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Volume 18, Issue 3: Poimen

Kinkade and the van Xs

Joost Nixon

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.

Milan Kundera1
I have always felt somewhat guilty for the odium the artwork of Thomas Kinkade inspires in me. No one likes to be considered ungenerous, and who wants to imply to friends and loved ones that the canvas hanging over the mantel is, shall we say, a trifle overvalued? You casuists out there might rejoice to hear that after doing a bit of research, all guilt decamped.
Guilt's departure was inspired by an examination of the public record. Kinkade, a well-known Christian artist, has given occasion for the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. His business practices with gallery franchisees have occasioned several lawsuits for fraud. He lost several of them. His former business associates recount nights of hard drinking at strip clubs. And taking the Grand Prize is Kinkade's habit of publicly marking territory, the most infamous instance undoubtedly being the Winnie-the-Pooh incident, which occurred outside the Disneyland Hotel. Lest we appear to digress, the original point of this article simply was to illustrate how theology comes out the end of the paint brush. This we will proceed to do, with the passing comment that theology comes out other places too. Ahem.
My intent is to compare Kinkade's works against some of the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Now please don't start whining about unfair fights. The Dutch Golden Age is particularly helpful when we want to talk about art and theology—not when their subject matter is explicitly religious in theme, but precisely when it is not. Of particular interest are the many still-life paintings to which the period gave birth. So our goal is not an artistic horse race, but rather to reason from the painting to the kind of preaching each artist heard on Sunday. The artists of the Dutch Golden Age we will refer to collectively as the "van Xs." And to help our evaluation along, we will employ the first three of Francis Schaeffer's four standards of judgment: 1) technical excellence, 2) validity, and 3) worldview.2
The matter of technical excellence clearly is not at issue. Both Kinkade and the "van Xs" demonstrate some level of skill. They are able to render that which they desire (equally well, for purposes of argument), unlike some of us, whose figures always come out androgynous, no matter what we do.
The second criterion is validity. Schaeffer writes, "By validity I mean whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world view or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted."3 Here is perhaps Kinkade's greatest treachery. The Painter of Light™ has marketed himself more brazenly than a working girl in a Frankfurt bordello. Besides having over 90 galleries marketing his prints, Kinkade lends his name to such diverse products as La-Z-Boy recliners, night-lights, golf gear, and yes, even housing developments sporting cozy Kinkade cottages on cobblestone streets. Kinkade's art bombs the validity test.
The third criterion is worldview. Does the body of work created by the artist tell the truth? One NPR commentator compared Kinkade's paintings to a cup of coffee with fifty-three spoons of sugar in it. The flowers are always blooming, the lights glowing, the gardens weedless. To Kundera, who was quoted above, kitsch is simply art that "denies the existence of s***." This is Kinkade's premise. All the dogs in Kinkade's universe are the poopless variety. If he were one of the Sons of Korah, none of his psalms would ever cry, How long, O Lord? But scooping and moaning are a real part of the human experience, and this is what makes redemption so magnetic.
Contrast Kinkade's worldview with the Van Xs of the Dutch Golden Age (seventeenth century). These Dutch artists, so able to render a beautiful, stain-free world, intentionally painted mortality into their still lifes. To these Dutch Calvinists, the world was a place of beauty but also a place with rats and picnic ants and the relentless march of time. God created the world, and it was all very good. But then came Genesis 3, and now creation groans. In order to reckon with the Fall of man in their still lifes, they included symbols known as vanitas. If the subject was a feast, the artist rendered the food as slightly past its prime. If you look carefully, you might spy a mouse coming for the leftovers.4 In paintings of flower arrangements, the artist included bugs, and some of the flowers would be drooping. Their point, almost at polar opposites with Kinkade, is that life is short, and that the pleasures of the material world, like feasts and flowers, are passing.5 So put your spiritual house in order.
Returning to Kinkade, we might observe that his antless picnics are a result of the theology of our day. And what is that? Why, Pelagianism, of course. Setting aside the speculation that Eden's pre-fall beauty must have been more terrible than a Kinkade painting, Kinkade's body of work never gets around to the Fall and the pervasive nature of original sin. And when there is no Fall, there is no need for the gospel.

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