I am finalizing stuff for the classes that I teach and I am waffling about a text. Do you think the average college student would be able to read an essay about Thomas Kinkade art ("Light for Light's Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style")? I think it is pretty innocuous, but is it too hard? Hint: I hope you think it is accessible because the other options are much harder.

The class is English 102 or 200 or whatever your school used to mark the research paper writing class.

Here it is (I hope I don't go to jail for this):

THOMAS KINKADE'S ARTISTIC STYLE IS INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE, unmistakable, and nearly unanimously bashed by those who consider themselves part of the professional art community. His best known works depict idyllic pastel scenes of gardens, bridges, lighthouses, and gazebos ornamented generously with luminous highlights, as well as cottages with windows glowing with such "lurid effect," Joan Didion writes, that one could easily believe that "the interior of the structure might be on fire" (73). Recognition of Kinkade's art is facilitated by his popularity. With an estimated eleven million prints hanging in homes across the country and innumerable products that bear his images, he may be the most collected contemporary artist in the United States.1 If there is not a Kinkade print—or a Kinkade puzzle, plush toy, calendar, coffee mug, knick-knack, lamp, greeting card, or pillow—in your own home, chances are there is one (or many) in the home of someone you know.

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Kinkade credits his overwhelming popularity to his accessible, romantic themes largely inspired by his Christianity. He celebrates the mass reproduction of his paintings, rails against what he calls the "inbred, closed culture" of Modernist art (qtd. in Balmer 53) and believes that God directs him to spread a message of faith, hope, and love by "engulf[ing] as many hearts as possible with art" (qtd. in Orlean). However, his success is also due to effective and, to some degree, innovative business practices that position him as a populist willing to create art for the devout masses, art that requires neither critical interpretation nor tolerance of the amorality, frivolity, or vulgarity commonly associated with contemporary art. His artistic works (often described as representational, soothing works with obvious or simple meanings) are presented as a response or challenge to the kind of artistic works that are valued in the contemporary art world (often nonrepresentational, shocking works with ambiguous, or nonexistent meanings). Kinkade explains, "The official art of our day … is an art of darkness, it is an art of alienation from the public … What I create is very much a reaction to that system" (qtd. in Roberts).

Passionate reactions to Kinkade's works demonstrate the polarizing nature of his art. There is very little written about his works, his painting techniques, his personal life, or his business practices that one might consider neutral or dispassionate. However, rather than engaging in the ongoing disputes about the artistic value of Kinkade's paintings, the ethicality of his business practices, or the authenticity of his spirituality, this article seeks to examine how the popularity of Kinkade's art represents the changing relationship between art and culture in post-modern society. The purpose of this examination, like that of Daniel Belgrad's study of the popularity of Norman Rockwell, is "not to take sides in the debate [over whether the artist's works are either good or bad], but to sideline it, by explaining how … art works, and why it works in its given social context" (61). Specifically, this article will inquire into how Kinkade's success emerges from the formation of a certain type of subculture, one which embraces commercial art branding, class-based identification, and technological reproduction to flaunt its retreat into kitschy sentimentality.

Dick Hebdige, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, his classic analysis of the development of punk and related movements among working-class British youth, defines subculture as "a form of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections to [a] ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style" (133). Although Kinkade's style is seemingly one designed for mass appeal, it appeals particularly to those masses who feel excluded generally from intellectual culture, and specifically from the elite discourse of contemporary art. It is such a sense of exclusion, Hebdige writes, which spurs the development of styles "as symbolic forms of resistance; as spectacular symptoms of a wider and more generally submerged dissent" (80). A greater understanding of the specifics of Kinkadian style, and an understanding of how this style functions within its particular historical, cultural, and social context will illustrate the role of style in contemporary cultural formations.

Illuminating Kinkadian Style

Kinkade paints reality, only better. A viewer can quickly recognize that a garden is the subject of Kinkade's painting, Garden of Prayer, but most have never seen a garden in the luxuriant, pristine, and glowing way that Kinkade presents it. Kinkade's self-assigned (and trademarked) title, "The Painter of Light," refers to his technique of imbuing rustic scenes with both muted and vibrant (some might say "garish") colors, as well as a dramatic yet soft glow (a Google search for "Kinkade" and "glow" returns over a million hits). This technique is quite intentionally connected to that of the nineteenth-century impressionist artists in Kinkade's promotional materials, in which you find series of paintings referenced as Kinkade's "French Impressionist" collection, his "Studio Impressions," and his "Plein Air" collection. Kinkade's "light touch" is consistent with his airy subjects, which are mostly romantic idealizations of lush landscapes occupied by a single cozy structure (and very few people, if any). Kinkade is unapologetic about the "lightness" of his art; he states "My paintings are fantasies, an oasis of the mind, an answer to the longing of the human heart for sanctuary" ("Art Instinct"). He calls this way of treating his subjects "maximalism" and charges artists with the responsibility and "divine privilege" to "edit or reinvent experience" to make it more soothing ("Maximalism" 20).

