Kinkade: Home decorator, kitsch-master or artist?

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NEW YORK (AP) — The art critic was scathing in his review of a painting depicting a sunrise over water. “A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this seascape,” scoffed Louis Leroy.

Not surprisingly, the French painter on the receiving end of this scorn was having trouble getting his work shown in official exhibits, and had to resort to something called the Exhibition of Rejects. Thomas Kinkade might have known how that felt. The American artist who died last week was, despite his commercial success, derided by the official art world as essentially a purveyor of kitsch. He had no presence in museums, most of which politely avoided comment on his death.

The comparisons end there. The French painter was Claude Monet. He would of course overcome initial skepticism of his work to become one of the most beloved artists of all time. In 2008, one of his Impressionist paintings sold for more than $80 million.

Not that a Kinkade canvas — or greeting card, or figurine set, or puzzle — will ever draw $80 million. But his death at age 54 has prompted fresh debate over just what defines art, anyway. Despite the critical dislike for Kinkade’s inviting, light-bathed landscapes, he made many millions, and his works, or rather reproductions, were ubiquitous in American homes (10 million of them, he claimed.)

“It is clear that everyday people need an art they can enjoy, believe in and understand,” he wrote in a catalog.

But IS it art? If not, what is — and who gets to decide, anyway? In the same spirit of democracy in art that Kinkade spoke of, we asked people around the country to tackle those questions.

A mini-debate was not hard to find; at Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza on Friday, friends Charline Ford and Pam Cavanaugh were discussing — and disagreeing.

“I love his paintings,” said Ford, 68, a retired teacher from Willits, Calif. She noted the religious imagery often used by Kinkade, who called (and trademarked) himself the Painter of Light. “It’s like, Jesus shines out. The light is just beautiful.”

Ford owns a small Kinkade Christmas village set that she puts in her garden window at holiday time. Her friend, Cavanaugh, doesn’t care for the stuff. She remembers when she first saw it.

“I thought, ‘Who is this charlatan,’ because it was mass-produced,” said Cavanaugh, 69, “and selling for what I thought was an exorbitant price.” But was it art? To Cavanaugh, that’s the same as asking whether something is poetry. “It’s to the beholder (to decide),” she said. “If Charline loves it, and you love it, I respect that. And if I never saw another Thomas Kinkade in this lifetime, I would feel fulfilled.”

That’s a polite way of saying something many art experts feel. “What does he represent? The successful marketing of kitsch,” said Frank C. Lewis, director and curator at the Wriston Art Galleries at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. “Though museums don’t like to use that word these days — it sounds too snobby.”

Still, Lewis said, one needn’t call Kinkade’s work home decor, as some do. “To those who bought it, it was much more than that,” Lewis said. “People wanted to participate in art. They could afford it, and would get affirmation from their friends: ‘Oh, you have a Kinkade!’”

That’s the point Margaret Scherer was making as she perused an exhibit of the artist James Vullo at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Though she feels Kinkade’s work tends toward home decor, she noted that he’d “made art available to the masses. You can actually get a piece of his and say you have an original Thomas Kinkade painting or a print.”

“Original” is a relative term, however; most Kinkade works were mass-produced, sometimes personally “highlighted” by a worker at a Kinkade gallery. That bothers Bari Yates Murdock, 45, of Ridgefield, Conn., who works in interior design.

“I always felt it was too mass-marketed, though I have an older sister who loves it,” she said of Kinkade’s work. “But I define art as something that is one of a kind.”

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