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Thomas Kinkade and the La-Z-Boy Aesthetic
Matt Mays on May 15 2001 issue 16

Thomas Kinkade, to the chagrin of the academic elite who even bother to notice, has built a multimedia empire based on a lifestyle brand of Rockwellian simplicity and small town family values. In this article Matt Mays, a CADRE graduate student, explores the Kinkade phenomena, its shaky financial underpinnings and the implications for the growing rift between middle america and everyone else.

"Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image." -- David Ogilvy [1]

Thomas Kinkade has built an empire revolving around the brand of "artist as spiritual figure". Using the media of painting, calendar, mug, fine china, furniture, gift basket, gift tin, stationary, magnet and candle, "Thom" has created a "lifestyle art" emphasizing the simple life, romance and family, and creativity. This aesthetic is then co-branded and sold to the public with an affinity for these same values. The paintings are irrelevant-- to understand Thomas Kinkade, you have to understand the Thomas Kinkade brand.

According to Media Arts Group, Inc., the parent company of the Kinkade empire, "The Company has created the first art-based lifestyle brand in America with Thomas Kinkade." This brand is defined by the several themes that propagate throughout the works. To extend beyond traditional art products and into a comprehensive lifestyle brand, these themes are packaged with the concept of "light" and the image of the male artist-genius. This positions Thomas Kinkade in the role of teacher and spiritual leader and allows a diversification into products beyond the image.

One such product created by the extension of the lifestyle brand is devotional literature. Through co-authored books such as Lightposts for Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life, Thomas Kinkade enters the realm of the reader's personal life and values. An excerpt:

"Though simple, these steps are crucial to achieving what I like to call the "lifestyle of light," a quality of living that, ideally at least, is unhindered by dark forces of negativity, overstress, and despair. As the complexities and demands of my life have increased, these principles of light-filled living have time and again held back the darkness of stress, discontent and imbalance." [2]

Coincidentally the self-help motivational book is an American favorite and frequent best seller. (Think of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series or All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulgrum) Christian values in these works provide an additional audience, and the publication of print media helps legitimize Kinkade and make him accessible to those who cannot afford even an unsigned lithograph. Media Arts Group hopes to leverage its brand image through this partnership with Warner books and synergize its printed doctrine with other media products.

The idea of the lifestyle brand is not new and has endured since the Hathaway and Marlboro Men pervaded our culture. In this specific lifestyle brand space alone, Media Arts Group's competitors consist of companies like Martha Stewart's Omnicom Media, American Greetings, and Lillian Vernon. But even more revealing is the list of Media Arts Group's strategic partners: QVC, Checks Unlimited, Hallmark, Lenox China, and of course, La-Z-Boy. Through these a set of demographic synergies begin to emerge that can help us identify the Thomas Kinkade brand consumer.

Take La-Z-Boy. Since their release of the first upholstered reclining chair in 1929, the La-Z-Boy brand has connotated, above all, comfort. Millions of homes across the nation during the 60s, 70s, and 80s filled their homes with televisions and La-Z-Boy recliners, often in orbit around each other in a binary system. The recliner came to represent comfort, home, and the family gathered around the media hearth enjoying the suburban simple life. By imprinting Kinkade-approved imagery on its Thomas Kinkade-branded line of furniture [3], Media Arts Group is leveraging this venerable brand identification and incorporating into its own. The brand dynamics are multifaceted; total comfort immersion is achieved by reading a Kinkade book in a Kinkade chair covered by Kinkade imagery. The profane becomes sacred as the common piece of furniture is emboldened with the image of fine art for an affordable price. Much like the framed lithography in a Signature Gallery, the brand seeks to elevate the mass-produced item to the status of fine art.

The Social Network of Public Markets

"Money is fluid. Like grace, it is never yours. - Baudrillard [4]

Unlike no self-labeled fine artist before him, Thomas Kinkade has taken to the public markets with zeal. The status of Media Arts Group allows a front seat view of the mass-produced lifestyle artist.

"The mission of Media Arts Group, Inc. is to create the preeminent visual content management company in the world and to change the way people look at art through the development of life-affirming, emotionally uplifting images, and message driven products, rooted in traditional family values. With our successful business model, Media Arts Group, Inc. is positioned to be the dominant force in art publishing, home decor, and gift products in the coming century." [5]

Soon to be headquartered in Morgan Hill, California, Media Arts Group Inc. did $132.1 million dollars in sales last fiscal year, down significantly in the last few quarters due to the slowdown in the economy. Media Arts Group, Inc. derives most of its revenue from a franchise business model. While the corporation owns some galleries, most of the 364 Signature Galleries are independently owned and purchase lithographs directly from Media Arts Group. Overseen by the Retail Development Team, the education of these resellers revolves around TK University in Monterey. Much like McDonald\'s University, a centralized indoctrination system provides a basic business education and ensures efficient and consistent application of the corporations distribution system.

But all is not well in the Media Arts Group world. Once a darling of Wall Street, MDA shares have slumped considerably in the last year. Kinkade himself recently offered to buy the company outright, but his offer was refused by a special committee of the board. He later withdrew his offer citing "current economic uncertainties and the difficult lending environment". In an attempt to counter accusations of market oversaturation and the fleeting nature of Thomas Kinkade's popularity, Media Arts has begun to diversify its product line and branch out into other artists that fit within the overarching lifestyle brand. The Master of Light Galleries, initially located in Corte Madera, CA, Santa Barbara, CA and Chapel Hill, NC feature all four artists, not just Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light (tm). Howard Behrens provides us a World of Sunlight (tm) and Simon Bull proves A Celebration of Life (tm). Both offer opportunities to diversify the Media Arts Group catalog in case the popularity of Kinkade fades, and the new artists offer new themes that can create new marketing opportunities.

The cult of the artist is now wired and publicly traded, allowing efficient markets to value and respond to the work. And unlike eBay, the auction never ends. Here the content of the work is irrelevant as benchmark for success -- in the world of Thomas Kinkade the only significant critical discourse is of bottom lines and increasing shareholder value.

Kinkade and Inside Culture

The aesthetic of Thomas Kinkade does not belong in a museum. It's final resting place is the suburban home. In his book "Inside Culture," [6] David Halle seeks to examine art in its residential and economic class context, specifically the subject of landscape seen almost exclusively in Thomas Kinkade's work. Halle quotes Matisse: "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter ... something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." His studies found that the love for landscape pervaded all social classes, and the overwhelming reason for owning them was to provide a sense of calm and tranquility.

The La-Z-Boy Aesthetic draws from that armchair that Matisse strived for. His emphasis on the simple life provides the viewer with a serene scene that you can escape to. The domain of the amateur collector, Kinkade's work empowers the suburban Middle American family to become a part of the art world, to accumulate the cultural capital of the left coast of a minimum price. The landscape is no longer an anonymous entity, but a signed and branded cultural artifact that can be passed on through the generations.

[1] Ogilvy, David. Ogilvy on Advertising. New York: Crown, 1983.
[2] Kinkade, Thomas with Anne Christian Buchanan. Lightposts for Living: The Art of Chossing a Joyful Life. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
[4] Baudrillard, Jean. America. New York: Verso, 1988.
[6] Halle, David. Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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last 5 articles posted by Mays

:: A BOIDS Experiment - Mar 27 2003

:: Thomas Kinkade and the La-Z-Boy Aesthetic - May 15 2001

:: Editorial Notes - Feb 14 2001

:: Defining the Lawyer/Artist - Jan 1 2000

:: Interview with Creative Disturbance - Jan 1 2000


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