A complicated portrait of a controversial figure, this Thomas Kinkade documentary biography urges a reconsideration of the man’s work by reconsidering the man
My mother was a fan of Thomas Kinkade. I don’t precisely remember why, but I do remember her adopting his self-assigned title, “Painter of Light,” as well as looking through high-end prints of his at an art store in a gallery at the Barton Springs Mall. Perhaps more embarrassingly, if you were to ask me to name a living painter growing up, I probably could come up with two names: Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade, and the latter I would have assumed was a much more respected artist. After all, he had stores with his name on them.
Of course, the larger cultural impression of Thomas Kinkade was much more complicated. His landscapes utilized a sort of hazy impressionism, soft with those trademark spots of lights shimmering through. They became a signature look for hotel art, pieces so forgettable and disposable that they could hang in spaces while being inoffensive to a calculated degree. His art wasn’t complicated, and as such, the critical art world found Kinkade’s popularity offensive to the role art played in the culture at large. All of this was, of course, somewhat by design. Kinkade’s brand was to democratize art, to allow individuals to buy and display art they bought, a privilege traditionally set for the wealthy. Kinkade’s appeal to evangelistic Christian language also didn’t hurt his appeal to homes that otherwise found the art world elitist and unattainable.
All of this and so much more are explored in the biographical documentary, Art for Everybody, which debuted at SXSW this week. Directed by Miranda Yousef, the film collects a series of interviews, including Kinkade’s family, his greatest admirers, and his fiercest critics. The effect is a broad, complicated portrait of a man of seeming contradictions. Central to the narrative is a vault of unearthed art that represents a different side of the artist, presenting a vision of Kinkade’s ability that is a far cry from his signature look. Rather, it presents a much more thoughtful painter, more haunted and nervy.
The documentary’s greatest strength lies in its subject matter, which is perhaps slightly surprising. Both as an individual as well as a cultural figure, Thomas Kinkade offers a specific lens to talk about American cultural divides. Kinkade came to prominence in the late 1980s, a time when conservative Americans increasingly felt like the art world had nothing to offer them but explicit contempt. Kinkade, being a savvy businessman, saw an avenue for his art to serve as a populist offering; simultaneously, Kinkade could snub his nose at those who would seek to discredit him or the people he appealed to.
However, the cultural significance of Kinkade is only one part of the story. The other is the man himself, whose background and demeanor make for an odd hero for Conservative America. As a young man, Kinkade modeled himself as a true “bohemian,” going to UC Berkeley and eventually working for underground animator Ralph Bakshi as a background artist. His personal demeanor is described as a manic thrillseeker, one that delighted in his four children while displaying their own penchant for living dangerously. Later in life, Kinkade developed a drinking problem that caused a significant increase in erratic behavior, which led to the shattering of his family before Kinkade died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose.
One of the great strengths of how Yousef designs Art for Everybody is how the film never settles into a singular, neat thesis on Kinkade’s identity. At one point, it argues that Kinkade’s relationship with the evangelical movement was a genuine connection to his own born-again faith; elsewhere, personal friends describe the Kinkade persona as one of many, and that Thomas himself was something of a performance artist. Populist artist or crafty huckster, victim or con man, culture warrior or pained narcissist striking out to those he felt snubbed him; just as Yousef seems to settle into one lane, Art for Everybody shifts its perspective. The story is told in loosely chronological order, yet does jump around as aspects of Kinkade’s life become more emotionally resonant and important to understanding the unraveling of the man behind the brand.
It’s that separation that ends up being the core of what Art For Everybody explores: the idea of art becoming a brand and consumable product, and what that does to the individual behind it. One aspect of Kinkade’s popularity is the serenity his landscapes portray, an imagined past that seems far removed from any contemporary struggle. However, it is by repressing (or, more accurately, ignoring) those struggles that Kinkade provides his fans and collectors an opportunity to escape, ignore, and offset their own obligation to respond to their realized pain. As that brand of pure escapism expanded over the course of Kinkade’s career, it became clear that Kinkade’s art itself was more important than the man behind it. In an attempt to both project and maintain that image and brand, it becomes clear that Kinkade is more complicated than that simple escape. The beauty of documentary is to peel back the easy brand to see the complicated man beneath, giving Kinkade space to breathe, even if from beyond the grave. By exploring Kinkade’s messier facets, Art for Everybody creates a depth to his landscapes that allow them to be seen in a new light.