Bad Art Definitely Bad, Science Confirms

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.

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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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