NEW YORK — The art critic was scathing in his review of a painting depicting a sunrise over water. "A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this seascape," scoffed Louis Leroy.
Not surprisingly, the French painter on the receiving end of this scorn was having trouble getting his work shown in official exhibits, and had to resort to something called the Exhibition of Rejects. Thomas Kinkade might have known how that felt. The American artist who died last week was, despite his commercial success, derided by the official art world as essentially a purveyor of kitsch. He had no presence in museums, most of which politely avoided comment on his death.
The comparisons end there. The French painter was Claude Monet. He would of course overcome initial skepticism of his work to become one of the most beloved artists of all time. In 2008, one of his Impressionist paintings sold for more than $80 million.
Not that a Kinkade canvas — or greeting card, or figurine set, or puzzle — will ever draw $80 million. But his death at age 54 has prompted fresh debate over just what defines art, anyway. Despite the critical dislike for Kinkade's inviting, light-bathed landscapes, he made many millions, and his works, or rather reproductions, were ubiquitous in American homes (10 million of them, he claimed.)
"It is clear that everyday people need an art they can enjoy, believe in and understand," he wrote in a catalog.
But IS it art? If not, what is — and who gets to decide, anyway? In the same spirit of democracy in art that Kinkade spoke of, we asked people around the country to tackle those questions.
A mini-debate was not hard to find; at Kansas City's Country Club Plaza on Friday, friends Charline Ford and Pam Cavanaugh were discussing — and disagreeing.
"I love his paintings," said Ford, 68, a retired teacher from Willits, Calif. She noted the religious imagery often used by Kinkade, who called (and trademarked) himself the Painter of Light. "It's like, Jesus shines out. The light is just beautiful."
Ford owns a small Kinkade Christmas village set that she puts in her garden window at holiday time. Her friend, Cavanaugh, doesn't care for the stuff. She remembers when she first saw it.
"I thought, 'Who is this charlatan,' because it was mass-produced," said Cavanaugh, 69, "and selling for what I thought was an exorbitant price." But was it art? To Cavanaugh, that's the same as asking whether something is poetry. "It's to the beholder (to decide)," she said. "If Charline loves it, and you love it, I respect that. And if I never saw another Thomas Kinkade in this lifetime, I would feel fulfilled."
That's a polite way of saying something many art experts feel. "What does he represent? The successful marketing of kitsch," said Frank C. Lewis, director and curator at the Wriston Art Galleries at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "Though museums don't like to use that word these days — it sounds too snobby."
Still, Lewis said, one needn't call Kinkade's work home decor, as some do. "To those who bought it, it was much more than that," Lewis said. "People wanted to participate in art. They could afford it, and would get affirmation from their friends: 'Oh, you have a Kinkade!'"
That's the point Margaret Scherer was making as she perused an exhibit of the artist James Vullo at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Though she feels Kinkade's work tends toward home decor, she noted that he'd "made art available to the masses. You can actually get a piece of his and say you have an original Thomas Kinkade painting or a print."
"Original" is a relative term, however; most Kinkade works were mass-produced, sometimes personally "highlighted" by a worker at a Kinkade gallery. That bothers Bari Yates Murdock, 45, of Ridgefield, Conn., who works in interior design.
"I always felt it was too mass-marketed, though I have an older sister who loves it," she said of Kinkade's work. "But I define art as something that is one of a kind."
Kinkade's business model made him, at his peak, one of the wealthiest artists in the world. Does being commercially oriented make you a lesser artist? Jim Graves doesn't think so. The lawyer from Brawley, Calif., visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington on Friday, said Kinkade's work had always struck him as kitschy, but "I can see it appealing to other people. Simply because Picasso was popular even during his lifetime doesn't make him a bad artist."
Kirsty Moorcroft, visiting the same museum, agreed. The retired teacher from Ontario, Canada said Kinkade's appeal to the masses was a good thing, because "art shouldn't apply just to a small group. I think the more you appeal to a mass audience, the better."
And experts, no matter how they feel about Kinkade's art, point out that he was hardly the first artist to be overtly committed to making money.
"Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are basically marketers, who don't even really make their art — they conceive it," said Henry Adams, a prominent national expert on American art, now a professor at Case Western Reserve University.
But, he says, Andy Warhol is the man who truly popularized the idea of art as a money machine — who said, among other things: "Big-time art is big-time money."
"He saw it as a commodity," Adams said of the famous pop artist. "And really, we're all trying to be commodities now."
Lynn Herminath had just finished seeing a "Picasso to Warhol" exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum of Art on Thursday. "I look at Warhol and I just say, 'The joke is on us,'" Herminath mused, when trying to define what art means to her, "because he just used everyday objects. But if I look at it another way, it was definitely a statement and something no one else was doing at the time." Kinkade, she said, was "too commercial and too repetitive."
But Rod Taylor, who works in pharmaceutical sales and was also visiting the museum, said he liked Kinkade, whose tranquil scenes remind him of family vacations in the woods.
"As I think about art, I think it's something that should evoke emotion and beauty," Taylor said.
Does art need to make you happy? And does it need to be pleasant to do so? For Anne Scheid, a painter herself who also teaches drawing at Fresno City College in California, the answer is no. In fact, she has trouble with Kinkade's work because it "doesn't have the darkness, despair or joy that art has. For me, his work brings up the word 'nice.' Have you ever been around a person that's nice all the time? That's annoying. It's terrifying, because it isn't real."
But is it art? "Who am I to say?" she said. And like many interviewed she felt the individual, not museums or the art establishment, gets to decide.
"Me, for me," pronounced Graves, the lawyer in Washington. Not museums. "They don't know anything. They (only) know what's stood the test of time."
Moorcroft, though, was a more skeptical. Individuals SHOULD be the ones who define what art is, she said, but it doesn't always work that way. "It's the art critics, I would say," she said, "and the museums tend to put up with what the critics like."
That would explain why Kinkade has no presence in American museums. But Adams, at Case Western, suggested that could change one day soon. With posthumous prices on Kinkade works rising, he said, "If I were a museum director I'd want to run out and buy some of his work."
So is it possible we'll be hearing about an exhibit called "From Warhol to Kinkade"?Comment on this story
"It's hard to tell," said Adams. "It's equally possible that he'll disappear entirely in 100 years."
For now, Cavanaugh, the California woman with the friend who loves Kinkade, is trying not to judge.
"I can say this: They are very welcoming," she said to her friend of Kinkade's paintings, seeking common ground. "You like them. Go for it!"
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., Gosia Wozniacka in Fresno, Calif. and Brett Zongker in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.