Doubting Thomas

I probably shot myself in the foot, socially speaking, when I let my inner art snob accompany me on a recent date.

We were looking at board games for sale and my date, a nice sciency fellow who knew I was into art and was probably trying to be congenial, pointed to a jigsaw puzzle for sale and said “You know, I’ve always really liked these Thomas Kinkade paintings.”

“That seals it,” I said grimly. “You and I will never be friends.”

As uncharitable as it may come across, and as much as it may have sealed my spinsterly fate for a while longer, I feel it an obligation for those of us in the know to educate our friends. Yes, Thomas Kinkade really is that bad.

What is worse, the practices that cause me to condemn him for his utter depravity (artistically and ethically speaking, of course. I’m sure in person he may well be a very nice guy.) are currently dominating the Mormon art market. These practices masquerade as compassionate low-brow marketing, allowing the bourgeois to own a little bit of their very own “gospel light,” but they are insidious, worldly, and fundamentally wrong. I have run across a remarkable illustration of this problem — a problem many of you may be able to sense. And it was refreshing to find. As part of my Mormon Art Trifecta last June, I spent a day taking in the annual Spring Salon at the Springville Art Musuem. For those of you who haven’t been, I recommend the Salon exhibition as a wonderfully varied and rich showcase of what contemporary Mormon art has to offer, across the spectrum. It sparkles with the multicolored light that a diverse and worldwide church is able to generate, rather than the pallid yellow glow of a gicléed Simon Dewey that dulls us into doling over our dollars at the cash register of Seagull Book.

There was a painting in this Spring’s exhibition by an artist I was theretofore unaware of: Helper, Utah’s Ben Steele. Steele is young, energetic, and far too postmodern for my personal taste, but with one key painting, he has said more about the Mormon (and Christian) art market than anyone has dared to say since we started slipping downward into this marketing mire.

Here is Steele’s Doubting Thomas.

Doubting Thomas

If anyone outside of the Mormon art market would have produced this, it wouldn’t have worked. As many sarcastic criticisms of Christianity tend to be, it would have been so hurtful and offensive based on principle and motivation that no one would have had the time to look at it as art. Those on the secular/anti-Christian side of the field would have laughed and chuckled and patted each other on the back. Those of the Christian faith would have found themselves having to defend it. So muddied have the waters become – anything that has become commercially linked to Christianity has become synonymous with our faith, and we find ourselves too often defending the things that we may personally disagree with.

There is nothing wrong with the content or the style of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings. Or rather; if there is, that is a matter having to do with aesthetics which I addressed in my post Sunset in Arcadia. For this conversation, that is neither here nor there. If you like the happy, tranquil cottages that Kinkade “illuminates” with his master’s touch, more power to you. But if you’re buying his art, I regret to inform you that you are being swindled. Thomas Kinkade is the MLM of the art world. He does not sell original pieces of art. Well, he does, for exhorbitant prices, but for the most part, what he sells is himself. His ego. And it’s trademarked.

Arthur Henry King, my new favorite Mormon curmudgeon, identifies post-renaissance art with the advent of a very serious heresy that has pervaded our culture ever since: the heresy of the artist as hero. Whereas the medieval and renaissance artist (and we are speaking strictly within the western artistic tradition here: Asian, Latin America and Africa have evolved in very divergent and, to my opinion, noble ways) had as his motivation, at worst, to put his talents at the service of his patron and, at best, to put his talents at the service of his religion and his God, the artist ever since has evolved into an entity that, by his mere existence, is deserving of the world’s praise and envy and liquid assets. And that is what we sell now at Seagull Book.

Thomas Kinkade is an extreme example. He sells paintings and he sells prints, and he sells prints that he hand-touches with dots of paint to bump them up into the next price bracket and he sells prints that other people he has christened worthy hand-touch with dots of paint if you can’t quite afford his own personal dots. He also sells a leather sandal worn by Saint Theresa and a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin. He will hand-touch those with dots of paint, but you’ll have to re-finance your house.

