Monday, February 4, 2008

I like Thomas Kinkade and here's why

I was going to start off this post by listing out my credentials, how I can sit here and justify my right to bore you with my opinion about art. Except I haven't got any credentials.

I took the basic art history and art theory courses in college (20 some years ago), just because I'm interested in the subject. My parents took us to museums as children and have collected works of amateur artists over the years. Nothing particularly brag-worthy, just oil paintings of landscapes and seascapes that caught their eye. My son works in oils. I prefer to sketch and dabble in watercolors. We have quite the crayon art collection on the refrigerator. That's about it. See? No credentials.

Do I know the difference between good and bad art, though? Hmmm... Do I? I think I do.
There's no question, of course, that there is a large subjective dimension to all art. But is there a real objective measurement that applies to all art?

Everyone knows the art that is considered classic, and therefore good: DaVinci, Renoir, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Cassat, Rembrandt, Monet... All of these we immediately connect with good art. Some would add Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and their type to the list, if for no other reason than for their fame. Certainly there seems to have been some theory behind their art and some people appreciate this.

But, what is good art? Is it famous art? Not necessarily. Many, if not most artists did not become famous until well after their deaths, and their art was just as good before it became well known. Some artists became famous through no fault of their art. I take a chance by presuming to name any of these artists, but I just have to say Jackson Pollock is one that falls into this category for me.
Is good art that which exhibits a mastery of technique, though? Yes, very often, this is so, but not always. DaVinci defines mastery, of course, but would you say the same about Fra Angelico? Caravaggio's skill certainly qualifies his work as great art, but what about Grandma Moses? Fra Angelico and Grandma Moses can't hold a candle to the Old Masters, or can they?

Could you not say that the value of art lies in how well it evokes a response from the beholder? And that a good artist, therefore, is successful in manipulating a chosen response? Fra Angelico specifically designed to lead the heart and mind to God through the eyes, and succeeded. Grandma Moses succeeded in capturing a lively and unique vision of rural American life, a sort of visual onomatopoeia that needs no translation for the viewer. And, while someone whose taste tends more toward Caravaggio may consider Grandma Moses' work "little," it is art, nevertheless. Even if it's not your style, you have to have a certain appreciation for it.
A lot of people admire Grandma Moses' art due to the mere feat of its accomplishment. Her painting career didn't even begin until she was in her seventies, but once she got started, she was prolific. She toured the world exhibiting, and was proud that some of her paintings made it onto Hallmark cards. It's a tribute to her that she was such a success during her lifetime.

Norman Rockwell gained the same fame and notoriety, and was able to make quite a successful living during his life through his art. Like Grandma Moses, he intended to make money from his paintings. And, like Grandma, his paintings were intended to have mass appeal. Are these two individuals less artists than DaVinci and Vermeer who traveled Europe hawking their talents to the only market available at the time? Sure, the techniques are very different, but the intent is much the same: to produce something meaningful to the artist, to evoke a response from the viewer, to sell the work, to make a living.

Because something appeals to the masses and is marketed by the artist for the masses, does that necessarily mean that it loses credibility as art? I think we'd all agree that it doesn't

But, just because a lot of people like something, does that make it good art? I think that depends upon what response is evoked by the art. A lot of people view pornography and it is the antithesis of good art. It's a simple fact that not everyone has good taste and sometimes the lowest common denominator has vast appeal. The devil promotes that inclination.

So, where does this leave us? If technique, acclaim, and popularity are not reliable indicators of good art, what is?

I submit that art is good when it lifts the heart and mind to God ~ that subject matter and execution combine in good art to lift the soul. The Old Masters mentioned above became old masters, made livings, and became famous by doing this, each in his own way. Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell do the same thing by holding up their own interpretations of idealized home life in the twentieth century western world. Their paintings do not duplicate reality, but take a light and shine it on the best parts of reality.

You have to admit that reality sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. It's kinda messy, sometimes overcast, too often brutal and unkind. There is good art out there that paint with these shadows, and art that "challenges" certainly has an important place in our world. But artists like Rockwell and Moses, who take all this out in their paintings, and show us what goodness, tenderness, and joy look like, have just as important a role. They comfort us.

I think Thomas Kinkade does the same thing. While his idealized landscapes may seem sticky sweet for some, and his technique may not be up to Hudson School standards, it is his stated intention to glorify Christian home life and family values. He literally paints a halo around those ideals in his paintings. And the masses respond to it. It's pretty art; it makes people feel good about good things.

In our world the goodness of old fashioned Christian home life needs all the positive PR it can get.
I have a little copy of a Kinkade painting in my sidebar underneath the quote: The most important work that you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes. We're very picky about what we hang on the walls of our home. And though he's one of the Great Artists, I can't imagine hanging a Caravaggio over our living room couch.
But I would display a Kinkade there.
Paintings top to bottom: Leonardo DaVinci, Jackson Pollock, Grandma Moses, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade, Michelangelo Caravaggio.


Marie said...

I don't think it loses its credibility, but it does lose its appeal. Especially when it's marketed in a cheap way, like on trucker caps and "special collectible numbered plates." I love Gustav Klimt, but if I have to see The Kiss on a collectible plate one more time I'm just going to have to burn my coffee table book.

SuzyQ said...

I loved this post Lisa!
I totally agree with you too.
It can be all to easy to become cliquey about art and often our opinions are based on what we think we "should" think.
That is why children's perspectives on art are so revealling. They have no preconceptions or prejudices.


It seems to me that enjoying art is realted to how we make moral decisions: in enjoying art, you follow your taste; in making moral decisions, you follow your conscience.

BUT, you are supposed to form your conscience. You are supposed to do what you can to make sure you are making it grow up. You can only trust your conscience if you know you've given it a regular work-outs, and it's in good shape.

Well, in viewing art, we should have well-formed tastes.

And for the record, I like Norman Rockwell! I think he's very good, and a genuine artist. And I think Fra Angelico's technique is superb. His use of color alone is like a new language, if you look at it long enough.

I love the phrase "visual onomatopoeia." You should copyright it!

Also, re the other art post: certainly children are good at some things, and can be valuable as unspoiled, honest critics. On the other hand, do you let your children pick out what food is best for them? Or what clothes look decent? Or how to treat their little sisters? Children need guidance! They can be so, so wrong. Especially the smarty-pants types.

You're a good sport, Lisa. I