John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Inside a team of researchers' quest to see what happens to people when they're exposed repeatedly to Kinkade's saccharine artworks.
You got to feel for Thomas Kinkade: The self-proclaimed Painter of Light™ spent his career facing accusations that he was a hack whose paintings were more suited for a Walmart bin than a museum. Critics have denigrated his charming, bucolic artworks as sugar-drenched, unpleasantly artificial, and something "normal" people should recoil from. When he died last year of an alcohol-and-Valium overdose, the Washington Post pointed out that many considered his work the "epitome of mediocre art."
Now that Kinkade is in the cold, cold ground, people are still ragging on him. The latest poke in the eye comes not from critical circles, but from an international coalition of academics who are investigating humans' reactions to Kinkade's art, and indeed have been doing so since at least 2011. This spring, the long-toiling scholars published a study in the British Journal of Aesthetics, which for some reason is getting press now, asking the question: If people view Kinkade's paintings over and over again, will they come to like them more?
Kinkade was a born-again Christian mining the pleasant vein of idyllic American life exploited decades earlier by Norman Rockwell. He was given to visual tricks like infusing his paintings with light emanating from every possible surface – typically trees, fields and barns in rustic landscapes – and hiding the names of family members in the scenery. The artistic elite despised him, but U.S. consumers were so entranced with his charming vision they paid $100 million annually to purchase his works. Kinkade's paintings are rumored to hang in 10 million homes across the nation, leading his website to proclaim him the "most-collected living artist of his time."
In their study, titled "Mere Exposure to Bad Art," researchers from Tennessee, Wisconsin and the U.K. tested out a recent psychological theory that basically proposes that seeing something repeatedly will increase one's acceptance of it. "Is it the case that no matter what images people are exposed to, they will grow to like the ones they see the most?" asked one of the researchers. "This would suggest at best an extremely limited role for aesthetic value in determining our aesthetic tastes."
So they set up an experiment in which they showed participants examples of "good" and "bad" art and measured their responses over a period of several weeks. For the good they chose John Everett Millais, a 19th-century English painter whose landscapes and colors were proto-Kinkadean (although much better executed, to believe his presence in major museums.) Here's one of Millais' works:
And for the bad they obviously selected Kinkade, whose lighthouse painting can be seen behind this random man:
The results were surprising. After scanning Millais' paintings again and again, the participants reported no uptick in their appreciation levels – their liking for the artworks basically stayed the same. But repeat viewings of the Painter of Light prompted strong negative reactions, with the participants saying they liked his stuff less each time it popped up in front of their eyes.
Here are those reactions in graph form taken from an earlier, unpublished version of the research:
Why does the Kinkade hatred deepen over repeat exposures? The researchers have one interesting if brutal answer:
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 exposure to the Kinkades might not have enabled participants to see how garish the colors are and how hackneyed the imagery is."
Top image: Kinkade's version of The Wizard of Oz. (orionpozo / Flickr)