But other artists have fallen into the same trap. It started with making prints – etchings, lithographs, serigraphs – all valid forms of art-making in themselves. They were numbered in an edition to prove to the buyer that they were something made by the actual artist and there were only a certain number of them in existence. But then one of the artist’s friends discovered that this was a pretty good way to make money, and if we can sell 5 prints at $500 each we could sell 500 prints at $200 each and so on and so forth and then someone invented the computer and now artists don’t even have to know how to make their own prints, freeing them to spend time practicing the hand-touched dots of paint. And this is all we seem to sell. Everyone loves Simon Dewey, and every wants their own Simon Dewey, and while there is nothing wrong with buying what you like…. what are we actually buying?

If you look at the rest of Ben Steele’s art, (and please do! He is a talented young artist!), you’ll notice that Doubting Thomas is rather unique, but that he does have consistent fun with marketing and the “art establishment.” The coloring-book Rembrandt is pretty funny, but I think it’s probably only funny once or twice and I think Steele has more promising and compelling pictures waiting to be painted. I appreciate, though, that he is willing to confront us with our own religious artistic hypocrisy. I hope that this will be a springboard off of which we will begin to see the truly profound and moving artwork that Mormonism, and Christianity as a whole, is capable of producing.

As Madeleine L’Engle posits so poignantly in her Walking on Water, being a Christian author (and I’ll expand that to include artist of any medium) is nothing more complex than being a Christian and being an author. We don’t need marketing schemes. We don’t need corporations. We don’t actually need any money from upper-middle class Mormon patrons in the Intermountain West. Our art will succeed when it shines, not with a high-quality varnish sprayed onto the gicléed canvas, but with its own, internal, light of truth.

28 thoughts on “Doubting Thomas”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Very well thought out and the Steele painting is fascinating. The three men looking at the painting, who are they? It appears to me that they could be Peter, James and John or that they could be old Renaissance masters …

    The color scheme is such that I was reminded of this painting of Michelangelo …

  2. Thanks for asking, Danithew. I forgot to elaborate on the painting Steele was referencing. Take a look at The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. It’s a depiction of “Doubting Thomas,” the apostle who wouldn’t believe until he actually touched the resurrected Lord’s body.

    But the possibility you bring up is very valid – they could indeed be Renaissance masters, ironically marveling at a 21st-Century mockery of their work.

  3. I also really enjoyed your thoughts. It gave me a chance to have a nice, long discussion about meaning and art with my 13-year-old daughter, making for a very pleasant Sunday afternoon.

    Steele’s post-modern art is fun and interesting, and, I think, a great counterpoint to your thoughts.If we accept McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message,” then certainly Steele has a message, even if it is only to poke fun at Kinkade and others.

    But since he is also having fun with those with much more to say than Kinkade, its also clear that Steele’s message is more than just poking fun.

    In any case, to me the counterpoint helped solidify my own feelings about much of the popular Modern art (as well as Mormon literature and other arts). For unlike with Steele’s own work, I can’t find the real content in Kinkade’s work. If “the medium is the message,” then what does his bland, illustrative work imply? That life is bland and pointless?

    I don’t think so. And I think the message of great Art says otherwise.

  4. Danithew: The men are Thomas and other Apostles (cf. Gospel of John 20:24-31)! (Yes, the Kinkade painting stands roughly where the Savior does in the scriptural account.)

    Anneke: Thanks for posting the Ben Steele painting. Alarmingly funny. Kinkade is not good. I agree. And I am likewise astounded by his commercial success. But I think I disagree with you on a few points.

    First, I can’t see how the print-making technology and free markets that make art (1) more obtainable for ordinary people, and (2) more profitable for artists are bad things.

