Essay on Thomas Kinkade

Intellectual Affairs

An old rule of etiquette -- still endorsed by Miss Manners, at last report -- says not to talk about politics or religion while in mixed company, or among strangers. Civility demands keeping the passions in check, and nothing inflames them like those two topics. By extension, one should also avoid discussing Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. His paintings of lighthouses, cozy cottages, and nostalgia-tinged city streets inspire adoration or disgust, but very little in between.

Kinkade was the single best-known artist working in the United States over the past two decades, and almost certainly the best-paid. At the peak of his career in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he was earning more than $7 million per year. Besides paintings and prints, the Kinkade brand (he used the term himself) includes towels, mugs, clocks, calendars, and La-Z-Boy recliners. His claim that one American home in 20 contains some Kinkadean product or other seems inflated, though not altogether impossible.

Even stating these seemingly inoffensive facts will offend some readers -- either for calling Kinkade an artist (which makes people in the art world unhappy) or for failing to say that he dedicated his life to the Lord, not the dollar. I am in no position to judge that claim, but clearly it will be necessary to watch my step from this point on. Expressing a personal opinion of Kinkade in this column is of little interest to me (suffice it to say I’m more of a Gerhard Richter man), but the intensity of response to his work certainly is.

In a culture supersaturated with imagery, we tune much of it out just to get by. Kinkade’s images are exceptional. They elicit not just a verbal but a somatic response: a heartwarming feeling or visceral loathing. Why? How?

There’s no accounting for taste, as another old saw runs. But for a number of contributors to Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall -- edited by Alexis L. Boylan and published last year by Duke University Press -- accounting for the late artist’s appeal is not difficult at all. The Painter of Light (he trademarked the phrase) was, in the title of Micki McElya’s essay, “Painter of the Right.” The world Kinkade portrays is, if not prelapsarian, at least pre-1960s: “unmarked by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, or the Vietnam War,” writes McElya, “suggesting instead the mythical, simpler youths and ‘Good War’ of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”

Seth Ferman makes an overlapping argument in “God is in the Retails: Thomas Kinkade and Market Piety.” The paintings and the incredible array of products reproducing them express the desire for a world untouched by corrosive modernity -- but that’s just the half of it. They also serve a kind of sacramental purpose: communion via commodity.

“Kinkade fuses elements of Christian orthodoxy and capitalist ideology into a single faith,” Ferman writes, “what I call market piety, a veritable theology that believes free-market consumerism to be numinous…. Through Kinkade the consumption of art becomes a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life (which ironically includes consumerism), making his hybrid market piety into an inconspicuous yet pervasive cultural identity for many of his collectors.”   

His bucolic landscapes, then, are so many battlefields: the sites of culture-war skirmishing between “red” and “blue” sensibilities, fought out in an especially fierce way. A painting called "Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rainy Sunday Evening," taunts the presumed cultural elite with its very title, and to reliable effect. In her essay “Purchasing Paradise: Nostalgic Longing and the Painter of Light,” Andrea Wolk Rager writes that "Hometown Memories" “does not make demands of the viewer,” as serious art presumably does. “Instead, it lures you, almost imperceptibly, into a world where memory, placid and pleasant, has been supplied for you. The warm glow, the feeling of comfortably enclosing space, and the sense of welcoming solace complete the process of soporific pacification.”

That description stops just short of using the word “pablum,” which reflects Wolk Rager’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia as a desire to return to the security and bliss of infantile fusion with the mother. The spaces depicted in Kinkade’s work “are often wet and warm, slick with spring rain and soft with diffused light. The images are dominated by curving lines and framing devices that seem to close in around a protected center. One is given the sense of being cushioned and cradled and lulled.”

A womb with a view, then. By this point, any Kinkade enthusiasts still reading will probably consider the book to be an assault, and not just on the painter but on themselves. Interpretation can be an aggressive act. But not all of the essays are interrogations, and I want to recommend one in particular as a counterstatement.