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For those who believe that the responsibility of artists is to challenge viewers' expectations, to disengage from consumer culture, or to critique institutions and belief systems, Kinkade's approach (especially considering its commercial success) is grating. Unsurprisingly, critics are quick to call Kinkade's work kitschy, sentimental, simple, and overly idealistic. Art curator Ralph Rugoff, for instance, claims that Kinkade's art gives viewers "a kind of retreat, or refuge, from the challenges and demands of contemporary culture" (13). Art critic Chris Stamper is more direct, calling Kinkade's work "openly escapist," ushering viewers into "a sanitized world where life's edges aren't as rough." However, such criticisms are of little import to an artist who is, in his words, trying "to get rid of all the ugly parts of life" (qtd. in Welbaum). Kinkade makes no claim to engaging his audience by creating dissonance through shock or offense, or requiring them to employ some critical apparatus to locate the meaning of his paintings. Such an undemanding relationship between art and consumer makes sense within what Susan Jacoby identifies as the "resurgent anti-intellectualism" and "renewed religious fundamentalism" that have become increasingly influential features of American culture over the last half-century (xviii, 22). If religion, as Karl Marx claimed, is the "opiate of the masses," Kinkade's art is what the devout masses hang on their walls as they sink into a drug-induced stupor.

However, calling Kinkade's work "escapist" is not necessarily delegitimatizing. The escapist purpose of Kinkade's art is not unlike prior attempts by subcultures to disengage from dominant culture. Discussing the appeal of glam-rock subculture in the 1970s, Hebdige writes that glam-rocker David Bowie's "entire aesthetic was predicated upon a deliberate avoidance of the 'real' world … Bowie's meta-message was escape—from class, from sex, from personality, from obvious commitment—into a fantasy past … or a science-fiction future" (61). Traditionally, we have viewed this escape as an escape from conservative norms and traditional values. But what happens when a discourse embraces post-modern sensibilities that question traditional norms and values, which, in the context of art, rejects established standards of aesthetic excellence? This opens up the possibility of subcultures responding to this discourse through embracing the very conventions that have been discarded. Where Hebdige's youth cultures were revolting against a sense of order and constraint using noise and chaos, Kinkade's fans are revolting against contemporary art's sense of disorder and perceived meaninglessness using order and simplicity. Hebdige notes a similar response in the youth "teddy boy" subculture; this group's style

… harked back to a more settled and straightforward past. The revival recalled a time which seemed surprisingly remote, and by comparison secure; almost idyllic in its stolid Puritanism, its sense of values, its conviction that the future could be better. (82)

Subcultures "escape" the influence of a dominant culture by embracing a style opposed to that culture. As Hebdige tells us, "individual subcultures can be more or less 'conservative' or progressive;" there is no ideological litmus test for what can or cannot be rebelled against (127).

Calling Kinkade's work "kitsch" is not necessarily delegitimatizing either. In the case of punk subculture, "obsolete kitsch" was used to contradict the codes of the dominant culture, to offer "self-conscious commentaries on the notions of modernity and taste" (Hebdige 107). Celeste Olalquiaga believes that kitsch is a consequential and valuable form of art that is capable of challenging the way society belittles it. As she explains, kitsch "is based on the stealing of elements that are foreign or removed from the absorbing culture's direct sensory realm, shaping itself into a vicarious experience particularly attracted to the intensity of feeling provided by iconographic universes …" (39). In this way, kitsch can be critical even as it remains accessible, populist, and idealistic, thereby offering transcendent experiences to a wider segment of society than "higher" forms of art. For Olalquiaga, the dismissal of kitsch is part of the larger struggle between social classes over control of the representation and experience of the romantic.