    Second, how did you get to “corporations are evil” and “the money of upper-middle-class Mormons is unclean?” What is wrong with wealthy people and institutions pouring money into art? Shouldn’t the issue be what art they get behind? (Steel: yes; Kinkade: no.) Not whether they do it at all?

    I sympathize with the sort of “holier than the commercial world” artistic nativism you seem to advocate. It feels like looking forward to art in the millenium. I just don’t think it tells us much about art in the present fallen world.

  5. I don’t disagree with what your saying in your post and will try to take the time later to respond more fully. But I do want to point out that Ben Steele, a wonderful talent, does sell prints. If you go to his website and click on prints you are sent to the Helper Print Company which sells offset lithos of Ben’s art for 25 bucks. I think this is fine and honest (probably no hand painted dots). If he sells enough to not have a job other than being in the studio, I say more power to him. Artists need get rid of the old idea that the only good artists is a starving artist (as opposed to the public perception that the only good artists is a dead artist).

  6. To answer S.P. and Larry’s questions, I’ll elaborate a little more on my totally biased personal views on the place of “fine art prints” in the market. Be warned that these views are thoroughly tainted by reading too much Abbé Pierre and having secret fangirl crushes on Mormon curmudgeons like Wulf Barsch, Arthur Henry King, and Boyd K. Packer.

    Art is not just for the élite. This is what 17th century Holland revolutionized: the “low” artists of whom Rembrandt was a part painted small-scale genre scenes for a bourgeois market. They were the first Europeans to paint for living rooms rather than cathedral ceilings. And yet they didn’t lose their virtue doing so… their landscapes and still life scenes were subtle commentaries on Christianity, the only pictoral examples that we have from strictly non-pictoral Calvinist Holland. They bought and sold art and made quite a nice living doing so, but they didn’t compromise their Christianity.

    Some contemporary artists do the same. Ben Steele sells $25 prints so people who can’t afford an original can still own an image they like. This is fantastic. What separates practices like this – lithographs and poster prints and greeting cards sold as a livelihood – from what I would call unchristian and worldly marketing – is the selling of the ego.

    “Fine art prints” – usually giclées – are sold with all the priggishness of original pieces of art. They are often produced in open editions, meaning the artist can create as many copies of these somehow more valuable prints, have them framed expensively, and sell them as gallery pieces without doing any extra work.

    I don’t think upper-middle class Mormon money is dirty… I just don’t think we need it. Too many Mormon artists have to market exclusively to the segment of the LDS market affluent enough to buy their products and loyally Mormon enough to buy them regardless of their quality. If we were truly producing quality art, it would sell, because it would be compelling. C.S. Lewis sold books without having to have exclusive contracts with Anglican Bookstores and put up posters in chapels all over England encouraging parishoners to bring their friends and support quality entertainment. If we’re good enough, we can do the same.

    And I do think that we’re holier than the commercial world. The commercial world is Idumea. We live in the fallen world, but we don’t need to be of the fallen world. And I don’t think we need to wait around for the millennium to start acting like the Zion society we’re supposed to be.

  7. So only high-quality reproductions are evil now? Here’s my problem: I love Maynard Dixon landscapes, but will never be able to afford an original. Now you have me worried that springing for a giclée of The Plains at the BYU Museum of Art Gift Shop will make me “of the fallen world.” I really want to hang said giclée in my den, but I do not want to advertise so prominently my failure to build Zion. Especially with Approaching Zion resting on a book shelf close at hand!

    Seriously though, railing against technology, markets, corporations, the upper-middle-class, and so forth doesn’t seem to really advance the ball. These things have their dark sides, but they are also packed with virtue. And let’s not forget that we agree on an important point: Kinkade = tacky.

  8. Great conversation. And in some ways it presages the next post in my ‘ideas for the field’ series.

  9. Shawn:

    But why the giclee instead of the print?

    And speaking of Dixon…

    Credits for the images used in the new AMV header can be found here.

  10. “So only high-quality reproductions are evil now?”

