Above is an illustration I photoshopped just now, after reading that Thomas Kinkade died. I combined one of his typical posters with a waif painted by Keane. Before Kinkade assumed the mantel of kitsch-master sometime in the 1990s, Walt/Margaret Keane had dominated this genre in the U.S.
My illustration serves a few different points that are interesting to me:
- Kitsch is transitory. While Kinkade's sugary landscape looks familiar (part of our time, betokening CG films, Disney, etc.) the big-eyed waif looks foreign. Once a staple of popular visual culture (seen in millions of homes, and stacked in any thrift shop or garage sale), the Keane waif stands to be forgotten. Something of her sweetness, however, lives on in the Japanese esthetic for cure big-eyed products.
- Kitsch knows borders. Living as I do in Norway, I was startled to hear of Kinkade's death more than a week after it was common knowledge in the U.S. Kinkade is virtually unknown in Europe. His style apparently appeals to a certain conservative puritan attitude only within the US. (Keane assiduously avoided any whiff of natural forces, keeping his scenes free of weather, predation, or nudity.)
Thomas Kinkade was a CEO, a procurer for what the populace wanted. Therefore it fits that we know not his face, but only his style. He's different from the likes of the Keanes, who aired their laundry in the public courts for decades, battling each other like characters in a Tennessee Williams play. In contrast, the Kinkade family is tight-lipped, offering a controlled statement to the press as to the CEO's passing, allowing us to only speculate as to the cause of death at the relatively young age of 54.
It is interesting to study American kitsch relative to other powerful versions, such as Communist Social
Realism (Soviet, Chinese, N. Korean), or Fascism (German or Italian.) American kitsch is bottom up, the artist procuring for the wants of the masses. The other cited versions of kitsch are more top down, driven by authoritarian didactics, rather than mass market forces.
Norway's most famous living painter, Odd Nerdrum, has yet more interesting ideas on the nature of kitsch.