I probably shot myself in the foot, socially speaking, when I let my inner art snob accompany me on a recent date.
We were looking at board games for sale and my date, a nice sciency fellow who knew I was into art and was probably trying to be congenial, pointed to a jigsaw puzzle for sale and said “You know, I’ve always really liked these Thomas Kinkade paintings.”
“That seals it,” I said grimly. “You and I will never be friends.”
As uncharitable as it may come across, and as much as it may have sealed my spinsterly fate for a while longer, I feel it an obligation for those of us in the know to educate our friends. Yes, Thomas Kinkade really is that bad.
What is worse, the practices that cause me to condemn him for his utter depravity (artistically and ethically speaking, of course. I’m sure in person he may well be a very nice guy.) are currently dominating the Mormon art market. These practices masquerade as compassionate low-brow marketing, allowing the bourgeois to own a little bit of their very own “gospel light,” but they are insidious, worldly, and fundamentally wrong. I have run across a remarkable illustration of this problem — a problem many of you may be able to sense. And it was refreshing to find. As part of my Mormon Art Trifecta last June, I spent a day taking in the annual Spring Salon at the Springville Art Musuem. For those of you who haven’t been, I recommend the Salon exhibition as a wonderfully varied and rich showcase of what contemporary Mormon art has to offer, across the spectrum. It sparkles with the multicolored light that a diverse and worldwide church is able to generate, rather than the pallid yellow glow of a giclÃ©ed Simon Dewey that dulls us into doling over our dollars at the cash register of Seagull Book.
There was a painting in this Spring’s exhibition by an artist I was theretofore unaware of: Helper, Utah’s Ben Steele. Steele is young, energetic, and far too postmodern for my personal taste, but with one key painting, he has said more about the Mormon (and Christian) art market than anyone has dared to say since we started slipping downward into this marketing mire.
Here is Steele’s Doubting Thomas.
If anyone outside of the Mormon art market would have produced this, it wouldn’t have worked. As many sarcastic criticisms of Christianity tend to be, it would have been so hurtful and offensive based on principle and motivation that no one would have had the time to look at it as art. Those on the secular/anti-Christian side of the field would have laughed and chuckled and patted each other on the back. Those of the Christian faith would have found themselves having to defend it. So muddied have the waters become – anything that has become commercially linked to Christianity has become synonymous with our faith, and we find ourselves too often defending the things that we may personally disagree with.
There is nothing wrong with the content or the style of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings. Or rather; if there is, that is a matter having to do with aesthetics which I addressed in my post Sunset in Arcadia. For this conversation, that is neither here nor there. If you like the happy, tranquil cottages that Kinkade “illuminates” with his master’s touch, more power to you. But if you’re buying his art, I regret to inform you that you are being swindled. Thomas Kinkade is the MLM of the art world. He does not sell original pieces of art. Well, he does, for exhorbitant prices, but for the most part, what he sells is himself. His ego. And it’s trademarked.
Arthur Henry King, my new favorite Mormon curmudgeon, identifies post-renaissance art with the advent of a very serious heresy that has pervaded our culture ever since: the heresy of the artist as hero. Whereas the medieval and renaissance artist (and we are speaking strictly within the western artistic tradition here: Asian, Latin America and Africa have evolved in very divergent and, to my opinion, noble ways) had as his motivation, at worst, to put his talents at the service of his patron and, at best, to put his talents at the service of his religion and his God, the artist ever since has evolved into an entity that, by his mere existence, is deserving of the world’s praise and envy and liquid assets. And that is what we sell now at Seagull Book.
Thomas Kinkade is an extreme example. He sells paintings and he sells prints, and he sells prints that he hand-touches with dots of paint to bump them up into the next price bracket and he sells prints that other people he has christened worthy hand-touch with dots of paint if you can’t quite afford his own personal dots. He also sells a leather sandal worn by Saint Theresa and a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin. He will hand-touch those with dots of paint, but you’ll have to re-finance your house.
But other artists have fallen into the same trap. It started with making prints – etchings, lithographs, serigraphs – all valid forms of art-making in themselves. They were numbered in an edition to prove to the buyer that they were something made by the actual artist and there were only a certain number of them in existence. But then one of the artist’s friends discovered that this was a pretty good way to make money, and if we can sell 5 prints at $500 each we could sell 500 prints at $200 each and so on and so forth and then someone invented the computer and now artists don’t even have to know how to make their own prints, freeing them to spend time practicing the hand-touched dots of paint. And this is all we seem to sell. Everyone loves Simon Dewey, and every wants their own Simon Dewey, and while there is nothing wrong with buying what you like…. what are we actually buying?
If you look at the rest of Ben Steele’s art, (and please do! He is a talented young artist!), you’ll notice that Doubting Thomas is rather unique, but that he does have consistent fun with marketing and the “art establishment.” The coloring-book Rembrandt is pretty funny, but I think it’s probably only funny once or twice and I think Steele has more promising and compelling pictures waiting to be painted. I appreciate, though, that he is willing to confront us with our own religious artistic hypocrisy. I hope that this will be a springboard off of which we will begin to see the truly profound and moving artwork that Mormonism, and Christianity as a whole, is capable of producing.
As Madeleine L’Engle posits so poignantly in her Walking on Water, being a Christian author (and I’ll expand that to include artist of any medium) is nothing more complex than being a Christian and being an author. We don’t need marketing schemes. We don’t need corporations. We don’t actually need any money from upper-middle class Mormon patrons in the Intermountain West. Our art will succeed when it shines, not with a high-quality varnish sprayed onto the giclÃ©ed canvas, but with its own, internal, light of truth.