One can observe one of the sites of this struggle in the continuing decline of the importance of what Néstor García Canclini terms the "middleman" in art. Before post-modernity, the middleman was a barrier between the work of art and the middle and lower class audience, a mediator who enforced approved methods of interpreting and evaluating art. In the age of post-modernity, members of the middle and lower classes are, in some respects, freed of the restrictions of the middleman in two very important ways. First, the large number of youth receiving liberal arts educations develop an appreciation for art in all its forms (painting, graphic design, film, graphic novels, etc.) and carry these nonhierarchical interests into adulthood. Second, the internet and the mass reproduction of prints equalize the experience of visual art, making high and low art equally accessible and comparably detailed.2

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Few contemporary art consumers express desire for professional or critical mediation of their art experience, and Kinkade fans are no different. In a Sixty Minutes segment entitled "Marketing Genius of Thomas Kinkade," Morley Safer introduces the viewer to Cindy Dubois, an average looking, forty-something white woman who seems terribly typical. Cindy and her husband, Rod, make their home in the suburbs of California, a home that very well may represent the norm for middle-class America. The Dubois' only deviance from seeming normalcy is the interior of their home, which is littered with Kinkade prints. As the camera pans the walls filled with framed cozy cottages and fragrant gardens, the Duboises no longer seem average —they seem obsessed. In speaking of their collection, Cindy Dubois is unapologetic and unashamed: "I like the color that he uses, and I like the way that he uses the light, and I like the subjects that he paints." Having only nine months earlier become fans of Kinkade, the Duboises, surprisingly, had managed to collect 138 Kinkade prints.

The first few minutes of the Sixty Minutes piece include Kinkade musing on the popularity of his art prints, saying that "Everyone can identify with a fragrant garden, with the beauty of a sunset, with the quiet of nature, with a warm and cozy cottage" (emphasis added). Although Kinkade's statement is arguably ahistorical and exclusionary, Safer qualifies it in his voiceover, saying that "If you like six sugars in your coffee, these are the paintings for you." Safer later asks the Duboises: "Do you get some warm and fuzzy feeling when you … look at one of his paintings?" Safer's characterization and question above hinge on two conventions of contemporary culture (including, but not limited to, art culture): the assumption that emotions are uncritical, and that strong emotion is irrational. As Fredric Jameson argues in Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the "modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation" participate in "a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself" (11). This "waning of affect in post-modern culture," Jameson claims, brings with it the " 'death' of the subject itself—the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual" and the "end of the psychopathologies of that ego" (10, 15).

What follows for Jameson is that the "liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling" (15). The Duboises reject this rejection of strong emotion, unashamed of not only buying, but being obsessed with Kinkade's art (one might claim that validation of irrational obsession is an implicit defense of religion as well). The loss of the concept of expression in the post-modern era, Jameson argues, is marked by the "end, for example, of style, in the sense of the unique and personal" (15, emphasis added). However, the style of the Dubois home not only rejects the sense of cool detachment that Jameson claims characterizes post-modern society, it also rejects the various middlemen who mediate our experience of it: the mass media that markets art, museums that house artworks, presses that publish art criticism, and educational systems that instruct individuals to appreciate only certain types of art. In other words, the Duboises have created their own gallery of pieces that speak to them, a gallery adverse to elite art conventions, and supportive of the personal in the consumption of art.

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Directly following Kinkade's story in Sixty Minutes, a host of discussion boards, blogs, and newsgroups either lovingly praised or harshly criticized Kinkade, his art, and his business. Many of these responses contained what can only be described as "rants" expressing disdain for Kinkade's "art" and the profitability of his company. Not surprisingly, much of the commentary regarding Kinkade's mass appeal referenced Kinkade's admirers' lack of "class." Most of the respondents to a USENET news group devoted to "large format photography," for instance, replied with sarcastic critiques or general dismissal. One such participant, Robert A. Zeichner, cited Kinkade's products and popularity as a "compelling reason this country needs to invest heavily in providing a good liberal arts education to every single child. If schools did a better job of teaching appreciation for art, music, and literature, perhaps such crap would fade away." Zeichner's rationale for the popularity of Kinkade's "crap"—lack of education—is evidence of the still strong grip of elitism left over from the cultural divisions of modernity, particularly in the art community.

