It worked on me, though I hate to say it. Thomas Kinkade wasn't dead but a day before I started viewing his work differently. What I once pooh-poohed as soulless dreck soon became soulless dreck with a certain cozy charm. When a living person makes crappy art it is just crappy art; when the artist dies, that crappy art becomes elevated to kitsch, and kitsch lures me like a siren's song every time. And since you can't libel the dead, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that it looks like the guy drank himself to death, which also raises the value of his paintings for me. One thing I will not do, however, is argue whether or not his work was "art," because it most certainly was. It stirred things in the viewers' hearts — or stomachs.
I was also struck by something Kinkade said about how people want art that speaks to them, that they can enjoy and understand. Barry White said the same thing about disco; that it was music created solely for the listener, not some outpouring of the musician's psyche. There is a populism in these ideas that appeals to me. The fact that both Kinkade and disco record companies just happened to make millions of dollars appealing to large swaths of humanity made them somehow less authentic, and if there's one thing we culture whores hate, it's inauthenticity.
Congratulations, San Francisco, you live in the nation's capitol of authenticity. It's not enough to have grass-fed beef in our restaurants; it has to be locally produced grass-fed beef. It's not just coffee beans pooped out of the ass of a rare South American monkey, it's coffee beans excreted in the Mission, directly into a grinder, then steeped before your very eyes into an artisanal cup. Every experience has to be as genuine and close to true to its natural state as possible.
Which brings me to this week's bar, the Comstock Saloon in North Beach (or, Chinatown, depending on your proclivities). It sits on the corner of Kearny and Columbus, and is old-fashioned and soothing in its design, which borrows from the Prohibition era and the Old West. It is not the first bar in town to do this, but you don't need a goddamn password to get inside. In fact, Comstock has a lot in common with both Bourbon and Branch and the Rickhouse, but the pretension quotient is nowhere near as high. You could say that the Comstock is the Kinkade of chi-chi foodie watering holes. Hell, it even emits a warm glow from the windows, just like 90 percent of Kinkade's paintings of cottages.
I wandered in with a friend late one evening, and it was clear that the first and second waves of inebriates had come and gone, leaving seasoned marathoners, dudes who struck out, Dutch tourists, and friends of the staff. The bartender looked like he had parked his bicycle with the big front wheel out back, or that he had lost the rest of his barbershop quartet, but he did wear a big smile. This is something I have never seen on a bartender at those other places.
The Comstock is roomy but cozy at the same time, a trick done with lots of wood, glass, and antique-y charm. It needs a bit of scuffing up before it truly takes on a real Old West patina, but give it time.
My friend ordered a sazerac, one of those drinks that everyone has heard of but has absolutely no idea what goes in it (absinthe and whiskey or cognac). It is actually, according to some sources, the oldest cocktail in America, although the recipe is broad enough to mean that anyone who stirred some hay into their hooch in 1742 was drinking one. Still, it was an authentic choice that my pal made. Very hipster. San Francisco approves.
"Have you seen his fucking NASCAR paintings?!" he said, continuing the Kinkade conversation that had begun on BART on the way over. Oh yes, I have seen them. The artist paints from a point of view that you, the viewer, are in the picture; you are there in the crowd, cheering on the cars down below, surrounded, no doubt, by people carrying concealed weapons.
"Yes!" he shouted, having had a few too many sazeracs at this point. "And the cars are whizzing toward you, too! There's so much energy in those paintings!" I love a man who is passionate about something. I couldn't see him having the same feelings about Kinkade a week prior to this; he too had to be swayed by the artist's death.
"Bah," he exhaled. "I was into Kinkade in the '90s." I paused to see if he was making a joke; you know, like he was trying to sound like a douchebag hipster in an ironic way — which would be ironic, and thus hipster — but he just sat there.
"You mean you had been, um, following his work ... until he sold out?" I had a hard time keeping a straight face.
"He sold out from day one. You have to have some sort of authenticity in the first place to sell out," he said. Okay, he wasn't completely deluded. "No, I just couldn't believe that someone that bad could really sell paintings. I become interested in the people who bought them and wanted them in their houses." Ah, so he was interested in his work from a sociological angle. Over the course of the conversation, I found myself convinced that Kinkade was actually a brilliant postmodern painter; his work invites some serious deconstruction.
My friend began to look a bit rheumy around the eyes. "I'm cutting you off," I said, and dragged him off his stool before he propositioned the bartender to sing "Sweet Adeline" with him (it was coming; a woman knows these things).
"It's been real!" he said on his way out, waving at the Dutch tourists.
"It sure has," I said, patting him on the head.