John Everett Millais’s “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” (1892) and Thomas Kinkade’s “A Peaceful Retreat” (2002) were among the paintings shown to study participants (images via Wikimedia and Wikipaintings, respectively)

A study in the latest edition of the British Journal of Aesthetics portends to determine whether aesthetics are assessed through exposure, as held in a widely cited prior work of research, or if there’s a discernibly innate common component to human judgments of visual value. The paper, authored by Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran, frames the project against the conclusions of James Cutting’s 2003 “Gustave Caillebotte, French Impressionism, and Mere Exposure” study, which found that aesthetic judgments are essentially cultivated via “contingencies and chance encounters” — meaning taste is merely the sum total of rote exposure over time.

In other words, the Cuttings study’s incendiary conclusion was that what we hold to be good in art is not the product of tangible qualities but rather received through the frequent appearance of “canonical” works in the public sphere. This theory of mimetic taste is flatly contradicted by the results of the new study. By showing the landscapes of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (“good”) with the work of Thomas Kinkade (“bad”) to several groups of participants, Meskin et al. find that the opposite effect held true: as exposure to Kinkade increased, the more the observers realized how terrible it was. On the other hand, Millais’s scores increased with added exposure to the work.

Screen Shot 2013-08-07 at 5.28.13 PM

This graph, from page 12 of the new study, shows the decline in appreciation for Thomas Kinkade over increased exposure to his work, and the opposite effect in the case of John Everett Millais.

Though one might wonder about the sample itself — more participants had heard of Millais than Kinkade, per the paper’s Appendix B — the results seem rigorous enough, and are a decent rejoinder to Cuttings’s conclusions. That said, while the current paper might have debunked the irresponsibly broad conclusions of an ill-conceived prior work of academic research — we can now rest assured that really bad art is actually really bad — the core question, that of the intrinsic and extrinsic components of aesthetic judgment, remains unanswered.

h/t The Economist

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

45 replies on “Bad Art Definitely Bad, Science Confirms”

  1. Ha ha ha try comparing Tintoretto (good) with Hirst (bad) or Murakami (good) with Hokusai (bad). It is not true that stated in this research, apprehension of beauty comes from different sources and social exposure to it not the last factor. Try comparing great work by unknown artists with same of known artists, see what happen. True beauty is in color and proportions and not in fame or reputation. Unfortunately minimal number of people seeing just beauty, most seeing just fame and importance of social image of the maker.

    1. # 1…I agree with you. I work in a gallery and recently had an incident where a woman really liked a work of art until she found out it was only 275.00. She lost interest and swooned over a piece that is 1800.00. Two different artist, completely different styles, both very nice in their own right, but vastly different price tags. Price tags (fame) matters unfortunately. In the art world one must also consider the consumer. I find it bizarre that Millais was known more over Kinkade. So perhaps, like you said, exposure is vastly determined by culture. The woman, in my instance, is a Dr.’s wife and she had friends with her. Status=expensive art. I believe she really does love the 275.00 piece, but not the name and price tag that go with it. ~sigh~

        1. Kincaid is not “bad.” he will survive the contemporary dismissal. Buy Kincaid ( ORIGINALs) if you can, they will survive time. The rest of the stuff sold to the schlubs, don’ bother.

          1. There is so much more unrecognized artists better than Kinkade and less famous than Banksy that buying Kinkade does not makes any sense. He is marketing genius don’t buy marketing, buy art. And his art is not bad art, i must agree, it just non-intellectual art. Do you like art to stimulate your senses and mind or just sugary fairy tale to make you sleep.

    2. I don’t care for Tintoretto, though I can’t claim knowledge about the difference btwn about Hiroshige ( whose 36 views of Fuji-san I appreciate vs. Murakami, who I have only seen in reproduction and as very early cultural separaitism) as a knife. Japanese culture, despite its constant urgings to the contrary, is derived DIRECTLY from Chinese traditional art. Prove me wrong.

  2. I find great beauty in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings; as the fire goes from just licking the edges to consuming the canvas in ernest, the colors are just amazing!

  3. But but but I LOVE Thomas Kinkade. And now you tell me he’s BAD??? (Actually, I spent a lot of time with Jeffrey Vallance’s *Heaven on Earth* and am now convinced that Kinkade was a genius. If you can show me any piece of c21 art better than this I’ll eat my hat.)

    1. The problem with Mr. Kinkaid’s art is not his technique, he wields a brush quite well. It is in the formulaic and predictable subject and execution. It is the difference between a Dickens novel and a harlequin romance. They both use words, but the overall goal is different.

