Fading Light: Thomas Kinkade’s Dark Descent

This past week, Thomas Kinkade, famed “Painter of Light,” found himself behind bars after an arrest based on suspicion of drunken driving (mugshot shown). That sad episode came on the heels of Kinkade’s company recently declaring bankruptcy to elude paying millions of dollars to parties defrauded by Kinkade’s company years before. A self-styled Christian, Kinkade’s decidedly un-Christian behavior in business and on the road may finally mark the end of the kitschy artwork festooned upon the walls of Middle America.

Kinkade used his religious clout and connections to entice investors to buy into franchises of his “signature” stores, with the understanding that those stores would have exclusive selling rights to the “Painter of Light” oeuvre. When Kinkade’s company then began selling prints and other Kinkade merchandise elsewhere at lower prices than those the “signature” stores were locked into, they effectively undercut their investors sales and destroyed the value of their investment. After years of litigation, a judge finally agreed with the spurned investors in 2006 and demanded that Kinkade’s company pay $50 million in damages. Four years later, the lights went out at “Painter of Light” Inc. as a bankruptcy sign went up. "Kinkade is a ... deadbeat," said Norman Yatooma, lawyer of some of the defrauded after the bankruptcy announcement. "Kinkade's word is as worthless as his artwork."

It’s easy to take potshots at Kinkade and his art now that he’s hit the skids. I sincerely hope that he’s able to get his life back on track. However, the entire episode speaks volumes about what art has become in the United States. For many, if art doesn’t confirm or conform to beliefs, especially for those with a strong religious streak, it’s “degenerate.” That prejudice not only limits many from broadening their aesthetic horizons, but also opens them up to confidence games such as that played by Kinkade’s empire. Kinkade took advantage of the emotions invoked by his art to take financial advantage of his devotees. It’s a cautionary tale of the power of art intersecting with the power of religious fervor, an energy supply of seemingly endless capacity around the world but especially in certain parts of the United States.

I personally can’t stand Kinkade’s art, which I see at the apogee of faith without aesthetic works. William Holman Hunt took endless abuse in the 19th and succeeding centuries for wearing his faith on his sleeve in works such as The Light of the World, but I find a much better craftsman than Kinkade in Hunt’s art as well as a better theologian. To me, Kinkade is the anti-Hunt in his lack of depth. Hunt gave us three-dimensional religion—human and divine—whereas Kinkade is all surface, a light shimmering in a hazy atmosphere but nobody’s home, including any conception of God himself beyond that of a child.

If you’re going to make an idol out of an artist, choose wisely. Choose based on emotion, on aesthetics, on the ideas that the images bring to mind. If any of those things seem much too comfortable, question them. History teaches us that idols tend to make fools of idolaters.

Related Articles

Why the world needs death to prosper

Scientists have developed new ways of understanding how the biological forces of death drive important life processes.

Surprising Science
  • Researchers have found new ways on how decomposing plants and animals contribute to the life cycle.
  • After a freak mass herd death of 300 reindeer, scientists were able to study a wide range of the decomposition processes.
  • Promoting the necrobiome research will open up new areas of inquiry and even commerce.
Keep reading Show less

Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

E. Fleischer
Surprising Science
  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Keep reading Show less

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less