How Thomas Kinkade Helped Prove That Art Can Be Scientifically Bad

How Thomas Kinkade Helped Prove That Art Can Be Scientifically Bad

What's your favourite meal? Logically, your answer depends on the foods you're familiar with. Now here's another question: Who's your favourite painter? Turns out the same logic doesn't apply. A new study that pits Thomas Kinkade against 19th century painter John Everett Millais has proven that some art actually is objectively good or bad — contradicting what scientists previously assumed about aesthetics.

The idea that we like what we're familiar with has its roots in economic theories about consumer choice — the thinking goes that familiarity with food, music, or products "breeds positive feelings," as the The Economist explains. The same thing has always been assumed to apply to art, too: We only "like" what we know, meaning that how we "judge" art is more about our subjective feelings than objective facts. Seems sensible, right?

A 10-year-old Cornell study, for example, proved it by exposing art students to obscure works by famous artists. At the beginning, students might have preferred the artist's well-known masterpieces. But over time, as they were exposed to less critically-acclaimed works by the same artists, they began to prefer the more obscure works — seemingly proving that whether they liked a piece depended on exposure levels, not quality.

The problem with that evidence, though, is that it tested works from a critically acclaimed artist. Would people start to like bad art if they were exposed to it more often, too? That was the hypothesis posed by a study published in the British Journal of Aesthetics this spring. Unlike the 2003 study, though, these researchers exposed one group of students to one painting from a "bad" artist, Thomas Kinkade, as well one painting from a "good" artist, British painter Sir John Everett Millais:

How Thomas Kinkade Helped Prove That Art Can Be Scientifically Bad

Millais' Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (1892).

How Thomas Kinkade Helped Prove That Art Can Be Scientifically Bad

Thomas Kinkade's A Peaceful Retreat (2002).

They expected students to like both the Kinkade and Millais paintings once they were repeatedly exposed to each, on par with the 2003 study's findings. But it turned out that while students liked Millais more and more, they liked Kinkade less over time. Common sense and subjective opinion tells us why (there's less visual interest in a Kinkade painting), but it's never been proven scientifically.

Of course, studies like this are handicapped. The authors decided what art to show, which means they made a subjective judgement of "good" versus "bad." And both artists are very famous, which also skews the data. But at the core, it proves a very specific point about how humans perceive aesthetics: We don't necessarily like what we like because we're familiar with it. We like it because of more mysterious, objective qualities. Now, time to start figuring out exactly what those are, so we can create a masterpiece to end all other masterpieces and retire to live off our earnings. [British Journal of Aesthetics via The Economist and Hyperallergic]

How Thomas Kinkade Helped Prove That Art Can Be Scientifically Bad

Comments

    we can definitely be groomed to "like" bad art for sure... just think about the music industry and corporate manufactured pop songs... and x-factor...

    Idk, I prefer paintings depending on what they depict, like I imagine myself inside the painting.
    For that reason I prefer something like the log cabin in the woods by a river compared to something like a beach.
    I also prefer paintings without people in them, purely in a creepy/superstitious stance though. (I feel like they're watching me :( )

      Have a look at "Boy lost" by Frederick McCubbin, an Australian artist. it is truly evocative!

        Does nothing for me to be honest. I'm not big on paintings of people either really, like GreyWolf I'm more about scenery of somewhere I'd like to be.

        Like Jacrench this doesn't do anything for me. I mean sure he's a good painter, but just not to my taste per se.

          I misunderstood. You talked about imagining yourself in the painting. I find that I can do it with that painting. No worries, we all have different tastes :-)

            Haha yeah it is nice and all, but having people in it just ruins it for me :p

    At the beginning, students might have preferred the artist’s well-known masterpieces. But over time, as they were exposed to less critically-acclaimed works by the same artists, they began to prefer the more obscure works
    I wonder if the study controlled for hipsters

    I was already predisposed to not liking the Kinkade painting as soon as I saw his name in the heading. I 'd never seen the Millais painting before, but I instantly preferred it to the Kinkade. There's emotion and a narrative in the Millais work that is absent in Kikkade's, and the use of light is beautiful.

    And there's a problem in the Kinkade painting, that once seen, cannot be unseen.

      Well then please keep it to yourself! I'm rather enjoying Kinkade's.

        Thomas Kinkade had so much fun with the detail and lighting in "Peaceful Retreat"!
        I'm happy you enjoy his amazing work. He layered over 30 layers of oil paint letting each
        layer dry individually! Check out why Thomas Kinkade is the most popular artist in history.
        By the way some art teachers are scientifically bad! God bless!

    Yep, there's a lot wrong with the Kinkade painting. I've never heard of either artist, but prefer the Millais one. As Solidus Octothorp said, once you see how much is wrong with Kinkade, your eyes cannot unsee it!

    I don't know how art could be objective unless it was made to completely replicate something. Hmm... now I've confused myself :C

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