Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light", artist to the masses, has died. In the Wikipedia entry for Kinkade, it says that in "Joe Heath and Andrew Potter's book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed, Kinkade's work is described as 'so awful it must be seen to be believed.'"
In our book The Rebel Sell, Joe and I used Kinkade's work to illustrate (and support) Bourdieu's critique of the ideology of natural taste, i.e., the view that aesthetic judgments are judgments of true properties of the artwork. Here's how we began:
Ever notice that the masses have incredibly bad taste? Admit it. Take a look at a painting by Thomas Kinkade ("Painter of Light"), the best-selling visual artist in the United States. His work is so awful it must be seen to be believed. Or go down to one of the discount furniture warehouses, the kind that are constantly advertising "no payment until 2037". Try to find a single piece that you would be willing to put in your living room. Or listen to an entire album by Kenny G, the best-selling intrumentalist in the world. Your typical urban sophisticate would find this experience not just unpleasant, but positively harrowing...
The popular view of aesthetic judgment is dominated by what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "the ideology of natural taste." According to this view, the difference between beautiful and ugly, tasteful and vulgar, stylish and tacky, resides in the object. Bad art really is bad, it's just that only people with a certain background and education are able to recognize it as such. Yet, as Bourdieu points out, this ability to detect bad art is distributed in an almost miraculously class-specific fashion. In fact, only a tiny percentage of the population has it. And as Bourdieu documents quite exhaustively, this capacity is almost entirely concentrated among the high-status members in society. The lower classes uniformly love bad art, while the middle classes have resolutely "middle-brow" taste.
Anyone with an even moderately critical turn of mind can see the obvious explanation for this pattern...
So, we don't quite say that his work is "so awful that it must be seen to be believed", but that for people of a certain class, it certainly seems so. Millions of people, obviously, think otherwise.