“Him. Whosit. The painter of shite.”
He is on too. His latest offering is a three metre square, magic marker-on-velour extravaganza: the baby Jesus nestling at the foot of a giant Redwood tree, adored by two grizzly bears and a cougar. In the background sunlight dapples the forest floor, and a sturdy yokel can be discerned in the distance contemplating nature outside his simple cottage.
“Jesus” I say. “Jesus. That’s shite.”
A confession. The QVC shopping channel has brought a number of unsought pleasures into my life, not the least of which is Thomas Kinkade – painter of shite.
I was pleased to find reference in him in Joan Didion’s autobiography, Where I Was From:
Thomas Kinkade was born in the late 1950’s and raised in Placerville, El Dorado County, where his mother supported him and his siblings by working as a notary public, piecework, at five dollars a document. The father had left. The family lived for much of the time in a trailer.
…by 1997, the pictures sold in these 248 “signature galleries” were canvas backed reproductions which themselves sold for $900 to $15000 and were produced by the 450 employees who laboured in the 100,000 square foot headquarters of Media Arts Group Incorporated, the business of which was Thomas Kinkade.
Didion’s book is about being grounded in a series of illusions. Her ancestors crossed the great plains to California in the 1840’s. Hailed in mythology as sturdy pioneers, the early settlers were actually the front end of a calculated geopolitical effort to push the boundaries of the United States to the South and West. Later the sturdy pioneers became, according to founding mythology, equally sturdy yeomen farmers, businessmen and civic patrons, cleaving to an ethic of resolute individualism – an ethic underwritten by massive federal government spending in infrastructure and irrigation, agribusiness and defense. With the US taxpayer doing the heavy financial lifting, private sector capital was freed for the media and technology industries, and Thomas Kinkade left free to dream a particular kind of America without anyone letting him in on the secret that he was living under a somewhat peculiar and distorted form of socialism. And if you give your dreams concrete form and commodity value, they in turn assume the status of reality.
I’m overstating things here: Didion’s nowhere near didactic as that. In what struck me as an inspired touch, she also writes a sketch of another native myth maker and painter of shite in the form of Kinkade’s academic equivalent, Victor Davis Hanson. She writes:
He sees himself as heir to the freeholding yeoman farmers who in Crevecoer’s and his own view “created the American republican Spirit”…The single photograph I have seen of him shows a man in his forties, wearing khakis and a t shirt, his features and central stance so characteristic of the Central Valley that the photograph could seem indistinguishable from snapshots of my father and cousins.
She then quotes the man himself:
"When we all went to the universities …we lost something essential, yet chose to lose it” …material bounty and freedom are so much stronger incentives than sacrifice and character.” What’s lost by the “we” of this passage, and in Hanson’s view by America itself, was the pure hardship of the agrarian life, the yeoman ideal that constituted “the country’s last link with the founding fathers of our political and religious life.”
Didion remarks that VDH doesn’t actually do any farming himself, and that the farms he idolizes were replaced by housing and conventional businesses, in other words by actual Americans and the services they need to live their actual lives.
If the actual dream is dead, it can still live on in commodity form if you buy Thomas Kinkade’s paintings and buy into his own particular hallucination. If you happen to be a Republican Party court historian, it can be transferred to other places. Here's Vic castigating the puerile Yurps over Iraq.
But a single death or bomb in Baghdad alone seems to merit condemnation from the Europeans, whose leaders seem incapable of using the words "victory" and "freedom," much less "sacrifice" and "liberation."
Freedom and sacrifice. The same qualities valorized by the California mythology, and in Iraq as in California, free riding on the overwhelming resources of power and money held by the American state. Written in 2003 and confidently predicting that the Iraq invasion was “the revolutionary and great moral event of the age” the piece is now just a collectors item for connoisseurs of hubris. Never mind. Vic's staying the course.
Despite acrimony at home, the politics of two national elections and a third on the horizon, and the slander of war crimes and incompetence, those on the battlefield of Iraq have almost pulled off the unthinkable — the restructuring of the politics of the Middle East in less than three years.
Course they have Vic. Though cowards flinch and traitors jeer, we all know that Iraq really looks like this.