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(Check out Lauren Wissot’s movie review of Art for Everybody. The film is currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit.Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

When one hears the words “the most successful artist of his time” the name Thomas Kinkade likely won’t spring to mind (at least not for those reading these words). But then, what is your definition of success? Like art itself it’s in the eye of the beholder; and for Kinkade’s (working-class white) superfans and true-believing business partners – upon which the QVC-ubiquitous painter’s multimillion-dollar empire was built in the 90s – success meant idyllic tableaus for the nostalgic masses. Which inevitably put Kinkade at odds with an elite establishment built on secret knowledge and scarcity, on the belief that art should only be interpreted and owned by the (rich white) few. In other words, one individual’s precious keepsake is another’s eye-rolling mall kitsch.

Unfortunately, Kinkade died over a decade ago at the age of 54, succumbing to late-blooming alcoholism that could likewise be viewed through a dual lens: either a victim of his own megalomania or of the relentless silence of the gatekeepers (aka critics) who refused to acknowledge that “the most successful artist of his time” even existed. A practicing evangelical since college, with a wife and four daughters he adored, Kinkade was in turn adored by folks that bought Kinkade-branded calendars and jigsaw puzzles with their Kinkade-branded Walmart gift cards. Which just isn’t the type of “serious” painter with appropriate cultural pedigree to be invited into the secular hallowed halls of LACMA or MoMA, to say the least. Though ironically, considering we’re firmly in the era of Instagram-chic Art Basel, perhaps Kinkade was simply a man ahead of his time.
So it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that even with the family having discovered a trove of never-before-seen – and shockingly existential – work by Kinkade not too long ago, Miranda Yousef’s SXSW-premiering Art for Everybody remains undistributed (though still on the fest circuit so streaming hope springs eternal). The debut director and veteran editor’s in-depth doc is a cinematic reassessment of the artist/marketer extraordinaire that juxtaposes images of Kinkade’s controversial oeuvre with clear-eyed contemporary interviews with those closest to him (including his ex and their sunny quartet); as well as with business partners, fans and haters (yup, critics again). The picture that emerges is both complicated and revelatory – and in the end may even cause us to reassess ourselves. And isn’t that what art is for?

Indeed, for a painter whose reputation was often that of a huckster joke (when the cynical tastemakers deigned to acknowledge him, of course) brought down by the predictable twins of scandal and addiction, Kinkade lived a life remarkably free of hypocrisy. While he may have been an artist-hustler with demons (Warhol anyone?), he actually firmly believed in the “snake oil” he was selling. As Kinkade wondered to the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, who profiled him back in 2001 (in a piece likewise titled “Art for Everybody”), why did art always have to challenge? Why couldn’t it “just make people happy”? Sadly, it was this optimistic obsession with creating “art for everybody” that arguably led to the “Painter of Light’s” (trademarked, naturally) dark and untimely demise.

– Lauren Wissot

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