Although many in the art world consider Kinkade's work "too easy"—and thus invaluable—its simplicity is a point of pride for collectors. Vivian Kanargelidis, who opened a Kinkade Gallery in Toronto with her husband in early 2002, states that Kinkade's "paintings don't need a lot of interpretation, like some contemporary art does," and believes that people purchase his prints because "it reminds them of a place that they've been [to] or want to be" (qtd. in Wherry). By substituting the "language of the common man for the arcane posturing of the existing elite," such gallery owners purposely distinguish themselves from the discourse of traditional art museum docents or gallery curators (Hebdige 110). And Kinkade's Galleries are physically different from traditional repositories of contemporary art. Kinkade galleries, typically located in strip malls and shopping malls, invite individuals of diverse economic means to view and purchase prints and are, in some respects, a response to the pretentious austerity of the museum or the exclusive intensity of the auction house.

When inside a Kinkade Gallery, an individual hears no museum echo and no whispered voices, sees few visible markers of high-class pretense, and meets no art expert. Kinkade believes traditional art galleries and museums are "intimidating" and "sterile" and is proud that Kinkade Galleries offer a different environment entirely. Kinkade believes his galleries "upset the paradigm and turned it on its ear. We said our art galleries are going to feel like homes. They're going to feel comfortable" (qtd. in Kreiter 66). In these galleries, devotees can find the same familiarity and comfort they find in Kinkade's prints. The comfort Kinkade's devotees feel within the presence of Kinkade products and services, and similar-minded devotees, is part of the brand that Kinkade has built. This brand speaks to members of this subculture as members of a class whom, like Hebdige's punks, mods, and teddy boys, have decided to tune in, turn on, and drop out of mainstream (art) culture. It is one way in which "the experience of class [finds] expression in culture" (Hebdige 74). For Kinkade's admirers, owning a piece of the Kinkade brand allows them to exercise that expression.

Branding the Painter of Light™

Like other successful contemporary artists, Kinkade's art is really secondary to his brand.3 His mixture of romantic themes, accessible subjects, and clever product marketing has turned Thomas Kinkade, once a poor artist who sold oil paintings out of the trunk of his car, into a branded persona that can be superimposed onto every aspect of American life. Not only does the "Thomas Kinkade Company" sell millions of prints, but through licensing deals, it distributes a wide variety of "Kinkade-inspired" products including flower arrangements, greeting cards, stationery, lapel pins, plush teddy bears, self-help books, novels, ceramic angels, and many other "collectible" items that feature his artwork. In addition, the Kinkade brand is applied to more costly home products, such as dinnerware, towels, and linens, as well as La-Z-Boy and Kincaid home furniture.5 Through such licensing agreements, the Thomas Kinkade Company fulfills its mission "to create the idyllic world of Thomas Kinkade and invite people to experience it for themselves through … products and services" based on a brand the company describes as "a place which focuses on faith and family, a loving home, and the people who know and love us—a place where the light of love shines most brightly" (Thomas Kinkade Company). The fact that Kinkade is often able to paint more than one canvas per month ensures there are always new works to feed the demands of brand expansion. The Thomas Kinkade Company operates a very lucrative business enterprise which provides the general public with affirmative and accessible art, and does this so effectively that there is a Kinkade print in an estimated one of every 20 homes in the United States. As Kinkade puts it: "I created a system of marketing compatible with American art" (qtd. in Orlean).

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The tremendous success of this branding strategy has provoked yet another criticism of Kinkade—crass commercialism. However, this criticism is half-hearted at best, as the days of artists needing to starve to gain credibility are long gone (if they ever really existed). Critically acclaimed artist Damien Hirst, the British-born enfant terrible of contemporary art, has created some of the most expensive artwork of any living artist, and is unrepentant about his monetary success, saying "Cash is a good thing. It makes people take you seriously, but it's not the primary motivation for doing [art]" (qtd. in Lagorce). And neither Kinkade nor Hirst are the first artists to brand their art. Andy Warhol is perhaps the most frequently cited artist who branded his own work and used this work to explore the ways in which everything—from soup to celebrities—is packaged for consumption. Like no other artist before him, Warhol showed how art, mass-media, and capitalism are consubstantial. Rugoff explains the similarities between Warhol and Kinkade thusly:

… the artistic practices of Warhol and Kinkade demonstrate remarkably similar attitudes toward commercial art and marketing. In very different ways, each artist has rejected that central Modernist myth that proclaims business and art to be unrelated pursuits, and the uncompromising creativity of art utterly incompatible with the profit-driven practicality of business. (13)

