On Good Friday, the Painter of Light, Thomas Kinkade, passed away at the age of fifty-four in his home in California. The gabled cottages, majestic tableaux and murmuring waterfalls of his mass-produced canvases were almost dreamily indistinguishable from one another. Denounced as kitsch by the establishment, Kinkade claimed in a 2001 New Yorker profile that his art was “relevant for real people.” And, he went so far as to say, “I am a warrior for light“.
Yet, his light lives only in worlds that do not exist. Do those pretty little villages resemble anything close to reality? Each one of his art-related products is a utopia unto itself of disembodied perfection and other-worldly ideals. His light is similar to a Stepford wife; his is a bloodless and sufferingless light. In fact, I bet if Kinkade painted the crucifixion, it would be so charmingly pleasant that no one would think twice about buying an afghan with its image on it! It would probably have a deer on it, somewhere.
What Kinkade painted is optimism, not light. The problem is that few of us can tell the difference. Few of us can tell that optimism is an oppressive taskmaster.
Optimism demands that life always has a better tomorrow, but when tomorrow finally arrives, we are disappointed. Because it demands that we qualify everything we say with an upbeat, happy note, optimism makes us liars. Optimism tells us life should be something other than what it is. Optimism spits on the reality, saying you should live in the ideal of those stony, gabled perfections. Why shouldn’t things be better for you? Optimism makes you feel like shit because you can never live up to its expectations. It seems even Kinkade might have felt that way, too.
Kinkade’s paintings are not filled with light nor are they comforting. They are dystopic hellscapes of suffocating, perfection-demanding optimism. Yet, these are the paintings that speak to millions of “real people” because those same millions of “real people” have bought into the lie that is optimism.
This is not just an Evangelical problem, either. This is an Christian problem in America. No denomination is free from the tyranny of optimism. For, if the faith is not presented in the most “light”-filled manner, it is considered derogatory or mental illness. Those who decry optimism, those who embrace the darkness of faith are appreciated for their honesty, but are relegated to the back of the line in every Church, including the mainline ones. We must never doubt our preferred impenetrable idol, after all!
If we believe that Christianity is optimism and optimism is Christianity, then we prove correct Marx’s dismissive comment that “Religion is the opium of the people”. Constantly believing that tomorrow will be better, we’re perpetually disappointed. So, we commit suicide, we medicate ourselves into a non-feeling stupor and we orgasm our way to fulfillment. We clutch our bibles against disappointment. We buy kitsch promising us an ideal world that doesn’t exist. We perpetuate the cycle of our own eventual disillusionment.
Yet, let us consider the Saint of Calcutta, one of the most light-filled persons of our time. Mother Teresa never claimed the light for herself. Her words were full of suffering, of the sick, of the pain of life, of the absurdity of faith, and of the dirt. Some thought her mentally ill because her light was not ideal. Yet, she never claimed to be a light warrior, but said, “If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.'” And, her life of light was full of darkness.
Yet, they both are dead, gone onto their reward. They will both be judged by the awful grace of God. As will we.
Requiesat in Pace, Thomas Kinkade. Requiem Aeternam.
Teresa of Calcutta, Ora Pro Nobis.