Can you tell a real Jackson Pollock painting from a watered-down replica? If so, don’t feel too superior: So can your eight-month-old baby.
That’s one finding of a new study that compares the ways infants and adults look at abstract art. The research's intent is to discover whether responses to such works are innate or learned. The tentative answer: a bit of each.
In a set of experiments, the eyes of both babies and adults were drawn to images featuring greater contrast and complexity. To the researchers, this suggests that while some aesthetic preferences are shaped by cultural forces, others are established very early in life, and most likely “reflect biological, evolutionary-based dispositions.”
In the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Seattle-based researchers Ursula Krentz and Rachel Earl describe their search for “evidence of aesthetic appreciation of art in infants.” They chose 25 “relatively unknown nonrepresentational works of art” from the Museum of Modern Art online gallery.
Each was rated very highly in one specific aesthetic category: contrast, complexity, balance, focal point or texture. Pollock’s Shimmering Substance was included in the high-complexity group, while the high-contrast group included works by Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The works were then “subtly altered” so that “the strong element of each was disrupted or attenuated.” The original and altered versions were placed side by side and inserted into a slide show, which was viewed by two groups of participants.
The first was comprised of 36 undergraduates from Seattle Pacific University; they were asked to designate which painting they preferred out of each pair. The second group featured 33 infants ranging in age from six to 10 months. Each was “held by a research assistant in front of two 15-inch computer monitors” while their faces were scanned to determine how long their held their gaze on each image.
The researchers found that “both adults and infants prefer art that retains its original complexity and contrast.” The babies spent more time looking at the original high-complexity, high-contrast works than the degraded versions; the students reported preferring the originals by a wide margin.
This suggests there are “parallels in aesthetic preference in infants and adults,” the researchers write.
Why certain factors catch our eye at such an early age—and retain their appeal into adulthood—is a matter of speculation, but Krentz and Earl have some ideas.
The captivating quality of contrast fits nicely with processing fluency theory, which states that information our brain can easily process is inherently appealing. (We understand it, so we like it.) These findings are consistent with those of an earlier study that found nine-month-olds prefer the works of Picasso, with their "sharp and accentuated contrasts," to the subtler shadings of Monet.
The allure of complexity is harder to explain, but it surely says something about our species. The researchers speculate that “even as babies, we are driven by an innate desire to explore the unknown, and prefer the challenge and novelty of complexity over simplicity.”
But not all our aesthetic preferences are set in stone before our first birthday. Krentz and Earl note that, unlike the infants, the adults strongly preferred “the original artworks that preserved a strong focal point” over the degraded version that downplayed that quality.
The researchers suggest this may be a learned, culture-specific response. They point to previous research showing that paintings of urban scenes by American artists are dominated by “a few strong focal points,” whereas similar scenes painted by Japanese artists are not.
So while certain preferences may arise from cultural norms, this research suggests others are universal and “biologically driven.” For our ancient ancestors, the ability to understand and navigate a complex natural environment was a key to survival. Today, similar cognitive challenges still tickle our brains when they present themselves in a work of art.