But Is It Art?


“Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” a life-sized porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons, 1988.

I take art seriously, and often have very strong opinions about it. There are artists whose technical skill, taste or vision doesn’t match mine but whose work I can still respect and admire in some capacity. And there are a few whom I find so weak, irritating or vapid that I’ll admit to expressing some scorn for them in private. But while their work may not feel like it merits being described as art according to my internal art-o-meter, I am willing to be liberal in my acceptance of the use of the term “art.”

Multiple times, upon learning that I am an artist, I have had people tell me with big smiles and bright eyes that their favorite artist is Thomas Kinkade, and each time I bite my tongue and agree that his works are, um, quite cheerful. We can agree on that. Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” was hugely successful until shortly before his death in 2012. He was less an artist than a kitsch commercial illustrator with impressive marketing skills. He did not provide what I look for in an artistic experience, but he moved others, so when his admirers tell me how much they love his work, I do my best to show them respect. I may dislike the soft-focus, Kleenex-box-art style and subject matter of his work, but he touched people with his paintings, and their emotional reactions are real and important to them. Kinkade’s work prompts pleasing visceral reactions in people that bring them joy and comfort. So, much as his work turns my stomach, even it is art.

Essayist Joan Didion wrote, “A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.” I must admit to laughing and nodding in agreement when I read those words.

The glowing houses, churches and street lamps in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings are extraordinarily popular because they evoke an instant and comforting emotional reaction in so many people. His imitations of light were meant to bring to mind thoughts and feelings of an idealized old-time American home life: clean, cozy, quaint, old fashioned, oozing charm and warmth. As a nation our taste often runs to the sweet, the peppy, the saccharine, and we admire and appreciate those who serve up our stereotypes in the most sanitized and friendly way. A man who sells reproductions of his paintings in the hundreds of thousands, many touched up with selected highlights by worker bees so that they look more like actual paintings than the cheap copies they are (so they can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars each instead of the ten dollars they might be worth), Kinkade understood his market and grew rich by never underestimating the public’s desire for clichéd and emotionally manipulative imagery. According to Wikipedia, he was estimated to have made $53 million from his art works from 1997 to May 2005 alone. Yet in the last few years of his life, the manufacturing arm of his empire went into bankruptcy and he experienced a backlash from formerly devoted franchise owners who said he had misled them and knowingly ruined their finances.

Thomas Kinkade’s subject matter, style, technique and execution give me the willies, but his work is art, albeit bad art. Some disagree with me, saying that merely evoking a cheerful reaction with one’s creations doesn’t make one an artist. Art may be meant to provoke thought and emotion, to make us ask questions, to challenge, confuse, reward or transform us. And decidedly bad art like Thomas Kinkade’s does indeed challenge, provoke and confuse me—usually in ways I find unpleasant. But not every work needs to accomplish every artistic goal. Art can exist merely to delight, to embellish, to decorate, to provoke laughter or to express whatever thought, feeling or impression the artist wishes to convey. Bad art is still art.

Art can elevate or soothe, excite or inspire. Many works which I revile are still, in my estimation, important art because they successfully innovate, surprise or make me think. Beauty speaks to the soul, and each of us finds beauty in different forms. We seek out things that please our eyes and our hearts. Art does transform, but it can do that through humor or subtlety, elegance, spareness or outrageous joie de vivre. Art can also be kitsch, and sometimes that’s great fun. Takashi Murakami‘s pop-art pieces are terribly popular, and though my favorites among them look a lot like the vinyl flower power stickers found all over beat-up VW beetles circa 1970, they’re fresh and freeing. They’re genuine art.

Art asks questions of its viewers. Sometimes it’s crude and confrontational, other times sly and amusing. It provokes anger, excitement, disgust, even tears. Other times it invites laughter or thoughtfulness, or merely prods us to stand still and feel. It is not a bad thing to feel comfort or simple pleasure. Schmaltzy art may not be high art, but art it remains. Obvious, twee and soulless prints feel like caricatures of landscapes to me, but they bring joy to millions. I look down on an artist’s decisions to use technical ability in the service of creating sub-par paintings with trite subjects with no aspirations to be anything more than derivative dreck. But whether I like it or not, it is still art.

Thomas Kinkade achieved something that many artists of integrity cannot: he managed to evoke strong feelings in many of the people who view and enjoy his work. Just because those of us with art history degrees may look down on untrained eyes as having inferior taste doesn’t mean that the feelings of those without our training aren’t real or legitimate. We may denigrate Disney’s homogenized, dumbed down, often sexist animated fairy tales for blandly pandering to the lowest common denominator, but the fact remains that the technical quality of their creations is usually superlative, and their understanding of the needs and desires of their market segment has been remarkably keen for nearly nine decades. They evoke genuine strong emotion with imagery so powerful that indelible icons come to mind when we think of Disney.

Watching Disney’s simplified versions of stories and illustrations supplant the more elegant, subtle or powerful imagery found in its stories’ source materials can be upsetting. Disney’s Winnie the Pooh animation is nowhere near as gorgeous as Ernest Shepard’s original illustrations for A. A. Milne‘s books are, for example. But Disney’s work is still art. It may not be high art, it may not always be good art, but it is valid art, as are Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s S&M nudes, Picasso’s “Guernica” and Jeff Koons’s ridiculous, goofy and disturbing sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles. Even Koons’s images of himself having sex with his real-life porn star ex-wife Cicciolina are works of art, if not art I’d want to own. Others’ artistic expressions don’t have to match our tastes to be valid. The art world is complex and ridiculous, but it also has endless room in it for an exciting panoply of expression—just like the rest of the world around us.

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