Painter of Light

According to a series of recently published newspaper stories, Thomas Kinkade, the enormously successful painter, isn’t as nice of a man as his collectors and business associates believed him to be. This normally wouldn’t be much of a revelation except that in Kinkade’s case the artist trades heavily on his “Christian values” and “core beliefs,” powerful code phrases that signify to his buyers that the expensive paintings they’re acquiring are much more than pretty wallpaper. They mean something. His tableaux, executed in a mushy realist style, depict a distant time that never was, when all was calm, all was bright.

Kinkade, according to court documents, has become fabulously wealthy from franchising his prints and lithographs to “Signature Galleries” located mainly in shopping malls. (The collapse of many of these outlets, which at one time seemed at plentiful as Burger Kings, is the cause of all the nasty litigation.) His art is cleverly marketed to people who hate art — or at least “art” that is more than decoration. Kinkade’s core customer looks at something modernist and declares, “My kid could have done that!” In Thomas Kinkade they find a painter who represents all that is good: a “family man” whose pictures all look like Christmas Eve. Never mind that those who are accustomed to looking at art — that crazy stuff they have the nerve to hang in museums — view Kinkade’s treacly canvases as a small step up from the wall hangings one finds in the better Interstate motels. To his fans, he’s a living refutation to all that’s wrong with art (and the world.)

Say what you want about his paintings, you’ve got to hand it to the guy for having nerve that dwarfs his talent. The really ingenious trick Kinkade has managed is employing a pricing scheme set up like a pyramid scam. (The brochure outlining Kinkade art prices actually depicts a pyramid). The broad base is for prints, of which there are basically unlimited quantities. Moving upward, the art gets pricier when one of Thom’s specially trained assistants adds a few dollops of highlighting to the prints. Near the pointy top, Kinkade highlights the pictures himself. Then, at the pinnacle are the originals, which are priceless — or in the six-figure range, depending on market conditions. A few years ago, I decided to experience Kinkade-mania personally, but I wanted a piece that was even farther removed from the master’s touch than a sixth-generation print. So I had a gallery manager (in Las Vegas) autograph one of the pricing brochures and put it in a cheap frame. He charged me $85 for the new piece of art, and it (along with the receipt) hangs in my own painting studio today.

Now that the Kinkade empire seems to be unraveling along with the painter’s reputation — alleged breast-groping, strip bar antics, etc — my little piece of Kinkadiania might be worth more than ever. Or it might be worthless. Either way, I’m keeping it as a reminder of how glorious it is to live in a country where anything is possible if you know how to market whale vomit as perfume.

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