R.I.P. Thomas Kincaid, 1957-2012

I just heard that Thomas Kincaid died suddenly today. It’s estimated that one in every twenty homes in America have one of his mass-produced masterpieces in it. Not ring a bell? Okay, how about this: Go to virtually any mall in America and look for the shop that sells paintings. Odds are the sign outside the door reads “Thomas Kincaid, Painter of Light.” Ahhhh. Now you get the connection. Now being an artist myself, you might think I’m all about mocking Kincaid. But I come not to bury him, but to praise him. Mention “Thomas Kincaid” to any art critic or fine artist, and you’ll likely see eyes roll, a sneer on the upper lip and a groan, followed by a perfectly snarky remark. “The LiteBrite Guy.” “Painter…of Crap.” “Schlockmeister.” Don’t listen to them. Like other popular artists before him (Norman Rockwell springs to mind) Kincaid’s work was, in a word “comfortable.” His art was for the masses. It wasn’t something that you had to go to art school to appreciate. It wasn’t something that you needed a pretentious home, a glass of Chablis and a pair of designer Birkenstocks to fawn over. (Heaven forefend – to the wine and brie crowd, Kincaid’s work – they thought – was beneath them.) Kincaid was guilty of pandering to popular taste in the First Degree. He found the pulse of the public and gave them what they wanted, when they wanted it, at prices that meant any upwardly mobile family could own a real painting.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that. Art can’t survive on the dilettante crowd alone. If you only play to the lodge and orchestra seats, all those general admission tickets will go unsold. Kincaid knew what the average family that knew nothing about art liked, and he gave it to them with a vengeance. And that’s remarkable in and of itself.

Your average fine artist can churn out, what, maybe a canvas a week, if he’s lucky. Kincaid found a way to mass produce art for the masses, yearning to have a real painting over the mantle. Now don’t get me wrong. This was no Velvet Elvis, or Dogs Playing Poker, or the less-than-immortal Waifs With Impossibly Big Eyes schlock. Kincaid’s work is actually attractive, well conceived stuff. His most popular works were idealized paintings of cheery homes with plenty of greenery around them, with an almost idyllic light that bathed the subject matter in a warm glow. Kincaid claimed he was a “warrior for light,” but that phrase had a deeper meaning for him than just the obvious reference to paintings with an obvious use of light. Nope. Kincaid was a committed Christian, and for him, light was a metaphor for “goodness” or to be more blunt – GOD. He believed that families needed to be able to appreciate art in their homes, and they needed art that would nurture the soul, bringing light to their lives, as well as their living room.

No wonder the critics hated him.

He wasn’t cynical. He wasn’t morose. He wasn’t suicidal. And he wasn’t preaching the Nihilism of the Nietzsche crowd. In short, he was for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. From what I’ve learned, he was a devoted husband and father. And he loved life. The critics loathed everything the man stood for. Then there was his raging success – another source of angst for the mainstream art crowd.

The popular meme/Plan A for fine artists is you A) perfect your craft, preferably in Paris, B) struggle in obscurity, never getting the breaks your talent so obviously deserves, C) die young, penniless, and distraught, D) get discovered (too late to benefit you) and your raging talent, tragic story and untimely death combine to drive up the price of your paintings into the millions. That’s if you’ve actually got talent. Plan B for artists is to forget about developing any talent, luck into some idea that’s just weird enough to generate some interest in the art press, find an agent/gallery owner willing to show off your work to the ‘right’ people, then sucker them into buying your stuff as The Next Important Artist. You then ride that horse until you die from your wretched excess of a life or fade into obscurity when Next Year’s Blonde comes along. (If you die young, see Plan A).

Here’s the weird part. Kincaid forged his own way. He mass-produced prints of his original canvases, then had a phalanx of painters “highlight” the prints by adding enough brush strokes to make the prints look like the real deal. Voilà! Instant Art at popular prices! Drove the critics mad. Absolutely stark raving.

One of the things that surprised me about Kincaid’s obits was to discover that he was my age. That’s always sobering, but Kincaid was such a force of nature in the commercialized world of Fine Art, I assumed he was older. Much older. It’s one thing to labor away like Rockwell did, and become an icon in your 80s. It’s quite another to hit the bigs when you’re young enough to enjoy it.

Ironically, I’m much more impressed by Kincaid the man, than Kincaid the Force for Mass-Produced McArt. I’ve seen some of his cartoon work. And some of his non-“Painter of Light” stuff. THAT impresses me. He was a talent. But unlike the tortured geniuses that labor in the shadows for their careers and only achieve fame after fortune is out of the question, Kincaid figured out a way to make a nice chunk of change off his talent. And for that, he should be admired, honored, and celebrated.

Of course, you’ll see the critics all dancing a little jig of grief, if they don’t come right out and say “good riddance.” (Once they find out that he was a Christian, I suspect that will be – no pun intended – the final nail in his coffin.)

So if you are one of the one in twenty that own a Kincaid piece, congrats. You’re doing better than most of the families in America, who’s homes are largely bereft of art. And that’s worrisome, because if the Art of Painting is to survive the digital age, we need more families appreciating art, not less. (On the flip side, don’t get all excited that your McPainting is gonna be worth millions. Only if you own an original might that happen. And even then, I have my doubts.)

So here’s to you Thomas. You cracked the code on monetizing your talent. Wish you were around to let me in on your secret. May God bless and keep your family, and may you find a really beautiful spot to set up your easel. Where you’re going, I expect you’ll find a lot of radiant light and clouds to paint to your heart’s content. Godspeed.

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