    No. They were evil from the get-go, but I can only put so much revolutionary Zionistic nonsense in each post. 🙂

  11. Wm: I don’t know! If I ever get close to buying a Dixon (or any other) reproduction, I will make some rough and dirty calculations: what are the options, are they really that different, what do they cost, etc.

    I am certainly open to being educated regarding the differences between glicees, posters, and other forms of reproductions.

  12. Hmmm. I like this new WP theme, but clearly it was not meant for smilies — and I need to tweak the paragraphing in the comments section.

  13. I like to buy pictures I find are pretty. I like to listen to songs I enjoy. I consider it a bonus when those things turn my thoughts toward self-improvement or God in general.

    I find the habit that a few people have in the bloggernacle, of saying various art forms or artists are worthless, to be the real “tacky” part of our culture. I don’t rail against, e.g., the praying wooden angel things that I find everywhere (today I mean “everywhere” as in “every LDS household I’ve been into, every Cracker Barrel, and all three Desert Book locations I’ve managed to get inside of;”) I don’t see how any art, no matter how schlocky you personally think it to be, is bringing down Zion.

    Oh, and telling people you can’t be friends on the grounds that they said, once, that they like a Kinkade print? Also tacky.

  14. I’m sorry if I’ve come across as condescending, Sarah. If it’s any consolation, I don’t mean my critiques in a meanspirited way. My friend knew this – he understood that my Thomas Kinkade comment was for humorous effect and took it as such. And we are, incidentally, still friends.

    I do disagree with you, though, that critics shouldn’t be able to call any art worthless. That’s what critics do – they (attempt at least to) bring up the overall standard by frank discussion of perceived flaws in art. By improving the standard, we are eventually improving the art.

    Let me share with you some extracts from a favorite talk by Spencer W. Kimball…

    “If we strive for perfection–the best and greatest–and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel. In the field of both composition and performance, why cannot someone write a greater oratorio than Handel’s Messiah?

    We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people, written by great artists, purified by the best critics.”
    -President Spencer W. Kimball, The Gospel Vision of the Arts

    I hope to see this kind of art in my day. I don’t think we’ve seen anything of that calibur yet, and though personal tastes may disagree, it can safely be said that nothing has seen the kind of universal appeal President Kimball talks about. And I think purification by the best critics is an important part of that.

  15. Anneke, I wandered over from your LJ. I love the Steele, and I appreciate your pointing us to the Caravaggio. I knew the three men looked familiar, but I didn’t remember from where.

    I want to respond to this comment, “I’m sure in person he may well be a very nice guy.”

    According to Wikipedia, he’s isn’t all that nice either. The article lists a number of (supposedly documented) examples of bad behavior.

    This is my personal favorite. I wish I’d thought to create a character who did this in my fiction: “In 2006 John Dandois, Media Arts Group executive, recounted a story that on one occasion (“about six years ago”) Kinkade became drunk at a Siegfried and Roy magic show in Las Vegas and began shouting “Codpiece! Codpiece!” at the performers. Eventually he was calmed by his mother.”

  16. I saw a tv program a couple years ago (60 Minutes or something of that type) about Thomas Kinkade and his mega art business. His original intent to paint a sentimental well lit cottage may have been honest and sincere with an eye towards helping people to feel peaceful but I would submit his intent today is the almighty dollar. This program did not particularly cast him the light of a nice guy that only wants to bring joy and beauty to the world. He pretty much seems to be a business man these days with very little interest in creating anything near what I would call meaningful art.

    I’m sorry Sarah, I to am an art snob and agree with Anneke that Thomas Kinkade’s work is worthless. I drew the line at paintings and reproductions of children with big eyes and Kinkade falls well below that line for me. If you want work that brings your thoughts to God or helps in your self improvement look at the artwork of Minerva Teichert or any number of other “real” artists.

  17. I would make the dour suggestion that we become what we resist. I never wanted to believe it, but it has happened to me over and over again.

