Have you ever looked at a piece of abstract art and thought, “”My monkey could have painted that.” (What do you mean you don’t have a monkey? What are you, some kind of philistine?) Some enterprising researchers decided to test to see if people could indeed tell the difference between a Rothko and a Koko :

For a paper in press at Psychological Science, Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner of Boston College collected 72 undergrads, 32 of which were studio-art majors, and showed them 30 paintings by abstract expressionists. Each painting was paired with a painting by a child, a monkey, a chimpanzee, a gorilla, or an elephant. The images were matched on superficial attributes such as color, line quality, and brushstroke, and subjects were asked which piece they personally liked more, and which they thought was a better work of art.

The first 10 pairs were unlabeled (signatures were scrubbed with Photoshop). Among the last 20 pairs, half were labeled correctly and half were labeled incorrectly (such that, say, a de Kooning was called a Koko and vice versa).

How did the students do? In all conditions, both art students and psychology students chose the professional works as more preferred and of better quality most of the time. (See the attached chart.) And preferences were pretty immune to labels.

Labels did manage to sway judgments of quality, at least among psychology students. While art students gave the same ratings to professional works no matter the condition, psychology students gave higher judgments of quality to pros when correctly labeled than when unlabeled or incorrectly labeled. (79% vs 66% and 63%, respectively.)

Fans of contemporary art probably think they have been vindicated. But A. Barton Hinkle has the perfect riposte: You would never find one-third of the population confusing the work of Monet with that of a monkey.

The study’s results are interesting. Still: In defense of the philistines of America, one might point out a couple of things.

First, the experiment put the works of individuals who are supposed to be some of the greatest artists of the past century—such as Mark Rothko, whose works have sold for as much as $72.8 million—up against scribbles by children, chimps, and elephants . . . and the great artists barely managed to squeak to victory. When the paintings carried no labels at all, even art students preferred the famous artists’ paintings only 62 percent of the time, and judged them to be better works of art only 67 percent of the time. “The chimpanzee’s stuff is good, I like how he plays with metaphors about depth of field, but I think I like this guy Rothko a little bit better.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Second, nobody ever had to do an experiment to find out whether people can tell the difference between a painting by a monkey and a painting by Monet. Nobody ever looked at a Rembrandt and wondered if, just perhaps, some merry prankster had given a pack of paints to a pachyderm and told it to go to town.

Take a hundred people off the street. Show them a kid’s finger-painting next to a reproduction of, say, the Sistine Chapel or Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” Ask them which one the toddler did. Five bucks says they’ll get it right 100 times out of 100. Heck, even art majors could probably score a solid B-plus.

Read more . . .

Articles by Joe Carter

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