How do you know if ‘bad’ art really is bad?
By Aaron Meskin, Margaret Moore, Mark Phelan, and Matthew Kieran
Are the bad art pictures on Tumblr really bad or are they just unfamiliar? Would we come to like them more — and judge them as better — if we looked at them more? In order to answer these questions, we need to consider the mere exposure effect.
The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby repeated exposure to a stimulus enhances people’s attitudes towards it. In a 2003 study, psychologist James Cutting briefly exposed undergraduate psychology students to canonical and lesser-known Impressionist paintings (the lesser-known works were exposed four times as often), with the result that after exposure, subjects preferred the lesser-known works more often than did a group of students who had not been exposed. Cutting concluded that mere exposure explains a great deal about the formation of artistic canons. If he’s right, then repeated viewing of the ‘bad art’ on Tumblr might make you like it more.
We reported findings suggesting that increased exposure to art works does not necessarily make people like them more. Instead, the quality of an art work remains at the heart of its evaluation. We repeatedly exposed study groups to two sets of paintings (by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, and the American ‘Painter of Light’ Thomas Kinkade) before asking them to express a degree of liking for them. Although Millais is a well-respected artist, Kinkade’s work has been described as “a kitsch crime against aesthetics” and “so awful it must be seen to be believed.” We found that people liked Kinkade’s paintings less after they had been exposed to them. This was not the case with the Millais paintings. In our view, this suggests that exposure does not work independently of artistic value.
So are these works of art on Tumblr bad?
In one sense, this is a really tricky question. There might be a whole bunch of different reasons someone tags a particular piece as bad art. For example, a work might fail to conform to ordinary expectations about art. Or it might be morally challenging, disturbing, or even ethically questionable. Labelling a picture bad may not be a simple matter; many different kinds of things might be meant by displaying a work as ‘bad’ art. But in another sense, the question is pretty straightforward. Is the picture any good?
If the results of our experiment are right, then we have a way of figuring out the answer, a rough and ready test that is at least indicative of what the answer should be in any given case. If something is bad art, then it seems as though repeated exposure will make people like it less. If not, repeated exposure should make people like it more.
Here is a particular case you might like to try for yourself. We are in the process of doing some online follow-ups to our first experiment. One artist we came across and considered for providing stimuli for our follow up experiments was Armen Eloyan. Critics have said of Eloyan’s work that “paint seems to have been squeezed directly onto canvas, unmixed, and harnessed into lines, with the juvenile impulsiveness. This flagrancy of taste suggests that Eloyan equates this badness with a sort of transgressive agency.”
The trouble is that after a while these paintings grew on us. We thought some of them variously smart, funny, quirky, or just plain bizarre. But most importantly of all we started to like them. So we ditched them as stimuli for our experiment. Why? Well if they were bad, at least on our criteria, we should have started to like them less. See what you think.
Aaron Meskin, Margaret Moore, Mark Phelan, and Matthew Kieran are the authors of “Mere Exposure to Bad Art” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the British Journal of Aesthetics. Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Aesthetics at the University of Leeds. He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on aesthetics and other philosophical subjects. He co-edited Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) and The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). Margaret Moore is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tennessee. She works on issues in philosophy of music, aesthetics, and the philosophy of mind. Mark Phelan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He specializes in the philosophies of mind and language. Papers he has written or co-authored have appeared in journals such as Mind & Language, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Philosophical Studies, and Philosophical Topics. Matthew Kieran is Professor of Philosophy and the Arts at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Revealing Art, numerous articles on art and morality and is editor or co-editor of several anthologies. He has run workshops at Tate Britain and appeared on the BBC and Channel 4. He is currently a Leverhulme Research Fellow working on the philosophical psychology of creativity. The research for this paper was conducted as part of the AHRC funded 3 year research project on ‘Method in philosophical aesthetics: the challenge from the sciences’.
Founded in 1960, the British Journal of Aesthetics is highly regarded as an international forum for debate in philosophical aesthetics and the philosophy of art. The Journal is published to promote the study and discussion of philosophical questions about aesthetic experience and the arts.
Image credits: (1) “Lucy in the Field With Flowers”, Museum of Bad Art. GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons. (2) ”Sunday on the Pot with George.” Museum of Bad Art. GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons. (3) ”Eileen,” by R Angelo Le. Museum of Bad Art. GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons.