Let There Be (the Painter of) Light™

One of the subjects I return to again and again out of a combination of amusement and horror is Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light™. Kinkade is that celebrated, evangelical Christian artist of the mass-produced idyllic scene—a lighthouse in winter, a field of summer wildflowers, a couple strolling in a spring garden, and innumerable stone cottages. He has also written novels (with ghostwriters), produced calendars and jigsaw puzzles, and even inspired a planned community.

In his recent blog post on Kinkade’s art and theology, Richard Beck notes, citing Ned Bustard, that Kinkade believes his paintings to be “portrayals of the world ‘without the Fall.'” Beck argues that this impulse to ignore the brokenness of the world in favor of a “sweet, shiny, untroubled and Disneyesque existence” is eschatological, “painting the world that is yet-to-be.” And though he notes concerns with Kinkade’s approach—“this eschatological impulse could tend toward triumphalism and an all-too-quick dismissal of the brokenness of human existence”—he suggests that there are “good theological reasons to paint the world not as it is but as it should be.” Beck’s meditations on Kinkade’s aesthetic thus accept that his work is a relatively accurate portrayal of the eschatological, even as he wonders if eschatological art is the kind of art a Christian should be producing.

I, on the other hand, don’t see a problem with eschatological art—I just don’t think the work of Thomas Kinkade fits the bill. According to conventional biblical theology, the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city that John of Patmos sees descending from God like a bride, was forged through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, where the Lamb of God willingly went to his bloody and torturous death to defeat death once and for all. Jesus was beaten, mocked, humiliated, made to wear a crown of thorns, and nailed to a tree. He cried tears of blood the night before he was arrested.

Kinkade might argue that he is depicting the world after all that, the coming world in which the fruit of the cross, the kingdom of heaven, has finally been revealed. But even after his resurrection, Jesus retained his wounds. We should know: we get to read about a very different Thomas sticking his fingers in them. If that Thomas doubted Christ’s resurrection, Thomas Kinkade seems to doubt his crucifixion. The New Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation is not whitewashed, like Kinkade’s glowing painting of a cross on a hillside at sunset. It’s washed in blood. To ignore that is to ignore the very grounds of Christian salvation, which is why theologians like Martin Luther harp so much on the theology of the cross.

"The Good Shepherd's Cottage is an allegory in paint, an image of the Lord returning to call His faithful. His house is an utterly comfortable and secure cottage, radiant with light. The air is luminous with sunset; the sound of His voice thrilling as He calls His sheep into a verdant meadow." - Thomas Kinkade

The work of Thomas Kinkade depicts an idyllic reality, all right, but it’s not a biblical one. The New Jerusalem of Revelation is a community of believers, united around the lightbearing throne of God. Kinkade rarely depicts people, and when he does they are lost in their own little worlds of romance or nature-reverence. Kinkade signifies “community” by portraying the fancy frog homes of the privileged few, and the brightest light comes from the interior of his houses. He loves isolated microcommunities, and private home ownership is the highest virtue. There is no sense of Jesus setting “a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; here, the nuclear family reigns supreme. There is no holding all things in common like the apostles before Pentecost—there’s an entire category on his website devoted to paintings of gates, for God’s sake!

Kinkade’s supposedly Edenic world is not the kingdom come, but a WASP-y, hyperreal, Norman Rockwell-on-antidepressants pre-industrial version of America. Laura Miller describes the dialogue in Kinkade’s novel Cape Light as “enough to make you feel like you’re on Thorazine.” Apparently, in Kinkadeian Christianity, the Fall was a fall from a golden age of America that lacked inner-cities, people of color, and climates that aren’t northeastern. This America is what God wants: romantic garden strolls are the favored leisure activity; horse-drawn carriage is the surest form of transportation; main street is covered with heaps of snow for every Christmas; and soldiers are always brave and true.

“All of us, I believe, carry a memory of Eden. Life began in that garden, and for me, many of the good things in life are still to be found in gardens. When I came upon the blooming Spring Gate, I accepted its invitation to explore—partly to satisfy a secret longing for the splendid gardens I expected to discover within. And, since this is a locale of the imagination, I haven't been disappointed. Once you have entered, the gentle fragrant breezes and the calming trickle of water will keep you wandering endlessly. What could possibly be closer to paradise?” - Thomas Kinkade

Nobody knows how the people who dwell in Kinkade’s small towns and glowing cities acquired the land necessary to build a dozen stone cottages with multiple fireplaces; nobody asks what the soldiers are fighting for; and there’s no PETA to watch out for those carriage-pulling horses. It’s America without any of the ill-effects of capitalism, made for those who would defend American capitalism to the death, and sold in the most capitalist manner imaginable. Suburban sprawl, big business, and industrialization destroyed any trace of the small-town America Kinkade exalts as the kingdom of God, yet Kinkade’s work is mass-produced and sold in a chain of gallery stores in American malls. Not only does this allow the artist to make millions of dollars, it ensures that his nostalgic version of America could never return, because the sale of his art is only made possible through that America’s destruction.

The suburban Americans who buy Kinkade prints at their local mall gallery or kitschy furniture store have never lived in the America of Kinkade’s work, and they never will—the system and the lifestyles that allow them to shop for the prints as they do necessarily undermine small-town values. So instead of living in that America, Kinkade’s fans yearn for it, and his paintings stand in as a visual replacement. Janelle Brown’s description of the planned community based on Kinkade’s paintings, and of how vastly it differs from the world depicted in them, serves as a telling microcosm:

Instead of quaint cottages, there’s generic tract housing; instead of lush landscapes, concrete patios; instead of a cozy village, there’s a bland collection of homes with nothing—not a church, not a café, not even a town square—to draw them together.

"Christmas is the Season of Light, and the hue that permeates Memories of Christmas is the rosy glow of sunset. The nostalgic vision of life is often described as seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. This celebration of community, set in simpler times, near the start of the 20th Century, is perhaps best viewed through such tinted lenses!" - Thomas Kinkade

I don’t mean to attack those who take Kinkade’s vision to heart. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Painter of Light™ himself is a cynical snake-oil peddler, I’m sure most of the one-in-twenty Americans whose homes feature a Kinkade painting simply believe that it is God’s will to forge a world without misery, poverty, and decay, a world in which we are no longer at war with nature and nature is no longer at war with itself, and they see this reflected in the paintings. They might not put it this way—many of them would probably say that the vision that draws them to Kinkade is an ideal of how America was, and how America should be in the future, and they wouldn’t use any fancy theological language. But the ideas in Kinkade’s work are endemic of a kind of Christianity that has been merged so well with a certain notion of America that the two visions—one eschatological, one historical—have become indistinguishable. This is such that even those irreligious folks who purchase Kinkade’s paintings are still buying into a very purported evangelical Christian project.

The Painter of Light™ may be of genuine sentiment and noble vision, but his attempts to portray life without the Fall are misleading at best and dangerously myopic at worst. They appeal to the most facile impulses of American Christianity, and rather than truly depict the eschatological, they uphold the powers and principalities of this world.

Nicholas Laccetti is a social justice activist living in New York City. He concentrated in Religious Studies as an undergraduate at the New School, and got his MA in Medieval Studies at Fordham University. He recently interned for GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) in their religion, faith & values program; and is currently an intern at Our Hen House, a multimedia hive of ways to help animals. He is interested in animal rights, feminism, gender/sexuality issues, and progressive religion. He does not own any paintings by Thomas Kinkade, but he did thoroughly enjoy Kinkade’s 2008 film, The Christmas Cottage.