Written by Merritt Kinkade
“I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."
- Andy Warhol
When the proposal came through my inbox to lend a few Thomas Kinkade pieces to Utah State University for an exhibit exploring kitsch, I didn’t know whether to chuckle or to be offended. The term kitsch, deriving from the German word verkitschen meaning "to make cheap," is usually used to describe objects or art that are considered to be in poor taste. Thomas Kinkade has often been referred to as the “King of Kitsch,” which seemed, to me, like a negative label for him as an artist.
In reading the proposal further, I realized the show was exploring the word kitsch quite differently than I had expected. The proposal stated that the exhibit would be approaching kitsch academically by asking questions such as the following: What connections can be made between art and kitsch? How is kitsch different depending on one’s age and cultural background? How are these objects a reflection of us as a culture at large?
As a foundation, we seek out opportunities where the deeper meaning behind Thomas Kinkade’s art can be explored. This exhibit was the opportunity we had been waiting for: to look kitsch dead in the eye and address the many layers of Thomas Kinkade’s art.
We lent the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art (NEHMA) at Utah State University six pieces for the exhibit titled, A Matter of Taste: Art, Kitsch, and Culture. We sent two originals, New York 5th Ave and A Quiet Evening, along with their corresponding lithographs on canvas and paper to show the different reproduction styles. Nanette Kinkade, Chandler Kinkade and myself were invited to a two day long symposium with top scholars on the subject and a few artists whose work was showcased in the exhibit. What we learned in those 48 hours was indescribable. However, a few simple points evolved...
KITSCH ART EVOKES EMOTION
“High culture is paranoid about sentiment. But human beings are intensely sentimental.”
- Thomas Kinkade.
Thomas Kinkade understood that people connect with what is sentimental to them and what brings out a nostalgic feeling. For example, we buy the coffee mug with the Statue of Michelangelo's David on it because we’re reminded of that awe struck moment of gazing on such beauty for the first time. We cherish the Walt Disney figurine of Cinderella which reminds us of our childhood. Similarly, the Thomas Kinkade calendar we buy every year reminds us of family, hope and faith with each month’s peaceful scene. At our core, we are emotional people who want to connect with meaning and sentiment.
KITSCH ART REFLECTS OUR CULTURE
Thomas Kulka states in his book titled Kitsch and Art, "If works of art were judged democratically--that is, according to how many people like them--kitsch would easily defeat all its competitors." Before the rise of kitsch, the wealthy consumed high art and left the rest of the population without much access or ability to attain art. Kitsch art attempted to close the gap that existed between the wealthy and the middle class. Rebecca Dunham, NEHMA Curator of Collections and Exhibitions comments,
“Historically, Kitsch is the product of the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, which spent its disposable income on mass-produced objects and reproductions of famous artworks. Since kitsch borrows and appropriates cultural traditions, kitsch typically depicts recognizable subjects (a characteristic shared with Pop Art), making it accessible, enjoyable, and entertaining. Kitsch is also closely associated with personal identity; it embodies a sense of nostalgia understood by a specific community or on a universal level.”
Kitsch art shines light on what our culture relates to, feels, desires, and identifies with.
What becomes popular says something about who we are as a people.
ART IS FOR EVERYONE
It is your right to stand in the elitist realm of high art, enjoy colorful expressionistic pieces, or collect garden gnomes. There is art for each individual preference. Kitsch art exists not to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic, but rather it is inclusive and relatable. Some of the great talents such as Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol were considered kitsch, yet they are two of the most beloved artists of the 20th century. The more art can be accessible and embracing, the more individuals from all walks of life will participate in the conversation on art, meaning, and how it reflects ourselves and our culture.
THE KING OF KITSCH
Early in his career, Thomas Kinkade had a large following of people buying his original oil paintings. Given the powerful response to his art, Thomas and Nanette Kinkade (his wife) decided to make an initial print of Placerville, 1916 so that his artwork could grace more homes. From there, business boomed and mass production of his artwork manifested in the form of paper lithographs, calendars, night lights, and coffee mugs; all of which is kitsch.
At one point in Thomas Kinkade’s career, 1 in 10 homes in the United States had a Kinkade product of some kind. Thomas Kinkade was, and still is, extremely successful in bringing his art to a broad range of audiences. He had an undeniable artistic talent that continues to be recognized by critics, yet he found a way to reach the middle class and make art accessible for anyone.
With a deeper understanding of what kitsch is, I am comfortable saying that Thomas Kinkade created art that is kitsch. His idyllic cottage scenes and welcoming gardens invoke feelings of peace and tranquility. Thomas often infused strong family and religious values that were intended to bring a little bit of light into the home. The sentimentality in Thomas Kinkade’s art does something to many viewers: it gives them a sense of hope, joy and peace to hold on to. These messages are meaningful to most people.
Through it all, it is an honor to be a part of this movement. Being classified as kitsch means you are having a big impact on popular culture. In the words of Thomas Kinkade himself responding to his critics,
“The No. 1 quote critics give me is, 'Thom, your work is irrelevant.' Now, that's a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here's the point: My art is relevant because it's relevant to 10 million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture.”
Thomas Kinkade’s art shaped our culture by bringing positivity. Call it kitsch, call it whatever you want, but the art of Thomas Kinkade delivers messages that people deeply connect with and even crave, and sharing the light is something our world will always need.