Middlebury Exhibit Examines, Without Judgment, "Popular" Tastes | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Seven Days needs your financial support!

Middlebury Exhibit Examines, Without Judgment, "Popular" Tastes 

State of the Arts

Published June 24, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.


Does an art museum have an obligation to make judgments about what qualifies as “art,” and to exclude works that don’t fit its definition?

That’s one of several questions raised by “Making Sense of Thomas Kinkade,” a provocative and pioneering show currently at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. Although Kinkade, a 51-year-old multimillionaire, ranks as the most successful living American artist, he has never before been the subject of an exhibit by a respected museum.

There are good reasons for this.

Kinkade’s work drips with sentimentality and religiosity. His aesthetic, which purports to celebrate the simple, joy-filled life, could be described as Recycled Romanticism, or Mass-Market Melodramatics. Kinkade specializes in cutesy landscapes featuring cavorting critters, glowing gingerbread houses and pink-streaked skies meant to be seen as the product of a blissful Creator. Then again, he also sells an idealized urban line featuring a glitzy Las Vegas, NASCAR prints and other sports imagery.

Kinkade, who has trademarked the descriptor “Painter of Light,” is actually a highly successful corporation based in Morgan Hill, California. As Middlebury’s samples of his output indicate, most works attributed to Kinkade are actually reproductions touched up by teams of “master highlighters” in his employ. Indeed, the artist-entrepreneur’s website credits the Thomas Kinkade Company with manufacturing works that “inspire people to create their own place of refuge.” Fans are invited to join the Thomas Kinkade Collectors’ Society for just $50.

The whole enterprise conforms uncannily to what Americans mean when they say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” The Middlebury show revealingly includes “America’s Most Wanted,” a 1993 print by satirists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid showing George Washington standing near a lake in which deer wade as a mom, dad and boy stroll along its shore. Komar & Melamid’s composite reflects the results of a survey they commissioned that found a popular preference for bluish outdoor settings composed with soft curves and presented on a “dishwasher-size” canvas. American historical figures were identified as another of the people’s choices.

Curated by Franklin and Marshall College art historian Michael Clapper, the show does provide a context for its inquiry into what Kinkade’s success suggests about American cultural values. A typically treacly work by Norman Rockwell, one of Kinkade’s heroes, hangs among such crowd-pleasers as “End of a Perfect Day III” and “Home Is Where My Heart Is.”

Clapper explains in a text panel that Kinkade is not responding to marketing surveys but is constructing an alternate universe free of the pressures and unpleasantness of modern life. Regardless of the quality of the work, Clapper argues, its popularity is worth investigating.

Museum director Richard Saunders takes a similarly nonjudgmental stance. He refers to Kinkade’s legions of fans as “introductory viewers” who know little of art history and aesthetic norms but whose tastes should not be disparaged.

Maybe so. But then, what’s next for Middlebury? “The Art of the Smiley Face”?

Want to see for yourself?

“Making Sense of Thomas Kinkade,” at Middlebury College Museum of Art through August 9. Info, 443-5007.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


Comments are closed.

Since 2014, Seven Days has allowed readers to comment on all stories posted on our website. While we’ve appreciated the suggestions and insights, the time has come to shut them down — at least temporarily.

While we champion free speech, facts are a matter of life and death during the coronavirus pandemic, and right now Seven Days is prioritizing the production of responsible journalism over moderating online debates between readers.

To criticize, correct or praise our reporting, please send us a letter to the editor. Or send us a tip. We’ll check it out and report the results.

Online comments may return when we have better tech tools for managing them. Thanks for reading.

Keep up with us Seven Days a week!

Sign up for our fun and informative

All content © 2022 Da Capo Publishing, Inc. 255 So. Champlain St. Ste. 5, Burlington, VT 05401

Advertising Policy  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us  |  About Us  |  Help
Website powered by Foundation