Rugoff goes on to claim that Warhol's work was an endorsement of a new evolution of art: "business art, or the art of business" (14). In some sense, Kinkade's financial success is simply the logical extension of the relationship between business and art that Warhol embraced. However, while Warhol is now widely acknowledged for his contributions to the advancement of art, Kinkade enjoys no such praise. In fact, criticisms of Kinkade often deny the connection between business and art and therefore dismiss financial success or numerical market share as valid criteria for assessing art. As Kinkade himself observes:

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The number one quote critics give me is 'Thom, your work is irrelevant.' Now that's a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here's the point: My art is relevant to ten million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. (qtd. in Orlean)

Even supporters of Kinkade are uncomfortable embracing (at least publicly) business and market-based assessments of art. Ron Ford, CEO of the Media Arts Group4, the parent company that markets and distributes Kinkade's work, answered such criticisms in 2002 with nothing less than Kinkadian idealism. Ford claimed that neither the Media Arts Group nor Kinkade were concerned with the financial success of the Kinkade brand, but rather, they dealt in "hope and inspiration" (qtd. in della Cava). Positioning Kinkade's brand as somehow above or outside of market forces only serves to reinforce the romantic ideals of the brand, unrealistic as they may be.

However, if one is to take "business art, or the art of business" seriously, one must be ready to apply both financial and aesthetic criteria to branding ventures. Beginning in 2000, those whom Ford calls the "cult of Kinkade"—those interested in immersing themselves in all things Kinkade—had the opportunity to live in Kinkade-inspired homes in a community in rural California called "The Village at Hiddenbrooke: A Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light™ Community" (qtd. in della Cava). Potential residents of this community could choose among four floor plans (named after Kinkade's four daughters) —the Merritt, the Chandler, the Winsor, and the Everett—and live on streets with bucolic names, such as "Blue Sky," "Stepping Stone," "Solitude," or "Shade Tree" (Hiddenbrooke). According to brochures, The Village at Hiddenbrooke offers a "vision of simpler times," in a "neighborhood of extraordinary design and detail" (qtd. in Brown). Families who move into these homes are literally living within the walls of the Kinkade brand.

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As Janelle Brown reports, however, Kinkade's real estate development projects (there are others in Missouri and Idaho) are far from the ideal offered by the name "Kinkade," and in fact, the homes bear little physical resemblance to any of the structures in Kinkade's prints. During her visit to The Village at Hiddenbrooke, Brown was surprised to find none of the majestic trees and flowering gardens in Kinkade's cottage prints. More curiously, the development had no church. Based on Kinkade's outspoken Christianity, Brown had assumed that a church would be the center of the community.6 Instead of the overly sweet sentimentalism she had anticipated, Brown found satellite dishes and concrete patios protruding from homes squeezed tightly next to one another. Although distinctive architecture is featured in many of Kinkade's prints, the exteriors of the homes in The Village at Hiddenbrooke looked similar to any other planned community.7 It is telling, perhaps, that the residents of The Village at Hiddenbrooke eventually abandoned all use of Kinkade's name in any of their community documents.

The experience of living inside the Kinkade brand was perhaps better captured in 2004 when Jeffrey Vallance, an artist who uses his work to explore the reification of brands, curated a two-venue exhibition of Kinkade's paintings and products titled "Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth." After visiting the exhibit, which was installed at the Grand Central Art Forum and California State University's Main Art Gallery at Fullerton, art critic Robert Pincus described the "overall effect [as] akin to a self-enclosed universe with its own iconography." Through the exhibition of Kinkade's works and products, Vallance managed to examine the theological, and perhaps ethereal, nature of branding. This was the first major exhibit, and perhaps the first serious consideration, of Kinkade's work. Within the rooms of the exhibition, Vallance created an entirely Kinkadian world. A highlight of the exhibit was a collection of Kinkade's most obviously religious imagery contained within a chapel designed to resemble the chapels depicted in so many of Kinkade's paintings. Other areas in the installation contained the "full scope of Kinkade collectibles," displayed in a mock living room, dining room, bedroom, woodland diorama, and a Christmas-themed room, among others.

