Friday, April 27, 2012

Kinkade, Elvis and American Conservatism

"Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." ~Andy Warhol.

The recent passing of Thomas Kinkade brought to the surface a number of questions that in another context might make for a good discussion. Is a person a good artist because he has technical facility? Is a person a good artist because she is good at selling her work? Is the price people will pay for a piece a measure of its worth? What is the relationship between the artist's work and the way the artist lived?

According to the website Celebrity Networth, Thomas Kinkade was worth 70 million dollars while he was alive. His estate will no doubt increase in value since it is customary for artists' work to have great value after they die. He made this small fortune through a combination of talent, mass-production and American enterprise.

There are not a lot of artists who have become a household name. Picasso and Dali are two who crossed over into popular culture. Though not of their ilk in importance, Kinkade did succeed in creating a name for himself as a "Painter of Light" and something more. His Christian-themed art was beloved by the masses because, he says, God was guiding his brush and his life the last 20 years.* In a New York Times article he was quoted as boasting that he is a successful American artist because his works are in 1 of every 20 homes in America. 

I'm having a difficult time articulating what I want to say here. Maybe that there is something weird about the way liberals and conservatives line up behind people for reasons that have nothing to do with the art itself. For example, Last Temptation of Christ was a dumb film, but liberal critics praised it to the hilt. Martin Scorcese is a friend, but it didn't work as a film and to give it four stars was silly. Christian conservatives for the same reason (because of Thomas Kinkade's marketing) say his art is great when it is simply technical facility and sweet themes. And he was a Christian.

But the guy was not who he says he was. According to reports he was an alcoholic, a bully and was living with a younger woman instead of his wife of thirty years. According to this story in an LA Times blog the woman says he died happy. The Kincade estate would prefer his image be less tarnished so that his paintings maintain their value. (One of his originals flew up in price by over $200,000 after he died last month.)

I've hardly scratched the surface here as regard what I am internally wrestling with. In my mind are images of Elvis wrapping himself in an American flag, and of Elvis portraits painted on black velvet. And an Elvis mansion. And... somehow this is all wrapped in our fascination with the surface of things and what they stand for instead of thinking more deeply about what is really going on.

I'll be returning to this subject soon because it ties into another theme that I have had on my mind, the National Endowment for the Arts. I used to be agin' it and now I'm for it, more than ever.

Have a good weekend, friends.

*Kim Christenson, L.A. Times, Dark Portrait of a "Painter of Light" (Mar. 5, 2006)


Sundog said...

Thanks for writing this.
I hat the same thoughts

Richard said...

That he had a screwed-up personality only lends credit to the argument that he was a true artist.

I used to sort of like his work, if not enough to buy it. Nothing groundbreaking, but pleasant to look at, so why rain on it? But when he started adding Disney characters, that did it in for me.