In 2012 Thomas Kinkade, “America’s Painter of Light” died in his sleep at his home in California. He was fifty-four. Three years earlier another American realist painter–Andrew Wyeth–died in his sleep in his Pennsylvania home. He was ninety-one. Both men worked hard and established popular reputations for their realistic renditions of American landscapes and homespun scenes. Eschewing the savagery, absurdity, and violence of the modern art scene, both Wyeth and Kinkade became famous and wealthy through their seemingly conservative vision of America.
Thomas Kinkade portrayed nostalgic scenes of small-town America in intense pastel colors. Old-fashioned main street scenes with Victorian houses lit from within welcomed people home. Country cottages set in fantasy landscapes evoked happy memories of an America that never has been and never shall be. Unashamedly patriotic, Kinkade drew on his Evangelical Protestant faith, signing his paintings with the ICTHUS fish sign and the Bible reference John 3:16. Kinkade’s art was conservative, Christian kitsch, and by golly, was it popular!
Kinkade sold his works on the QVC network, by mail order, and through retail outlets in America’s shopping malls. Using modern photographic reproduction techniques his mass-produced prints were “hand crafted” by studio artists adding paint brush effects to the high quality prints. With lucrative licensing agreements, Kinkade’s work reached a wider audience through calendars, puzzles, and greeting cards in low-end retail outlets like Walmart. Kinkade churned his work out in over 120 books and began to market his work worldwide. He is reported to have earned $53 million between 1993 and 2005.
With his combination of native ability, hard work, entrepreneurship, and his ability to reach a mass market, Kinkade, like a latter-day Walt Disney, might be seen as a poster boy for the practical virtues of American conservatism. His artwork combines Christianity, a down-home conservative vision, nostalgia, patriotism, hard work and huge financial success. He’s a great American conservative artist, right?
Wrong. Kinkade communicates everything bogus and stereotypical about American conservatism. His Christianity turns out to be a pious facade. Accused of cheating business partners, cutting out on agreements, and raking in the cash through unscrupulous deals, by the time of his untimely death, Kinkade’s personal reputation was in tatters. About to be divorced by his wife and living with his mistress, Kinkade was reputed to be a public drunk, a lout, and a weary wealthy hypocrite of the worst kind. He died, living with his mistress, estranged from his wife and children in a drink- and drug- induced haze.
Was Kinkade’s downfall merely the result of the famous “artistic temperament,” or was there a deeper problem? The deeper problem is that everything about Kinkade was artificial. His paintings were mass-produced prints sold as original artworks. His business was a shallow money-grubbing enterprise cashing in on Americans’ lack of taste and love for sentimental, jingoistic, religious kitsch. His conservatism was shallow and artificial, and it is this kind of “kitsch conservatism” which is rightly revolting.
If Kinkade’s work can be characterized as kitsch, then the work of Andrew Wyeth is the kitchen sink. Like Kinkade, Wyeth painted bucolic scenes—landscapes, farmhouses, and rustic interiors. In contrast to Kinkade’s bright pastel palette, Wyeth’s vision is communicated in sepia tones, muted browns, tans, the charcoal of dark interiors and the pale austerity of whitewashed farm buildings and winter snow drifts. His down-home America is as practical and realistic as the hunting rifle on the wall, the barn door, and the kitchen sink.
Wyeth paints an American landscape of stark realities—a farm woman struck with polio who crawls around her limited world, a drifter, an old soldier, and a farmhouse set in a bleak Pennsylvania hillside. Here a dead deer hanging and ready for butchering, there a simple farmer’s barn. A window. A basket. An old woman at the table. A desperate boy running across a winter field.
Wyeth also ended his days wealthy and famous, but his fame and fortune were the fruit of decades of steady, painstaking work. Instead of grinding out mass-produced “paintings” for popular consumption, Wyeth would work for months on one canvas—doing countless drawings and preliminary studies before completing the final work. His art grew out of his own visceral attachment to the Pennsylvania and Maine localities where he lived and worked his entire life. He had depth.
If Kinkade illustrates the worst aspects of American conservatism—a sickening sentimentality, shallow prosperity-gospel Christianity, and ruthless Walmart marketing—Wyeth illustrates an authentic conservatism, rooted in deep personal emotion, an understated faith in goodness, beauty and truth, a concern for value instead of money, and a disregard for marketing. Wyeth said he didn’t care if his paintings sold or not, but added wryly in a Yankee way, that if they did sell he hoped they’d fetch a good price.
Furthermore, Wyeth’s and Kinkade’s approach to the past illustrates “kitsch conservatism” vs. “kitchen-sink conservatism.” Kinkade grabs the European tradition of impressionism, with its pastel colors, country landscapes, and handling of light, and re-cycles it in a vulgar way to capitalize on it. Wyeth, on the other hand, picks up the realistic tradition of the Flemish masters—Rembrandt, Eakins, Hopper and his father N.C. Wyeth—and through hard work and talent develops a unique and powerful vision, creating a new synthesis of his own experience and the great tradition. Kinkade simply copies and corrupts for profit.
The kitsch conservative does the same. He does a smash-and-grab on the great tradition, creating a pastiche of the past for profit. He takes from his heritage what he thinks he can sell. He plunders patriotism, sells sentimentalism, and cynically uses religion for his own ends.
The kitchen-sink conservative, like Andrew Wyeth, has deep roots in the past, and from those emotional, intellectual, and spiritual roots he builds something beautiful, good, and true, which lasts forever.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Christina’s World,” by Andrew Wyeth. © Andrew Wyeth. Reproduced here under “fair use” for purposes of criticism.