Although Vallance's exhibition may have succeeded in allowing visitors to inhabit the Kinkade brand, the failure of Kinkade-inspired communities to reproduce the Kinkade brand faithfully, is, according to Jonathan E. Schroeder, "a warning—or counter-case" to artists hoping to "fulfill a need for aesthetic expression within a market mentality" (88, 90). Thomas Kinkade, he writes, "provides a powerful case study of aesthetics gone awry, a warning about applying excessive art, or at least a romantic, historically uncontextualized vision of aesthetics" to brand management. Schroeder continues:

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[Kinkade] might have strategically aligned his core values throughout this portfolio-enhancing venture, realizing his vision of the good life outside his faux-gilded frames. He didn't. The Village at Hiddenbrooke might have been the culmination of Kinkade's lifework, a chance for an artist to manifest his aesthetic vision, joining art and commerce, bridging the divide between aesthetics and real estate management, and realizing the integration of material and immaterial goals. It isn't …

Here is an artist—with vision, aesthetic goals, and the power to "action this," yet this vision was almost completely obscured when translated to broader economic practices. (94, 95)

Even though it reproaches Kinkade for failing to do so, Schroeder's analysis above presumes that brand management, even when reproducing core values some might label conservative or retrogressive, can go beyond crass commercialism. According to Schroeder, Kinkade's "foray into real estate" is a cautionary tale about the difficulty in (not the impossibility of) maintaining aesthetic concerns in the face of economic forces, the difficulty of delivering brands through commodities. However, Schroeder also assumes that such a failure is unintentional. In fact, brands never intend to deliver what they promise.

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In the printed collection of photographs and articles that accompanied the "Heaven on Earth" installation, Vallance writes that the exhibit takes the collective works, products, and branding of Kinkade to their "logical conclusion" by allowing visitors to immerse themselves in all things Kinkade (10). However, while the logical response to desire in a capitalist system is to buy one's way into brand nirvana, achieving such immersion is intentionally unfulfilling. The desire created through identification with a brand is one that depends, in the Lacanian sense, on a demand that can never be ful-filled. As Rugoff concludes, Kinkade's collective products are a particularly demonstrative example of branding as a packaged form of truth "guaranteed only by its inaccessibility" (16). Whereas part of this inaccessibility is psychological, another is economic. As Fran Leach, marketing director for the Kinkade Community's development firm, Taylor Woodrow, admits "we couldn't build a Thomas Kinkade home because it'd be priced prohibitively" (qtd. in Brown).

Much like Kinkade's paintings, the homes in these communities had only been "highlighted" with a few elements of the artist's staple imagery, such as white picket fences and thatched-style roofs. Not only do the homes fail to deliver the Kinkade brand, but at an average of $400,000, they are well out of reach of many of the middle-class Americans that comprise his audience. However, such deficiencies are a purposeful design of brands as representations of unattainable states of being, what Jacques Lacan calls "a void that has acquired a form" (18). As Rugoff notes, consumers "may possess branded objects, but never consume the brand itself" (16). This is where Schroeder's criticism of Kinkade's brand commodification falls flat. Perfect equivalence between brand and commodity is not only impossible, it is undesirable. The gap between these two allows companies to provide opportunities for consumers to signify their continued commitment to the brand through the purchase of the commodity. This is where Kinkade's company has established business practices that are best understood through their exploitation and modification in Walter Benjamin's notion of the role of "aura" in art.

Reigniting Aura in Mass-Produced Art

Hebdige writes that the impulse that signals the desire to break from dominant culture, thereby forming a subculture, "ends in the construction of a style, in a gesture of defiance or contempt, in a smile or sneer. It signals a Refusal"(3). However, this refusal is not absolute. Although subcultures often seek to replace the core values of a hegemonic discourse with their opposites (disorder for order, defiance for conformity, indulgence for restraint, etc.), scholars have found that it is also true that "many of the values of the deviant group merely reiterated in a distorted or heightened form the 'focal concerns'" of the original discourse (76). Kinkade's populist appeal—his attempts to democratize the appreciation of art by making it accessible to those excluded by elite art culture—is not, as he has claimed, equally available to "everyone." By its very oppositionality, it must exclude those within the parent discourse. It is, perhaps, simply a different type of elitism, a moral one rather than an intellectual one.

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Although a subculture does attempt to displace privileged values and practices, it would be naïve to believe that it breaks totally or cleanly from its parent discourse. In fact, most subcultures reproduce, to some degree, the values and practices of the discourse which they supposedly reject. In Kinkade's case, the various incarnations of his galleries, editions, and painting techniques represent an alternative approach to marketing and consuming art, but not one that denies the influence of the entire artistic tradition. One can see this in his attempt to associate himself to the cachet of the Impressionist painters, and even in his choice of oil on canvas as his medium. Kinkade rails against the specialized knowledge needed to identify the hidden meanings within abstract art, but in his own paintings he hides references to his wife and family (he uses Ns to refer to his wife, Nanette, for instance), placing meaning in his works only accessible to those "in the know." However, perhaps the best example of Kinkade's attempts to adopt the veneer of elite art culture is in his attempts to reproduce the "aura" once assigned to master artists and their works.

