So what is art, anyway? The question came up this week in discussion following the death of the self-proclaimed Painter of Light, Thomas Kinkade. You see, Kinkade has been a lightning rod in the art community. Art critics could never stand the guy. Well, mostly it couldn’t stand his work, but for some critics it got personal too. They called his paintings everything from unoriginal to amateurish with a whole lot of expletives thrown in the mix as well. They said he was too commercial, opening up his own galleries and even hawking his prints on television shopping channels. And somewhere along the line, the Associated Press started a side discussion earlier this week asking if Kinkade’s work was really art or simply pop culture.
Personally, I thought that was a pretty silly question. I believe the word art deals with all manner of items judged on their beauty, but I don’t recall anything being kicked out of “art” because it wasn’t beautiful. In elementary school, I made an ash tray in art class. It was hardly a thing of beauty. Mostly it was a concave object with some sort of apparatus upon which a burning cigarette could be rested. It was clay-colored. This was not breathtaking in any manner or form. But it was art. And it earned me a passing mark in art class.
As I read through the various comments about Kinkade’s work, I remembered some of the various items I had encountered over the years that were classified as art of some sort. That included the work of someone who strung women’s undergarments together to form a chain that crossed a large gorge. It also included a canvas with half of it painted one color and the other half painted white. It also included a crucifix sitting in a jar of urine. These were works of art. So how is it that a painting of a garden cottage surrounded by flowers could be considered anything but art?
The secret lies in the world of criticism. As a whole, I find critics to have a sense of standards that rarely correspond to the average person. That is alright, I guess, but typically the opinion of the critic suggests that those of us who are viewing a painting are unable to determine whether or not we should like it. The stereotypical critic is much more intelligent that the rest of us and has a more informed opinion. It’s not just paintings and sculpture. Music critics are the same way. Movie critics are the same also. Most anyone who used to watch Siskel & Ebert using the patented Two Thumbs Up method of reviewing movies soon realized that just because the critics in the balcony gave two thumbs up, that didn’t mean we were going to enjoy the movie. If you’ve read music reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone, you know that certain musicians will usually get good critical reviews while others will not, no matter how many records they sell. Those seeking to make music that appeal to a large number of people are called “sellouts” and are spat upon by many music critics.
So, back to the Painter of Light. This guy moved merchandise. He was not the typical starving artist. And so some critics despised him for that. Kinkade was also a man who expressed his religious faith openly, even when he failed to live up to his ideals. And some critics despised him for that. He also painted things with a gimmick that highlighted light in the picture. That gimmick earned him some slams from the critical world. And, full disclosure here, I have three Kinkade prints. Not original prints. Copies of copies, most likely. They were gifts for my wife. And I like them. I’ve always been a fan of artwork where you can actually identify what has been painted on the canvas. But I realize these are not Leonardo da Vinci quality. And that is okay. It seems that the most important aspect of art in any form is how it makes you feel and what it makes you think about. Art can be pop culture too, if it is popular or at least depicts what is popular. Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? If so, you should have beholded my ash tray. I’m no sellout.