"Its paint-by-numbers virtue, like the virtue of those who consume it, is being 'nice,' a pithy pseudo-virtue." (Emphasis mine)
Such broad-brushing! I’ve known quite a few great people who’ve loved “bad” art, at least as defined by the likes of you. One of my good friend’s grandmother is an eighty-something saint, and she has her own Kinkade piece in the living room. I seriously doubt that her hearing something like your “apocalyptic” warning against “dangerous” pseudo-art would have helped her a bit.
I prefer this much more sympathetic and nuanced picture of American life given by the master Garrison Keillor. Please pardon the length – it’s worth it. (Listen to the full bit here – at the 121st minute of the program, "Monologue - Graduation Parties, Banquet, Cemetery on Memorial Day.")
"They rebel against this shallow, complacent life. They want something far more exciting for themselves than to be these pitiful old people sitting in their porch, clinking the ice in their ice tea, with hardly a word to say to each other after all of these years. These poor, bourgeois people with their little worries about money and security, and their syrupy, ridiculous music, and the art on their walls, and the decor in their homes. All of this clunky, old, antique furniture, these big heavy, dark pieces, and this oriental rug, and these fake ferns, and these fake flowers, and the wax apples on the top of this ugly buffet in the living room. And all the goo-gaws, and the brick-a-brack, and this big garish, flowered couch.
The décor in these homes has driven people to Pottery Barn by the thousands to buy monochromatic furniture and to buy grey rugs and buy halogen lamps on pencil-thin long arms…
…the rebellion against the art on their parents’ and grandparents’ walls. That Norman Rockwell picture of the boys with the baseball gloves going off to play the game, and the G.I. coming home from the war, and the harvesters, and the praying hands, and the inspirational plaques.
And this soupy picture that is on so many walls – of the maiden, sitting on the rock under a weeping willow tree, looking out over the ocean, across a trail of moonlight towards the moon, low in the horizon. In rebellion against all of that. All of the secondhand and trivial and complacent.
But you get old. And you forgive them eventually. And on Memorial Day weekend you go up to the cemetery to be with your people. And you think of them as you put a few red gardenias, tuck ‘em in around them. You think of them and their faces and their hands and their voices. And you realize what you realized a long time ago: that their lives were not as easy as they seemed to you when you were young. They were far from complacent. They were, in fact, people who had a great longing and a great hunger that was never satisfied.
And that picture of the maiden under the weeping willow was proof of it. It never came for them, whatever was over across that sea never quite arrived; they waited all their lives for it. That back yard with the little bird bath and the feeder, the clothes poles, the lawn chair – that’s not an alley that it looks out on – that’s an ocean it looks out on, an ocean. They sat there on summer afternoons and they looked across an ocean. And they waited for something beautiful they knew they would recognize when it came, and it never quite did.”
Kellen is, of course, correct. Virtues are habits formed from a thousand contexts and a thousand moments. So, of course, one could be considered a saint and have Thomas Kinkade peppering one's home.
But while granting that, I'm also asking two things. First, what are the conditions in middle-class protestant Christianity that make possible seeing Kinkade as compelling? Second, might the things we are taught to see as beautiful have an impact on how we see the world and therefore how we worship God?
Of course this isn't a big issue, but asking may (through the prism of the first question) allow us to see the stripes which may in fact be obstacles to following Christ. The second question is a pastoral question. What vision of beauty should clergy help their congregation discover? I think both questions worth asking. The interesting thing is that my objections to Kinkade, and here Garrison Keillor frames this perfectly, could be equally applied to Pottery Barn. There's a generational difference between the two (as Keillor highlights), but there is a marked similarity in terms of artistic vision. They are paint-by-numbers and saccharine design. These consumptions are predictable middle-class moves, since the middle class always attempts to exhibit tastes uncharacteristic of themselves but characteristic of higher classes. Alas, these tastes and the products that usually satisfy them are counterfeit - simulacra which are yet very real.
“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made.”I’m not concerned with middle class life wholesale but parts of it and what they mean for the Christian life; in fact there are ways in which each class in our country exposes the others. However, I do think the fear, which stems from the middle class recognition that one is always faced with the very real economic danger of slipping into poverty, drives the middle class toward the succor of comfort and the avoidance of offence. Two things I find having little place in the Christian life. Both end up producing lives filled with nicety born of fear. The behaviors which satisfy – collecting art or being Pottery Barn chic – are ones which allow one to pass as a higher class and thereby to hopefully further distance oneself from the real possibility of economic calamity. The products themselves (and here I have Kinkade squarely in my sights) tend to be so comfortable so as to be uninteresting.
 Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 47.