      1. I know what you’re saying, Jeffrey, but if Kinkade is so formulaic and predictable, how come no one else’s art looks like that, or at least as **extreme** as that?

        1. I think many contemporary artists are jealous of Mr. Kinkaid’s success and their criticisms are often of the “sour grapes” variety. But I do think Mr. Kinkade’s popular works are predictable, formulaic, and heavily sentimentalized and he does play a cheap sop to a Christian audience starved for anything remotely complimentary to their religious view. If you want something from art history that looks similar, look at Albert Bierstadt, though Bierstadt was the real deal and Kinkade pales by comparison even there. And Bierstadt was criticized in HIS day for being “too theatrical.”

          1. @John: Kinkaide worked for Disney, you will see a lot of similarities in his style and the whole “fairy tale” style of the Disney brand, namely the almost-cartoon proportions and highly saturated color palette. They could be backgrounds for classic cartoons (which in fact was his job), and represent an unattainable, idealistic, unironic reality (cartoon Paradise, essentially), which is only part of the story why so many people hate them.

            When it comes to landscape art complimentary to my religious view, I prefer artists such as John Martin. But as used to be said, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”

          2. Hi, Dain. The lack of irony and the Disney effects is one reason (perhaps the main) why I think as highly of Kinkade as I do. What could be more horrifyingly American than to be “unattainable, idealistic, unironic”? I think his work competes well with some of the most intensely Soviet or Chinese Communist art, or, say, Fascist architecture. I think Kinkade was our unacknowledged court painter. (Think of Van Dyck here, not Goya). Bierstadt has been mentioned. What keeps me from judging him *against* Kinkade is that they represent different eras of Empire, each with its own secrets, values etc. Those who ignore or mock Kinkade (or Disney cartoonists, for that matter) do so at their own peril, and impoverish their view of art and what it can do. I’m much more interested in understanding art than in judging it (which doesn’t mean I don’t *also* judge, have my favorites, etc)

          3. Excellent point. The court painters are admired in posterity for their aesthetics, even though they essentially glamorized and covered up the bloody reality of monarchical reigns. Perhaps this contributed (among so many other things) to Goya’s decline.

            It is interesting that there is an admiration for Social Realism, considering what it stood for. Art historians seem able to divorce the aesthetics from its purpose in that case.

    2. It’s not that Kinkade’s paintings are “BAD”, but that they are overblown with a sentimentality that can be considered trite, or banal. They are not my cup of tea, but for people who like that sort of thing, Kinkade’s paintings are exactly the sort of thing they would like.

      1. Hi, Shawn, your analysis of Kinkade’s paintings as “overblown with a sentimentality that can be considered trite, or banal” is exactly what I allude to above when I call him our unacknowledged court painter. Seriously, can you think of a better description of what used to be called the first world at the end of the last and the beginning of this century than as something “overblown with a sentimentality that can be considered trite, or banal” and that doesn’t even know it? His art is sick with the true sickness of late capitalist modernity. Which is my reason for hesitating to dismiss it. And my reason for thinking that there are more important things about art than whether it is liked or disliked. Tho of course it’s important to know if art is liked or disliked, and by whom.

        1. When I see kinkade’s paintings I actually think (without the vile connotations) of the approved art of the German National Socialist Party. The etherealy romantic, surreal depiction of the land; love of homeland, union with the soil, and the simple life. It’s not my taste, but for the people who like his work I say, ‘good for them.’

    3. He’s not bad. Really. He’s quite good. Just that he’s limited. I give Kincaid credit for putting pretty good paintings on the walls of most everyone a’ la, Durer, in the 16th century. Better that the works “live” in the home than not.

  4. I consider art “bad” when it does not make enough profit for artist. Kinkade might have been terrible painter but his art is not “bad”. It’s “good” – see he was rich. He lived like a man, not like a dog. Don’t disappoint really “bad” painters whose art is a hard sell. It’s not always really “bad”. Sometime it’s just bad publicity and wrong connections.

    1. Nicholas, sorry, I must disagree. By your definition, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are “great” artists. Sometimes it is JUST good publicity and the “right” connections. I agree, however, that most people want to buy something good and money can be a marker of value, especially if it is widespread. Mr. Kinkade was a great marketer, and not a half bad painter either.

      1. I agree to undergo same study with my work versus MIllais, KInkade, Koons and Hirst. I’m not a great marketer unlike all of them, but i admire great marketers. It’s a great talent too.

