I conjure up images of “God” or

    make up stories of “goodness”

    to console myself?

    Read beautiful poetry?

    Or should I let myself empty

    of all that

    and just be here?

    That is my prayer,


  3. When I've made presentations about "The Thomas Kinkade Effect" I've tended to talk about a few different things.

    there is nothing wrong with beauty. Or pretty, for that matter. The
    issue goes not to any given painting but to the the artist's entire
    oeuvre, the entire body of work. Do we ever see the artist take a risk, push a bit into darkness, complexity and ambiguity? This goes to something like Christian worship. We all can understand why, on a Sunday morning, we'd gravitate to the happy, praise song. But a diet built solely on this impulse, never moving into silence or lament, isn't going to be healthy.

    A related piece to this with Kinkade was his commercialism, the way he turned is work into a business. Kudos to him for making such a great living about of his painting. But when your artistic work starts tilting toward the commercial, what sells well with the public, then we wonder if some artistic integrity has been lost. Specifically, we'd like artists to be prophets, to speak unsettling truths to us.

    In short, it's really not about any given pretty painting. It's a bigger issue about the entire body of work and how that body of work is or is not trying to speak truth vs. sell product. It's a distinction between art and home decor.

  4. As a (former-ish) painter myself, I never took issue with Kinkade's work. It was saccharine, it was repetitive, it was not particularly creative - sure. But so what? He was more a craftsman than an artist, and he'd found a niche and made a living at it. Boo-yah. The issue was never him, or even that someone would paint only pretty things... the issue was that THIS was all that so many Christians were willing to handle, when it came to art.

    In protest, I appropriated a Kinkade painting and inserted (nearly invisibly) a murder-in-progress, some demons, etc. It was my grandmother's favorite painting of mine, because she never saw what I'd done to it. I didn't have the heart to tell her, either. Because it's not my place to tell a WWII vet who lost her husband to cancer at an early age that she can't want only prettiness out of visual art.

    I can't help but think that I'm right, though. We need the dark to give shape and context to the light. Chiaroscuro, y'know?

    (Oh, and here's the painting - if you're curious: )

  5. I find language about the fall to be very unhelpful considering our awareness that we would not exist as a species without the characteristics so many attribute to the fall. Is there another way we could speak of the traits that modern society views as negative?

  6. Once more, I appreciate your ability to find something good in those whose approach with which you disagree.

    I've never found Kinkade's work to be evocative or comforting on a personal level but I know there are those who do.

    I would hope those who enjoy him would also see into the juxtaposition of his work with medieval artists who portrayed the world in both its beauty and ugliness.

  7. A very (cool-ish, hip-ish, contemorary-ish, current-ish, real-ish) PAINTER yourself. For whatever it's worth, this from a former music ministry leader in a very prominent church who now would not want to be caught dead doing worship music in public (not to mention, not having attended church PERIOD the last 8 years). I particularly relate to "... the issue was that THIS was all that so many Christians were willing to handle, when it came to art. "

  8. I liked Kinkade's paintings, but they all look the same. If you have seen one you have seen them all. I did notice on some of his paintings of the cross, it portrays something pretty awful as a sort-of a girly pretty picture. Not my view of the cross at all.

  9. If I can build off this, I think it's understandable that Kinkade's depictions of "a world without the Fall" wouldn't look like the cross. But I think that for this reason they don't resonate with me except on an aesthetic level. They're beautiful, but the total lack of any hint of darkness makes them as otherworldly to us fallen humans as a landscape of Mars. They produce a sort of longing for "the way things could have been", but not "the way things should be", because the only way our world will ever reach that kind of perfection is through evil and darkness, not by ignoring it.

  10. Thanks, former music-man (woman?).

    I think perhaps one of the causes of this issue for us artsy-folk is the tendency that leads people to make distinctions like "worship music" versus "non-worship music."

    The constant sacred/secular dichotomization forces people to make false distinctions, and to split human experience in unnatural and dishonest ways. To the point where those of us who'd really rather not do the baby-with-the-bathwater thing and say that a lot of what's affirmed as "good" by that subculture nonetheless feel almost battered into doing as much by the way some much of what WE love is deemed "bad."

    Such a defensive reaction is, I think understandable. But that doesn't make it any less tragic.

  11. Josh, I still remember when you first sent me that painting. I vividly recall my delight in it's subtle subversion. But your story about your Grandmother adds a whole other layer of poignancy and reflection.

  12. I never thought about how Kincade's paintings fit with my recent and ongoing examination of where heaven is. In the Stone-Campbell movement the concept of heaven and hell was pretty much accepted from the Catholic tradition without much diligent research and study. There was a time on THIS EARTH when there was paradise - no disease, no death, no pain, no suffering, perfection and we could live forever. For some reason people don't realize that condition existed right here on this earth, but somehow believe we can't have it that way again - it has to be somewhere in another dimension perhaps out in space. Yet the text refers to a "new earth" (a reconstructed earth). I've said all of that to say that Kincade paints an earthly place depicting warmth, love, happiness, perfection - heaven on earth if you please. I think I prefer a paradise like that in which to live for eternity. (And, by the way, I'm not a Jehovah's Witness or International Church of God).

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