  18. (cont’d) but morbid curiosity drove me to wiki Kinkade. I’d always thought he was Mormon from the buzz, positive and negative, I’d heard about him over the years. Rather, he is just an artistic manifestation of prosperity Christianity. That makes Steele’s visual commentary less attractive to me. And Thomas’ doubt was ultimately quelled, so…

  19. Katrina, you’re so right about Kinkade not being “all that nice.” I have met and watched him in person a number of times, and from the first time I met him I believed him to be driven by a huge ego. For all of his talk about his God-given talent, I don’t see him as being a good Christian. He treats people around him as nothing more than his minions – even, I suspect, his wife. Whenever she appeared with him, she acted like an outsider. She sat meekly with their children away from him, never speaking, as though to not intrude on his spotlight. My impression of her behavior was that she was very much controlled by Kinkade.

    At one of his appearances, I realized just how huge his ego was. One of his reps was up on stage waiting to introduce him. When he appeared, he took the microphone and began talking, and the rep stepped back ten feet to give him the stage. But he stopped and turned to her, saying “Do you need to be here?” I’ve disliked the man since that day.

    I was attracted to his paintings of cottages in the beginning, but very soon I tired of them, especially his unrealistic and gaudy flowers. When he began churning images out like an asembly line and putting his images on everything from night lights to clothing and furniture, I realized he is not so much an artist as a master marketer. Today I almost gag when I see a ANOTHER new product. But, as much as some of us might dislike both him and his work, he’s still raking in the money, isn’t he? Maybe we’re all just a little jealous. 🙂

  20. Nice post. Apparently he’s not a “very nice guy”

    From Wikipedia:
    “The Times further reports that he openly groped a woman’s breasts at a South Bend, Indiana sales event, and mentioned his proclivity for ritual territory marking through urination.”

  21. Kinkade is the McDonalds of the art world. I doubt there are many people that have a hard time making a better hamburger than McDonalds. They are very good at marketing a mediocre hamburger. There are few artists that can’t produce a tecnically “better” painting than Kinkade, they are just poor marketers, for better or worse.

    I too saw Steele’s piece at the Spring Salon, and I laughed so hard I almost had to pick myself off the floor. I think the piece isn’t tecnically one of his better ones, but WOW is it charged!!!

  22. Some good critical thinking going on in this post and in several of the replies. I wish you all were so careful and analytical about your faith and the tenents of the LDS church. Authenticity in craft and sophistication in thought are worthy of your time and praise, but the gospel of God’s Christ (the focus of the original painting of Doubting Thomas)is incomparably more worthy. Read John 20 and remember the point of the original art.

  23. I don’t think we’ve said anything to indicate that we don’t take our faith seriously, D. In fact, my testimony of this Gospel is the single most important thing in my life. If you really are genuinely interested in discussing a specific failing in what we present here, I would love to, but I interpreted what you wrote as a rather odd insult out of left field.

  24. This is a humurous painting. It is funny the “art” that mormon, better said, Utah/Idaho/Arizona culture latches onto. Our religion was birthed primarily through generations of farmers, engineers, ranchers, and pioneers, so the interpretation of art isn’t as engrained in our pysche as much as work ethic and self-discipline is, therefore, the “art” that becomes popular in Utahn culture seems more popular for popularity’s sake than for the art’s real value. I think it is the responsibility of us, the modern mormon artist (not mormon by culture, but by informed religious choice) to bring our people closer to art and inject the interpretation of art into our culture. The dissemination of mormons into arts and entertainment seems to be one of the bigger tasks of our generation.

  25. Never having had the disadvantage of being told what was ‘good’ art, I love some of Thomas Kinkade’s cottage scenes. RIP Mr Kinkade.

  26. I believe Caravaggio was the first to clearly portray Jesus and the apostles as peasants (note Tom’s tattered garment), making Steele’s painting all the more poignant for me.

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