Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light?

The recently deceased painter Thomas Kinkade remains, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure. On the one hand, the professed Christian artist and self-described “painter of light” may be the most collected painter in the United States—one estimate finds his idyllic works in one of every twenty American homes. On the other, his work is widely dismissed by critics as sentimental kitsch. 

It isn’t exactly unusual, then, when a particular art critic issues a negative evaluation of Kinkade’s work. But when the critic is one Daniel Siedell, things get a bit more interesting. Siedell is currently Director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida and Curator of liberatenet.org, the online resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian (whom some ESI readers may know as the author of Jesus + Nothing = Everything). He spent the previous fifteen years as an art history professor and museum curator, and has written a book on a Christian approach to modern art called God in the Gallery.

Noting that Kinkade claimed, “I like to portray a world without the Fall,” Siedell is unflinching in his assessment of the painter’s work. A sampling:

Kinkade and his devotees have long railed against the nihilism of modern art and the contemporary art world. But because it denies the very foundation of our relationship to God in Christ, Kinkade’s work is more nihilistic than anything Picasso and Pollock could paint, or Nietzsche and Sartre could write.

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Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home. That Kinkade and his followers believe this to be “Christian art” is an affront to art, which time and again offers us grace, or at least brings us to the place where we realize that grace is our only hope. Art can do this because it often cuts through our self-deception to show us the reality of our souls. And this occurs because painters, poets, musicians, and writers probe the depths of human suffering and brokenness, and in that black pit, a flickering light can often be found. Some artists might give us only the black pit. But that is at times enough. We need art to remind us that we are not okay.

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But Kinkade’s work refuses to take us to the end of ourselves, refuses the confrontations and disruption that could open us up to grace. His images give us a world that’s really okay, a world in which all we need is home and hearth, a weekend retreat, a cozy night with the family to put us right with God. It is a world devoid of pain and suffering; devoid of any fear of insanity or suicide. As a result, it is also a world without grace, without the Word that offers it.

Several things come to mind in light of Siedell’s thoughts:

1. First, I’ll note right up front that I haven’t had a great deal of exposure to Kinkade’s paintings. But what I have seen I don’t particularly like or find compelling. In fact, I largely agree with Siedell’s evaluation of his work.

2. I do think it might be helpful to qualify Siedell’s evaluation just a bit. It’s certainly accurate to say that Kinkade’s images don’t communicate the brokenness and sin present in our world. But not every work of art needs to communicate the entire breadth of the biblical story and its major elements of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification.

3. On the other hand, I think it is fair to expect that an artist acknowledge such brokenness at some point within the overall body of his or her work. It’s here that Siedell’s criticism seems particularly appropriate. Of course, this cuts both ways. It’s no better never to leave the darkness than it is never to venture into it—a lesson many contemporary artists across disciplines would do well to learn. This leads to my final point.

4. One interesting question that arises from all of this is what the popularity of Kinkade’s work tells us about our culture. After all, his paintings have commanded a large and lucrative audience. No doubt some will chalk that up in large part to a lack of aesthetic sensibility amongst the hoi polloi. And perhaps that does have a good deal to do with it. Still, I can’t help but think that many people have seen in Kinkade something that speaks to a legitimate longing. If we need to be reminded of how the world is (often dark and broken), we also need to understand what it once was, and perhaps more importantly, what it one day will be. The start of the biblical story finds man in an unsullied garden, himself the crown jewel of a creation deemed “very good” by God himself. The end points to a renewed heaven and earth, where sin and all its terrible consequences are no more, and God dwells with his people in perfect peace. Count me among those who suggest that Kinkade’s paintings are flawed guides toward these realities. But in our discussion of their imperfections, should we make room to be thankful that they point to them at all?

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