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin examines the changing nature of art "in its traditional form" as a result of changes in the technologies of reproduction (50). Specifically, Benjamin asserts that the use of technologies of mass reproduction to create numerous copies of an artwork causes art to lose its "aura," which he defines as the authority, authenticity, and uniqueness of a work of art. Benjamin celebrates this destruction of the aura by means of mass reproduction because of its capacity to democratize art by making it physically accessible to a wider audience. Although brand identity (originating in the artist rather than in the piece of art) now serves the function once performed by aura, Kinkade employs a method of mechanical reproduction that attempts to return aura to the work itself.

Kinkade believes that he was divinely inspired to reproduce his art, asserting "it was almost as if God became my art agent. He basically gave me ideas. And one of the foundational ideas was a way to create multiple forms of art that looked like the original, but weren't just a poster" (qtd. in della Cava). The reproduction process for any of Kinkade's editions begins in roughly the same way. In a 400,000 square foot building in Central Valley, California, an original painting is first digitally photographed and printed on special paper. This paper is then soaked in water to separate the paper from the image. After the image is peeled off, it is applied to a real canvas, giving the print a texture similar to that of the original painting (Orlean). Without any further processing or intervention, these particular prints, which are more authentic and authoritative than posters, but less so than original canvas paintings, are boxed and sent to distribution centers across the United States to be sold as "Standard Numbered" editions.

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To create higher priced editions, Kinkade's paintings are reproduced first by mechanical reproduction and then by a sort of manual reproduction. For each of the nine editions valued higher than the Standard Numbered edition, an apprentice highlighter applies actual oil paint over the reproduced printed highlights "in a paint-by-number style," adding "a dot of red to a tree here, a dash of white to an interior light there" (della Cava). In this way, each canvas is unique. In hand highlighting, there is a measure of authenticity and authority created, even though the aura is generated by a proxy of the original artist. What results are grades or degrees of aura; the greater the aura attributed to that edition, the higher the price. In a sense, this is Kinkade's attempt to segment his market by financial means—to satisfy the desire for brand engagement through increasingly more expensive consumer options.

Besides canvas prints and hand highlighted prints, there are still higher levels of editions that are created with a "textured brushstroke process that recreates the artists [sic] actual brushwork" ("Kinkade Edition Definitions"). The top three editions are highlighted by one of nineteen "master highlighters" that have been trained by Kinkade himself. During "Master Highlighting Events" at Kinkade Galleries, these master highlight artists are brought in to apply touches of paint to Kinkade's prints right in front of consumers, and in some cases, taking the consumer's requests for an extra highlight here or there (Orlean). These master highlight artists converse with owners of the prints while they apply touches of paint here and there—the artists giving the owners information about the art that is not widely available, and the owners telling stories about how they came to know Thomas Kinkade's work and what his art means to them. At the Master Highlighting Events, highlight artists are constrained by a fifteen minute timer set to ensure that they do not "over-retouch" the prints. In these cases, as the rarity and uniqueness of the prints increases, not only are they made more authentic by the technological means of reproduction but also through the mediation of an acolyte within Kinkade's "inner circle." In other words, Kinkade has reinstated the middleman. The rarest and most costly editions, the Studio Proof and Masters Edition, are highlighted by Thomas Kinkade's own hand, "over the foundation of apprentice highlighting." In addition, there is generally only one Masters Edition, often called a "semi-original"—created in each size for a single art work, each of which receives Kinkade's own thumbprint, indicating his oversight, final highlighting, and ultimate approval of the reproduction ("Kinkade Edition Definitions").

All of the editions, from the Standard Numbered to the Masters Edition are authenticated through the incorporation of Thomas Kinkade's own DNA. Each of the prints is "digitally signed"—not signed by Kinkade's own hand—with a pen that uses ink mixed with Kinkade's DNA collected from his blood and hair ("Demystifying"; "Kinkade Edition Definitions"; Orlean). The religious devotion of many of Kinkade's fans is not inconsequential to the particular forms of the practices described previously to generate aura (and therefore the prevalence of Kinkade's own Christianity is not inconsequential to the aura associated with his works). These practices are acutely religious in nature. In buying Kinkade prints, consumers are accumulating the body and blood of Kinkade, which is reminiscent of the weekly Sunday ritual of communion among some Christians where church members consume the "body" and "blood" of Jesus Christ. In a sense, Kinkade prints serve as holy reliquaries, containers of physical remains that are distributed among faithful Kinkade followers (the "cult of Kinkade") in the same way that finger bones of saints or wooden splinters from Christ's cross are venerated and circulated among Christians.