  5. Truly bad science. Utterly meaningless idea of a ‘control’, Arbitrary paintings. Art lovers who know Millais rather than Kinkade fans. This is pure pseudoscience, full of bias.

      1. It’s a shame it’s being used (see some comments) as ‘proof’ of how bad Kinkade is, vindicating snobbery and all kinds of prejudices. I don’t like Kinkade much either, but that really is only my opinion. I cannot prove scientifically it is bad any more than I can prove that a Pollock splatter is good.

        If there had been a thousand comparisons made here, with lots of checks on background knowledge and experience of the subjects, and lots of double-blind comparisons (e.g. with lesser known masterpieces and Kinkade versus Kinkade etc ) – it might have been interesting, but this is so narrow it makes voodoo seem more scientific.

        This kind of research is on par with physiognomy ‘proving’ how ‘bad’ people look a certain way. It’s bad enough that science is under attack from all angles without some scientists undermining it themselves.

  6. I don’t see how that is a contradiction of the first conclusion. They state that aesthetics develop over time through exposure. This study simply reinforces that by demonstrating that the more you see bad art the more horrible it looks and vice versa. Or am I missing something?

    1. The only thing this study confirms is that Kinkade was judged to be ‘bad’ beforehand and that Millais was judged to be ‘good’ beforehand. That is, evidence was then checked to see if it matched existing prejudices and bias. It isn’t even vaguely scientific.

  7. The fact that people are going on about how bad Kinkade ‘obviously’ is, just shows how stupid this study was in using a priori prejudice as part of a controi. Kinkade is disliked by the art crowd because he is un-ironic and non-intellectualising in dealing with his work. If he had presented his work as a post-modern commentary on how kitsch the american dream had become through an increasingly commercialised art world, the art crowd would have been more nervous about slagging him off. It’s not just about imagery. It’s also about contextualising aims. He has actually more in common with Warhol than traditional landscape painting. I don’t believe this study used impartial people.

    1. He was also a background cel painter for Disney during the 80’s if I recall correctly. Considering the oversaturated scenes and not-quite real proportions and perspective, it adds up. If he had afterward made backgrounds for Paul McCarthy’s more recent performances the recontextualizing would have been considered genius.

  8. I can’t help but think that Wayne White painting over a Kinkaide would somehow create an Aesthetic Singularity.

  9. You know what, this study reminds me resurrection of Nazi era propaganda of what Hitler called “degenerate” art, now they call it “bad” art. Today it’s Kinkade, tomorrow it’s any unrecognized artist will be called “bad” just to justify unfair people ruling art market. I’m definetely not a fan of Kinkade, but i’m enemy of pseudoscience serving some limited corporate interests

  10. Exactly, as you said: “more participants had heard of Millais than Kinkade” that is the core nuance that by itself makes this whole study irrepresentable a priori. Not only our taste is mimetic, but even more – entire social behavior is mimetic for about 99% of living humans. Consciously or subconsciously but we all learn to imitate others since the moment we are born – it is a core survival and learning mechanism of evolution. The study could’ve only had value if those two samples were judged by people who had never heard previously of either artist and who did not have any established taste in art…

    1. Ach! this is EXACTLY where the dialogue must occur. What does MIllais have that Kincaid does not have? The “science’ discounts this. IS THERE A REAL DIFFERENCE?

    2. Spot on Valeri – I agree. The dissemination of ideas and attitudes (such as taste) is a social function we cannot escape from. That’s why art represents an ongoing debate about ourselves and our values. It’s the very reason art is interesting. This is why this sort of study is really atrocious and lazy science.

      If this scientist has ever read a basic book on semiotics, anthropology or even art, he would know better. Then again, his absurd acceptance of existing bias in art and lack of proper controlled conditions in this study makes me wonder if he even knows what science is.

      I know there is a long history of trying to nail down the ‘laws of aesthetics’ (focal points, golden section, law of thirds, colour theory, etc) but there are too many artworks that work by actually contradicting such laws to make them definitive in any way at all. They are just preferences, based on taste.

  11. Maybe people became more attracted to Millais and less to Kinkade as their exposure increased was because Kinkade’s formula started to become boring. Unconsciously they responded to the fact that it was becoming repetitive and predictable, whereas the Millais paintings started to look fresher by comparison, offering something new to discover each time. As pop musicians know, people do like familiar structures, but there has to be some creative twist, something distinctive, a little different from everything else they hear, to make them take notice. That’s why so many people with great voices but mediocre material go nowhere. I think there is an analogy to be made to art, even among people not inclined to seek out radical new forms and subject matter.

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