My Peers Prefer That Painting? Oh Yeah, Me Too

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Art appreciation isn’t necessarily a matter of individual taste.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Most of us believe taste in art is a deeply personal matter. A particular painting or poem will strike a deep internal chord, giving the feeling that we have somehow connected with its creator. Those are the works we respond to, and return to.

It’s a lovely idea, but is it really true? What if our partiality to particular artists is, consciously or unconsciously, calibrated to line up with the preferences of our peers — and/or to distinguish ourselves from people we’d rather not be associated with?

That’s the implication of newresearch, which finds university students who know little about art are more likely to like paintings if told others like them — or, to a lesser degree, experts in art — rate them highly.

The results suggest “individuals use their evaluation and engagement with art in order to show allegiance to, or distance themselves from, desirable or undesirable” social groupings, writes a research team led by Matthew Pelowski and Jon Lauring of the University of Copenhagen.

In the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, the researchers describe a study featuring 133 University of Copenhagen undergraduates who had “no prior training or experience with art.”

We are highly influenced by those around us — even when it comes to such personal decisions as giving to a charity, or appreciating a work of art.

Each participant viewed 90 paintings — a mix of representational and abstract works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Works by famous-name artists were excluded to avoid preconceptions. They rated each painting on a scale of one (“dislike very much”) to seven (“like very much”).

They viewed the works in six blocks of 15 paintings each. For 84 of the participants, each block was preceded by a “liking” score that purportedly reflected the feelings of one of three groups: Their fellow students in the university’s School of Health and Medical Sciences; art experts, such as curators at well-known museums and galleries; or “unemployed, long-term social security recipients.”

“Participants gave higher ‘liking’ ratings when they believed the same paintings had been highly rated by fellow students (the participants’ own peer group), and, to a lesser extent, by art experts (potentially an aspirational group),” the researchers report.

Specifically, when told in advance of those groups’ approval, they liked the paintings significantly more than their 49 peers who simply viewed them cold.

On the other hand, learning that members of the low-status group liked the works “induced the opposite effect,” the researchers write. “When participants believed that the works had been negatively rated by this potentially less socially desirable group, they gave higher ratings, presumably in an attempt to distance themselves from this social group.”

Hey, those lowlifes can’t appreciate real art — but I think it’s great!

On the surface, this seems to reflect a desire to show solidarity with one’s group, or distance oneself from a particular subculture. But something more subtle may also be going on.

After “receiving information about what peers or experts like, individuals may have been motivated to reassess their answers,” the researchers write. “The knowledge peers liked the art may have encouraged participants to spend more time assessing, finding enjoyment in the artwork which may not have occurred (otherwise).”

If that’s indeed what’s happening, the group pressure was a good thing, leading people to take a second look at works they initially dismissed. Then again, the results may simply reflect an intense urge to mindlessly conform. Choose the interpretation you prefer.

Either way, the study aligns with a larger school of thought that emphasizes the fact that humans are highly social creatures. More than most of us realize, we are highly influenced by those around us — even when it comes to such personal decisions as giving to a charity, or appreciating a work of art.

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