University of Tennessee lecturer investigates response to 'bad' art

Aug 27, 2013

An oil painting of a piece of wood with a sad face sitting on the ground or a pink pony with Disney Princess-like hair. Would people come to like these pieces, considered "bad art" by some websites, if they became more familiar with them?

This was a question asked by an international team of scholars including a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, philosophy lecturer.

Websites like Tumblr catalogue pieces of what are deemed "bad art." However, a well-accepted phenomenon called the "mere exposure effect"—supported by the works of psychologist James Cutting, among others—suggests that repeated exposure to a stimulus enhances people's attitudes towards it. On this basis, one would predict that the more we look at sad stumps and pink ponies, the more we will come to like them. Maybe if we keep looking at those Tumblr pictures, we will come to think they are good.

UT's Margaret Moore worked with lead author Aaron Meskin and Matthew Kieran at the University of Leeds and Mark Phelan at Lawrence University to conduct a study that seems to challenge this prediction. The researchers found an increased exposure to art works does not necessarily make people like them more.

The study is published in the British Journal of Aesthetics and is titled "Mere Exposure to Bad Art."

"Cutting's research prompts important questions about how exposure influences aesthetic preference and judgment," said Moore. "Is it the case that no matter what images people are exposed to, they will grow to like the ones they see the most? This would suggest at best an extremely limited role for in determining our aesthetic tastes."

To answer this question, the researchers exposed 57 students to repeated viewings of paintings from two artists, John Everett Millais and Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade, known as the American "Painter of Light," was chosen to represent "bad" art largely on the basis of artistic judgment of the authors and critics who have described his works as "so awful it must be seen to be believed," according to the researchers. The work of Millais, recognized as one of the preeminent painters of the 19th century, was chosen to represent "good" art. His paintings roughly matched Kinkade's subject matter and palette, and are not widely known.

After viewing the art over seven weeks of class periods in different frequencies, the students were shown all 60 images in succession and asked to express their degree of liking on a 10-point scale.

They found that the more often people viewed Kinkade's work, the less they liked it. Conversely, the rating of Millais did not significantly change following repeated exposure.

According to the authors, a possible explanation for the decrease in liking of the Kinkade pieces induced by repeated exposure is the low artistic value of the works. Seeing the paintings more might enable the students to see what is bad about them. Thus, exposure does not work independently of artistic value.

"Just as the first sip of a pint of poorly made real ale might not reveal all that is wrong with it, after a few drinks one would know how unbalanced and undrinkable it really is," said Meskin. "So, initial to the Kinkades might not have enabled participants to see how garish the colors are and how hackneyed the imagery is."

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More information: To read more about their research, visit To view examples of Kinkade's work, visit To view examples of Millais' work, visit

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User comments : 3

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1 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2013
Surely the word "bad" should be "boring" and "good", "engaging". There is no bad nor good art (or for that matter nonart images) only ones that sustain interest or not.

The research suffers one major flaw--Sir John Everett Millais paintings seem to have faded slightly so it is possible that they were originally more like those of Kinkade than those seen by the subjects.
not rated yet Aug 29, 2013
Quality and adoration are two nearly unrelated aspects of art. The pitiful drawn with the feet inept quality of an artwork can be endearing in its awful earnest honesty of endeavor. Like how some people enjoy terrible movies. Such appeal has nothing to do with its actual objective skill of execution, but rather with the impression and intent of the creator, however ham-fistedly delivered it is.

Kind of like how the agony of defeat guy was famous before YouTube.
not rated yet Aug 29, 2013
Is it the case that no matter what images people are exposed to, they will grow to like the ones they see the most?

I think that one can be answered pretty definitely in the negative.

In the eastern block people were exposed a LOT to the typical socialist kitsch 'art' (from buidling high murals to statues to lapel pins and everything in between) for decades.
And I have never met anyone from over there who thought that this stuff was likeable in any way.

However one can spin stuff with good PR to make it seem like a lot of people like it (which in turn will make those who have no opinion for themselves try to seem to like it to fit in). That's pretty much what has been happening with popular music since the 80s (and also with quite a few artists).

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