by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
May 27, 2012 - In the order of reality, moral virtue takes priority, in both ontology and time, over aesthetic refinement. After all, Jesus did not say, “Be ye therefore possessors-of-good-taste, even as your Father, which is in heaven, is an aesthete.” But judging from the almost acerbic analysis in the blogosphere on the relationship between the tragic life and controversial work of Thomas Kinkade, Jesus should have reconsidered the relative importance of holiness in light of the all-surpassing significance of cultural discrimination.
Some criticisms of Kinkade’s legacy have been oblique, merely suggesting that perhaps those drawn to paintings of light are blinded by that to which they are attracted, empty luminous projections of otherwise dark souls. Others leave no room for interpretation: Kinkade’s work is “theologically dangerous . . . More nihilistic than anything Picasso and Pollock could paint, or Nietzsche and Sartre could write.”
The deep irony of such criticism, even if it is correct, is that it is frequently set in a context of strenuous assertions to the effect that Kinkade’s art is not to be regarded as “serious” art. Serious art, we are assured, reflects the gritty realities of a sinful, fallen world; it conveys the “confrontations and disruption that could open us up to grace.” Kinkade, it is alleged, is pure kitsch - the “meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face.”
Such vitriolic scorn is puzzling when, like a cataract, it inundates an allegedly innocuous target - like using Niagara Falls to put out a match or swatting at a gnat with baseball bat. If Kinkade’s cozy homes set in serene countrysides are merely quaint pictures that bring delight to the aesthetically illiterate masses, why protest?
Of course, the answer to this rhetorical query is obvious among the cultural nobility. The masses (especially those low-brow, conservative, Evangelical Christians) must be saved from their philistine sensibilities!
Perhaps, this is true (though doubtful). However, as C.S. Lewis tacitly understood (see the installation of King Frank and Queen Helen in The Magician’s Nephew), the transformation of the peasantry by aesthetic aristocrats who lack moral goodness may produce high culture, but it will also produce a vicious one - one that lacks justice, mercy, and above all, charity.
This is not to say that conversation about Kinkade’s artistic merit is out of bounds. It is simply to say that those seeking to be gentle as doves would be wise to be as suspicious as serpents of those whose aesthetic critique of Kinkade reflects a moral tone analogous to the “dark light” allegedly emanating from the homes in Kinkade’s paintings.