In “Thomas Kinkade’s Heaven on Earth,” the performance artist Jeffrey Vallance writes about curating “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade” in 2004, conducted simultaneously at the gallery of California State University at Fullerton and the Grand Central Arts Center at Santa Ana, nearby. If looking at Kinkade’s paintings through Freudo-Marxian goggles seems perverse to his admirers, showing them in a museum setting horrified the art world.

“Some people will never forgive me,” Vallance writes. “They fear his existence. He threatens everything they stand for, and he makes them nauseous.” There were pickets and black armbands. Someone threatened to slash the paintings. It cannot have helped that the exhibit included one artifact each from the extensive line of tie-in products, including the official Kinkade Visa card, “displayed in a vitrine resting on a velvet pillow.”

Sometimes art is provocative, and sometimes a provocation is an art.  “Many erroneously thought that I would do the show in an ironic way,” the curator writes. “For me, irony is far too simplistic and expected. To do the show seriously was the challenge. As I often say, ‘The only irony is there is no irony.’ ”

Kinkade aficionados loved the exhibit, while the art critics were overwhelmed. “Many reviewers of the show followed a similar pattern,” Vallance recalls. “Most writers pretty much admitted that they loathed Kinkade and came expecting to hate the show – like gawkers at a train wreck. But then something happened. When they came to see the actual show, the kitsch was laid on so thick that something snapped in their brains. They experienced transcendence and ended up liking the show.”

And like it or not, any painter who can compel other artists to wear black armbands in protest of his work has already called dibs on posterity.

Essay digital content alone does not result in lower textbook prices

If textbook affordability is the Holy Grail, then those of us who work in higher education are careening Monty Python-like as we search for it, stirring up unnecessary obstacles for ourselves all along the way.

Consider the dual paths we are taking. First, there’s the all-encompassing push to “go digital,” as if somehow the output format of a book, whether it is electronic or print, is the sole determinant of cost.

That is the wrong way of thinking. Input – the price of content – is much more important to the total cost of course materials than output – the format in which those materials are ultimately consumed by the student.

Then, there’s the push to “go open.” In recent years, as concern over textbook affordability has grown, this idea has received much attention, with “open educational resources” -- or “OER” materials, as they are often called -- leading the charge.

This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.

In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.

If we are cognizant of ways of merging different types of content in order to get the biggest academic bang for the buck, we must also be mindful of methods to access this content; to break it apart, to “disaggregate” it from the traditional bounds of textbooks and to present it to students in an effective manner.

Indeed, the main benefit of new technologies in education should be to provide more choice to instructors, and ultimately to students. If a professor can mix open content with chapters from relevant textbooks, timely journal articles, and up-to-the-minute news reporting, then he or she can truly provide a unique “book” to students, untethered from the rigidity of the traditional offerings from academic publishers.

Textbook affordability has been a hot topic for at least a decade, but it has grown even hotter since the 2008 market meltdown, which greatly affected Americans’ spending power at the same time that the cost of college – already rising – began to skyrocket. Various Band-Aid solutions have emerged in response to textbook costs, with rentals the “in” solution for awhile and even the longstanding “gray market” of purchasing textbooks on international versions of websites, where the cost of some books in Europe can be materially lower than those in the U.S.

More and more students, at least anecdotally, are taking the route of “book sharing,” mixing and matching content among themselves rather than paying the significant freight asked of them by the colleges and universities they attend. That behavior is, in itself, a form of disaggregation, for it is breaking the traditional one-to-one relationship between student and assigned book.

But the disaggregated model I foresee is the one that we have been building for the past year at AcademicPub. It allows the professor to comb for the very best content in his or her discipline, mix and match that content into a consistently presented and compelling narrative or set of chapters, and to deliver the completed product to students in the format that the student prefers -– print or digital, whichever method leads to the best learning result for that student.

By all means let’s aspire to make the materials we assign our students more affordable, but we mustn’t fall victim to any “magic bullet” scenarios. Actions which fail to account for the cost of content will fall short. Failure to account for the value and ubiquity of existing texts from leading scholars through traditional publishers won’t cut it either. Going digital alone won’t lower the cost of textbooks, but disaggregating content just might work.

Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook, Inc., which launched AcademicPub (TM), in April 2011.

British publishers object to open access proposals

Smart Title: 

Push for online publication of work supported by the government sets off a debate in the U.K. similar to the one in the U.S.

Essay on problems with state of journal publishing

In recent years, scholars worldwide have found themselves under increasing pressure to publish more, especially in English-language "internationally circulated" journals that are included in globally respected indexes such as the ISI Citations. As a result, journals in these networks have been inundated by submissions and many of them accept as few as 10 percent of papers, and in some cases fewer. Given that too few journals or other channels exist to accommodate all the articles written, there has been a proliferation of new publishers offering new journals in every imaginable field (see, for example, the Directory of Open Access Journals). While some inventive scholars and publishers have responded to scholarly demands and new research trends, clever people have understood that new technology has created confusion as well as opportunities and that money can be made in the knowledge communication business.

Fake and Low-Quality Journals

Not surprisingly, a large number of "bottom feeders" are now starting "journals" with the sole goal of earning a quick profit and enriching their owners. One of these new journals charges prospective authors a “transaction fee” of $500 to be published. Others have alternative ways of exploiting unsophisticated authors. These so-called journals have impressive sounding names and lists of prominent advisory editors — some who have in fact never been asked to serve. Peer reviewing is touted, but one suspects that anyone who pays the fee can get published. Clearly, authors are not served by journals without academic standing that will not be read nor cited by anyone. Many of these sham journals are in the sciences, with computer science being well-represented. The primary problem, of course, is that it is increasingly difficult for potential users to discern the respectable journals from the new fakes.

A quite useful resource is Jeffrey Beall's List of Predatory, Open-Access Publishers. Other options include what may be called pseudo-scholarly journals. A prime example is the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine (AJBJM) published by Elsevier, a major multinational publisher. According to The Scientist, from 2002–2005 Elsevier was paid by the pharmaceutical company Merck — to publish articles in that journal that were favorable to Merck’s drugs Vioxx and Fosamax. Merck’s financial involvement in the journal was not disclosed. AJBJM was not the only pseudo-journal published by Elsevier. The company also published a number of other journals in the early 2000s whose research quality could be considered suspect. According to a June 4, 2009 statement by Elsevier: "An additional eight 'Journal of' titles were published with ads from multiple advertisers and therefore did not call for additional disclosure. None of these nine titles were primary research journals and should not have been called journals."

As well as exploitative journals with a primary goal to make money rather than to advance scholarship, a profusion exists of “legitimate” journals, mediocre at best — publishing articles that really should not be published. The major multinational publishers of these journals have assembled large “stables” of them packaged and sold at high prices to libraries. Though many of these periodicals are supposedly peer-reviewed, the standard is frequently low, and much weak research is accepted for publication. Many faculty probably rationalize that being published somewhere is better than not being published at all. A 21st-century paradox is that while it is ever more difficult to get published in a top-tier journal, it is now easier than ever to get published.

The 'Publish or Perish' Syndrome

Surely, the still-vibrant "publish or perish" syndrome must bear some of the blame. Universities increasingly demand more publications for promotion, salary increases, or even job security. Further, the pressure has increased to publish in English-language journals, even for scholars in non-English medium academic environments. Far too many academic institutions — a large majority of ones that mainly focus on teaching — insist that their faculty members publish.

This, their administrators believe, will improve their institutions’ rankings. Of course, publishers step in to create new journals, which publish these frequently mediocre research articles. Moreover, instead of publishing all their research results in one article, too many authors stretch them out to multiple articles or write repetitively just to increase their publications. Thus, pressure is created on scholars in many fields, who must consult an exponentially increasing number of articles — many of which are worthless. Administrators are happy that their faculty publish; the publishers are delighted to sell more subscriptions; and the game goes on.