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Benjamin believed the authority and authenticity inherent in the aura of an original art work are negated by mechanical reproduction. However, in contemporary culture, where technology has become an indispensable and largely invisible element of daily life, Kinkade has found that one can remediate aura without giving up the efficiencies of scale offered by technology. Beyond the mechanical technology that enables the placement of his reproductions on a traditional canvas medium, Kinkade also employs human apprentices to make the print editions still more like the originals, further reinforcing their aura. Although Kinkade's reproductions are churned out in what might be called a production mill, such mediation has not limited his ability to flaunt the hand-crafted quality of (some of) his works. In fact, it is just slight differences between the mostly mechanical reproduction processes of the Standard Numbered Editions and the Master Editions that lead to vast differences in price. This is the genius of Kinkade's business practices—that he is able to attach large differences in value to the small differences in production among the various editions of his works. Such practices transform Benjamin's notion of aura as an all-or-nothing attribute to a notion of aura as a constructed and mediated commodity sold piecemeal to consumers willing to pay for the "limited access" versions of art works from an artist who, ironically, stresses his works' accessibility.

Kinkade's Contribution to Art Appreciation

Although it is easy to dismiss Kinkade's sentimental brand of artwork as merely kitschy, trivial, profit-driven junk that attracts a mass audience characterized by poor education, fundamentalist beliefs, and underdeveloped aesthetic sensibilities, such consumer preferences are important because they signify the ongoing struggle for political, social, and economic dominance among cultural groups. As Hebdige writes, "style is the area in which opposing definitions [of culture] clash with most dramatic force" (3). Admittedly, the "refusal" signaled by the consumption of Kinkade products is more Bartleby the scrivener than it is Johnny Rotten.8 However, it is still a refusal to buy into the dominant "standard of aesthetic excellence," and a way of saying, "I would prefer not to," to a host of cultural developments associated with post-modern society (Hebdige 6). Such culturally conservative refusals admittedly do not match the rebellious image associated with punk's antiestablishment aesthetic, but attempts to dismiss such preferences as personal weakness or collective ignorance overlook the cultural function of stylistic choices and the sophisticated network of practices that make such choices available and desirable. These choices, regardless of their ideological affiliation, allow groups to form by stylistically distancing themselves from cultural formations they perceive as dominant. The definition of "mainstream" culture is therefore always in flux, subject to the socially constructing claims of groups donning the mantle of subversion.9

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The ascendancy of Kinkade as (sub)cultural icon represents one incarnation of art appreciation as a site of class struggle. Kinkade's mix of vocal Christianity, mass popularity, and aura-generating marketing reveals contradictions inherent to the project of making art more "accessible." Even as Kinkade reaches out to "everyone," the imperatives of brand management require him to mediate access to his art both through the mechanical means of production and through the human laborers employed as intermediaries between Kinkade and his admirers. Even as Kinkade's success suggests that privilege and expertise are not necessary to experience art, thereby slowly eroding the power held by current members of elite art institutions, it also reconfigures these relations, creating a new elite defined by its devotion to all things Kinkade. The consumer who buys Kinkade's art will never find complete fulfillment in the brand's unreachable ideals through these purchases, even if the consumer sits in a Kinkade-branded La-Z-Boy chair atop a Kinkade rug reading a Kinkade novel by the light of a Kinkade lamp.10 However, brands function despite such discontent and because of such discontent.

To dismiss Kinkade as insignificant or irrelevant to contemporary culture is to miss the point. Kinkade is consequential, not because he has sold millions of products and built a lucrative media empire, but because the cultural functions his products serve go far beyond the pleasure they bring to those who purchase them. The strong reactions to his art—the rapture and the revulsion it inspires—situate Kinkade squarely within a struggle over the future of American culture. However, neither Kinkade's critics (in their incredulous condemnation of his popularity) nor his supporters (in their romanticized defense of his success) provide a complete picture of the meaning of Kinkade's success, as neither can provide an account of how the evaluation of art emerges from the larger cultural context. For those of us interested in such issues—whether you like him or not—Kinkade matters.