Miscellany 30: Thomas Kinkade and Makoto Fujimura: Art and Grace in a Broken World
What is the work of a Christian artist? The contrast we can see in Thomas Kinkade and Makoto Fujimura shows us something important about how art can illuminate our lives – but perhaps not in the way we might expect.
Thomas Kinkade, known as “the painter of light,” died recently. An interesting WSJ piece by Greg Wolfe (the editor of Image Journal) reflects on what he tried to do. Kinkade’s paintings are nostalgic and sentimental, portraying what many would say is an ideal world; from the article:
To those who questioned the prettiness of his paintings—their too-good-to-be-true sentimentality—[Kinkade] had a theological answer: “I like to portray a world without the Fall.”
A vision of an unfallen world giving us a glimpse of God’s love and grace: it sounds good, yet I never found his paintings interesting at all. Perhaps it is a failing on my part, because clearly many people did, and do, enjoy his art, but — I think that Wolfe is on to something when he notes that there’s something lacking in Kinkade’s attempts to show grace through his art. Wolfe writes:
His brother Patrick has spoken of his “Victorian Christmas” (1992), which depicts a house they knew as children. “It was a fine house with fine people living there, with big parties,” Patrick says. “Tom and I would stand outside the gates and say, ‘That’s the kind of house I want to live in.’ We were always on the outside of the gate looking in.” That’s the genius of Kinkade’s paintings: They keep us on the outside, where we can gaze longingly at cozy, secure homes.
But if faith teaches us anything, it should be that our nostalgia is for an ideal we can only find after accepting, and passing through, the brokenness of a fallen world. Any other approach, in art or in life, is a form of denial.
Kinkade seems to have struggled with alcoholism – his own personal darkness, even while he painted scenes of idyllic peace and light. I don’t think these things are unrelated. If you are expected to always be full of joy, then there is no space for expressing pain; if you are expected always to produce work that is happy and bright, then there is no vocabulary for crying out for help or acknowledging the wounds that are not healed.
Kinkade’s paintings show light shining on the outsides of things; but true grace shines out from the insides of things.
I am reminded of George Herbert’s wonderful poem “The Elixir”, which contains these lines:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
In sharp contrast — this past week I had the pleasure of hearing Makoto Fujimura speak at Biola University. Fujimura is an internationally recognized artist, writer, and speaker who most recently has completed a stunning illumination of The Four Holy Gospels, and who has thought deeply about what he calls “visual theology”: what I might articulate as the relationship between art and truth. In his talk, he noted that in modern culture, there is a gap between art and biblical text – and that this gap is part of the overall cultural fragmentation we are experiencing in the church and larger culture.
Fujimura challenged us to find ways to connect heaven and earth – to bring the transcendent into everyday life, in the way that choral music can do so by allowing ordinary people to become participants in a work of tremendous beauty.
Perhaps what I appreciated most about hearing Fujimura speak is the way that he refused to be “stayed on surfaces.” He said that as an artist, he tries to articulate tension in such a way as to lead to hope, and that art can open a window when there is despair and loss. However, he noted, the artist has to enter the darkness first.
Entering the darkness in order to bring light where it is most needed, entering the darkness in order to speak words of hope that can be believed — that is a difficult and sometimes dangerous task, and the artist needs the support of fellow artists, believers, friends, community to do so.
In his essay on “Visual Theology,” Fujimura recounts how he created the page for Luke 18:
… accidentally, I made a mistake in the top of these pages, and dripped paint. So I endeavored to start over. But then I noticed what this passage was all about, how it ends. Jesus notices that children were trying to get to him, and the disciples trying to keep them at bay, he then invites the children: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God
One thing that children know how to do well is to play, to be messy; beauty intrudes in such simple, innocent ways. My little mess here, and hopefully a mess that reveal theology that is incarnated in paint, followed. As I followed the Spirit into the beautiful mess, a firework of explosive Gospel took place in front of me, in ways only possible with lines and splash that I knew well. I was God’s child resting in the lap of a Savior. And He is whispering in my ears that I am not just a child of God, but that I was God’s designated prince, that I will inherit all things, so I need to do my best to act like one, to display his Riches that His Heirs possess. We need to indeed reflect the glory, as the princes and princesses of God. We need to extravagantly do so with an abundance of beauty and joy.
Perhaps that is why I find Kinkade’s paintings so unsatisfying, even depressing: I would not be able to live in them. The world they show has no place for me.
I am grateful for the vision of Herbert, and Fujimura, and other Christian artists who don’t look away from the brokenness of the world, but rather look through it, through the lens of the Cross, and show me the beauty of my Savior who bears the marks of the nails in his hands, and who calls me to a new life in which all my brokenness and incompleteness will not simply be ignored, but rather will be made whole.