Exploding Costs

An excessive number of journals are exorbitantly priced. Ulrichsweb Global Serials Directory lists over 141,000 academic and scholarly journals, of which 64,000 are peer-reviewed. Clearly, libraries cannot afford to keep up with such numbers; for a long time, libraries have been canceling journals, due to the ever-escalating cost of serials. For years, the cost of journals has been increasing at a far higher rate than the Consumer Price Index, at a time when library budgets have generally been decreasing. The highest journal costs are invariably in the sciences (the average price of chemistry journals in 2011 was $4,044, that of physics ones was $3,499). (See Library Journal’s 2011 Periodicals Price Survey.)

The cost of some journals is indeed astronomical; for example, $24,048 annually for Brain Research, $20,269 for Tetrahedron and $17,258 for Chemical Physics Letters — all three journals published by Elsevier. John Wiley is another publisher whose journals are frequently extremely expensive. An institutional subscription to Wiley’s Journal of Comparative Neurology will be $30,860, in 2012. Though journals in non-hard-science disciplines tend to be substantially cheaper, they are also often subject to high cost increases. Library Journal’s 2011 Periodicals Price Survey reveals that journals in language and literature had a 29 percent cost increase from 2009 to 2011. Philosophy and religion were next with a 22 percent increase, followed by agriculture, anthropology, and arts and architecture being tied for third at 17 percent.

Another problem for libraries is the bundling in subscription packages of hundreds of journals that often range widely in quality. With the bundling model, the library cannot select specific journals and refuse others. Libraries are locked into a deal that often results in the acquisition of poor-quality journals with few readers. Bundling is a practice for publishers to sell journals that few libraries would subscribe to if they were to be selected individually. An additional difficulty is the nondisclosure agreements that some publishers require libraries to sign. These agreements forbid libraries from disclosing the cost and terms of journal package subscriptions. (Cornell University Library is one institution that has rejected nondisclosure clauses.)

Potential Solutions

Is there any solution to this periodicals crisis? Several strategies spring to mind. Scholars can refuse to serve on editorial boards, submit articles, or act as peer reviewer for journals that are manifestly of poor quality and/or are excessively priced. Those applying for promotion and funding can be limited to submitting, say, five or six seminal publications — the point being that the quality of one's research should count for more than quantity.

Open-access e-journals hold strong promise. Many scholarly organizations and universities have created new open-access journals that are reliably peer-reviewed and are backed by respected scholars. There are over 7,000 free, quality-controlled scholarly journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals. Some of these publications have achieved a high level of respectability and acceptance, while, admittedly, others are struggling, and there are no doubt some that are of poor quality and little relevance. It is early in the open-access movement. If successful, this movement can be an important vehicle for eradicating economic barriers to accessing scholarship. Moreover, if universities and scholarly societies, through expanding open access, can wrest more control of both the production and diffusion of scholarship away from commercial publishers, legitimate and illegitimate, as well as quality control and prices could be placed on a surer footing.

It is undeniable that presently technology and globalization have brought anarchy to the communication of knowledge in academe and have created serious problems for the academic profession, in a time of increased competition. A meaningful solution will take much dialogue and probably significant changes to how scholarship is diffused, as well as rewarded.

Philip G. Altbach is Monan University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Brendan Rapple is collection development librarian at the O’Neill Library of Boston College.

Glenn McGee raises a storm in the bioethical world

Smart Title: 

Conflict of interest. Internet scrubbing. Nepotism. Allegations are flying around an influential journal's former editor.



Anvil Academic aims to provide platform for digital scholarship

Digital Humanities
Smart Title: 

Digital humanities advocates look to hammer out a publishing platform to help institutions apply traditional peer review mechanisms to nontraditional research.

New book on the politics of higher education

Smart Title: 

New book sheds light on higher education's complicated history with the federal government.

Library association releases 'best practices' for avoiding copyright suits

Smart Title: 

Association of Research Libraries spells out principles and best practices for making copyrighted materials as free as possible while avoiding lawsuits.

Oxford Press will publish books that are controversial in India

Smart Title: 

Facing criticism from professors worldwide, publisher will re-issue books by scholar whose essay set off controversy in India.


Subscribe to RSS - Publishing
Back to Top