A question about the art of Thomas Kinkade

“Art is forever,” Thomas Kinkade said. “It goes front and center on your wall, where everyday the rest of your life you see that image. And it is shaping your children, it’s shaping your life.”

And what shape does it give? To be honest, the artwork of Thomas Kinkade has always caused my heart to sink. This doesn’t come as a surprise to my artist friends, all of whom dislike his work for expert art reasons that I don’t fully understand. But I have plenty of friends who love his work. They look at me with Spock eyebrows. That is not logical, they say. After all, it’s pretty and serene and dappled with light.

The simplest way I can describe what I feel is that Kinkade’s art simply does not tell the truth. It’s too perfect, too sweet. There’s no flaws, no imperfections, no hint of struggle. It’s like the world has fallen asleep under a pretty spell, peaceful and frozen. There’s no redemption happening because there’s nothing that hurts. There’s no hope necessary because there’s nothing that has broken the heart. There’s no real joy because nothing has ever been sad. None of us can really live there.

It reminds me of how much of American Christianity wants to see the world within the enclaves that they have created for themselves. In soft yellow light there’s no need to see the hundreds of thousands of children who starved to death last night. There’s no need to see the impoverished women and children in neighborhoods right across the tracks. There’s no need to see the effects of our wars. There’s no need to see the immoral acts done by financiers that impact an entire global economy. There’s no need to follow Jesus to the cross because in Kinkade’s art, we skip to Easter.

I’m not sure that Kinkade’s work tells us much about heaven either. As far as I can tell, heaven will be filled with scarred and imperfect people. There’s not any other kind. Our wounds will be redeemed and healed but I can’t help but believe that our shiny white scars will remain in their place because they will testify to the work of love that has been done for us and with us here in this reality. Perhaps, our scars will be the art of our worship for all eternity, gleaming like the pearl that is formed because of a wound to an oyster. Even Jesus’ scars remain, as shown to us when the disciple Thomas pressed his fingers into the ragged punctures in his hands.

I guess I see truthful art as a window, an icon into our lives. It reflects upon life as it is, not as we want it to be. It doesn’t screen out what is gross and hurtful, but it does find the struggling leaf that pushes up towards the sun through the rocks. It tells us that scars and imperfections are welcome, even beautiful. It tells us about healing.

I mean no disrespect to the memory of Mr. Kinkade or his family or to my friends who enjoy his work. Apparently he was a wounded heart too. The first news stories following his death reported that he died of excessive drinking (not the final report). Maybe it was just too painful for him to look at his own wounds. Maybe, he covered his own broken heart with layers of pretty paint. But I imagine that Jesus is showing his scars to this Thomas now, and encouraging him that it is ok to see.

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  • Valerie

    Thanks, Ellen, for articulating what I’ve struggled with about his paintings for years. I don’t want to get into arguments with my relatives about why I think his stuff is bad art, especially when I can’t really put it into words myself. I promise not to use your blog as ammunition.

    • ellenharoutunian

      I agree, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either. But I think it’s about something much bigger than art. Just saying. 🙂

  • Tami T

    Very eloquently said, as always. I see Jesus in your words–the One who redeems our wounds. Perhaps the appeal of Kinkade is in our deep longing for the harmonious world we long for and were made for. But my soul, every moment, and every day, needs the wound-healing Jesus, willing to muck up his hands and feet for the sake of my own muck, more than a sweet picture. Thanks for being a “light” through your wisdom and words, Ellen!

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