What’s your favorite meal? Logically, your answer depends on the foods you’re familiar with. Now here’s another question: Who’s your favorite 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 ten-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:


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

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]