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A test for identifying bad art

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 17, 2013 10:05 AM

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On the microblogging platform Tumblr, it's a thing to tag other people's creative expressions as "bad art." As the Oxford University Press (OUP) observed on its blog this week, though, the "bad art" tag raises a timeless question: Is bad art bad because it's unfamiliar, or is it bad in violation of some more objective rules of aesthetics?

The OUP went on to explain that psychologists have long studied what's called the "exposure effect," which has it that the more often people are exposed to a piece of art, for example, the more favorably they'll look upon it. Earlier this year, though, a team of philosophers who study aesthetics published research which contradicts this theory. They exposed study participants to repeated viewings of paintings from two artists, the well-respected Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, and the American painter Thomas Kinkade, whose work, the OUP blog reported, has been panned by critics as "a kitsch crime against aesthetics." The researchers found that the more often people viewed Kinkaide's work, the less they liked it, suggesting that bad art is like a bad dinner guest: It really grates on you over time.

So, which is it, can we divine the true nature of bad art by getting to know it, or do we simply like what's familiar to us? You can test these theories yourself by looking at the images below, which (not to load the experiment) come from the Museum of Bad Art in Boston, or by clicking over to "bad art" images on Tumblr.

Bad Art 1.jpeg

Bad Art 2.jpeg

Bad Art 3.jpeg

Images from the Museum of Bad Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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