Saturday, April 07, 2012

Popular vs. elite art forms

Thomas Kinkade, reputedly the most popular artist in the country, has died at 54 in Los Gatos near San Francisco. I had never heard of him. Kinkade held that he had something in common with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell: he wanted to make people happy.

According to an obituary, the self-described "Painter of Light" produced sentimental scenes of country gardens and pastoral landscapes in dewy morning light that were beloved by many but generally ignored by the art establishment.

Kinkade claimed to be the nation's most collected living artist, and his paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be housed in ten million homes in the United States.

His light-infused renderings feature prominently in buildings, malls, and on spin-off products. The compositions generally depict tranquil scenes with lush landscaping and streams running nearby. Many of them incorporate images from Bible passages.

Meanwhile in Southern California the earth-artist Michael Heizer's big rock has arrived for installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Enthusiasm for Heizer is clearly an elite preference--even though the journey of the rock from Riverside to the Museum attracted considerable interest.

It seems that, as far as the visual arts go, we are still in the realm of polarization postulated by Clement Greenberg in his contrast of seventy years ago: kitsch vs. serious art.

A comparison with music is revealing. At first sight there seems to be a similar gap between rarefied works, often played only once, and the hugely popular rock concerts. Yet in addition to generating popular interest, the rock concerts also attract serious, not to say learned commentary from critics.

Similarly, popular films like The Matrix, Avatar, and The Big Lebowski are subject to minute analyses on the part of intellectuals.

Yet artwork of the Kinkade type benefits from no such highbrow attention.

Why should this gap be greater in the visual arts than in others? One factor is that the art world has not seen a breakthrough figure like the film critic Pauline Kael. Yet that factor does not dissolve the paradox, perhaps an appropriate topic for a later piece.

UPDATE (April 16). Here is some data condensed from a news story today.

The cause of painter Thomas Kinkade's April 6 death may not be known for months, but according to an emergency call placed that evening, he had been "drinking all night."

The San Jose Mercury News reported last week that Kinkade's girlfriend, Amy Pinto, called for help after the painter, 54, had stopped breathing.

"Apparently he's been drinking all night and not moving," a fire-department dispatcher says in a recording.

Patrick Kinkaid, confirmed that his brother had battled alcoholism for years, sobering up and then relapsing before his death.

Alcoholism was only one of the issues the artist struggled with, both personally and in business. Kinkade was accused of behaving inappropriately with women and even urinating on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, CA. [That does tend to humanize him. -- WRD]

In a 2006 letter to his gallery owners, he denied some charges but chalked up the rest to drinking and overeating caused by stress, adding that "With God's help and the support of my family and friends, I have returned balance to my life."

Then in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating Kinkade for defrauding investors; in 2010, his company's manufacturing arm filed for bankruptcy protection.

For years, Kinkade has fought legal battles with former business colleagues, some of whom accused him of betraying his Christian beliefs as he drove the company into financial ruin.

In 2010, Kinkade's mug shot went viral after he was arrested for drunk driving. He later pleaded no contest.



Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

I last heard of this so-called "artist" from a friend who does interior decorating. He told me that he uses these mass produced paintings only for quick jobs where he doesn't want to argue with the client over the artwork he chooses to decorate the home. He has a fine art background and loves to work with his client to choose non-mass produced artwork for the interiors he designs.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

On Kincaid, the musical parallel might be Liberace, or Lawrence Welk, the Osmonds, etc. Giving the people what they want in very "safe" ideological / temperamental terms, contrasting with something more romantic / Sturm -und-Drang.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Arsinoe said...

Just two days ago a friend brought to my attention paintings from the Dafen Oil Painting Village in China. Somehow I had been previously unaware of this 'school' of art. Then another friend pointed out that Dafen had been the subject of an article in no less an art world publication than Artforum.

3:33 PM  

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