Angry dismissals of abstract art are commonly framed by the assertion. “A (blank) could have done that.” The key word in the clichéd complaint is often “child,” “monkey” or “elephant.”
But Jumbo, you’re no Rothko. Newly published research finds that, in spite of our protestations, nonexperts can tell the difference among acclaimed abstract paintings, colorful canvasses created by a nursery school students or residents of the zoo.
“People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings,” Boston College psychologists Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner report in the journal Psychological Science. Non-aficionados might not like a particular artwork, but in a direct-comparison test, they can usually identify it as the product of human creativity.
The researchers conducted an experiment in which 72 undergraduates — 40 psychology majors and 32 studio art majors — looked at a series of paintings placed side by side. Each pair featured one image taken from an art history textbook (the artists included Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly), and one created by either a young child or one of four types of animal (a monkey, gorilla, chimpanzee or elephant).
“We matched professional and nonprofessional paintings according to various attributes (color, line quality, brushstroke and medium),” Hawley-Dolan and Winner write. “Paired images were presented side by side in PowerPoint on a laptop; as much as possible, the images were equated in size and resolution.”
The first 10 pairs of paintings were presented without labels. For the remaining 20 pairs, the paintings were labeled (“artist,” “child,” “monkey” or “elephant”), but half of those labels were deliberately incorrect.
After viewing each pair of images, the participants were asked “Which do you like more? Why?” and “Which image do you think is the better work of art? Why?” The questions were phrased to obtain separate results for personal preference (which is based in one’s immediate emotional response) and judgment (which is based on cognitive evaluation). Some of the participants then explained how they justified their decisions.
“Both groups chose the professional work significantly more often than would be predicted by chance,” the researchers write. “As predicted, art students preferred professional works more often than did non-art students. However, the two groups’ judgments did not differ.”
When there was no label attached, nonexperts preferred the professional artwork 56 percent of the time; art students did so 62 percent of the time. But when it came to judging which was the better piece of art, the two groups were very much of one mind: The art students chose the professional piece 67.5 percent of the time, the nonart students 65.5 percent of the time.
“In the aesthetic domain,” the researchers note, “people can recognize that a work is good, but still not like it.”
The strength of that recognition was evident from the almost-nonexistent impact of the labels. When the works were correctly labeled, nonexperts preferred the professional work 79 percent of the time. But when the labels were incorrect, the nonart students (like their art student counterparts) tended to discard them, judging the professional (but wrongly labeled) work as their preferred piece 62.5 percent of the time.
“Analysis of the justifications revealed that when participants preferred the professional works, and judged them as better, they did so because they saw more intention, planning and skill in those works than those done by nonprofessionals,” Hawley-Dolan and Winner write.
This suggests a blue squiggle created by an artist as a means of expression is fundamentally different than a blue squiggle created randomly by a monkey holding a paint brush — and more often than not, viewers can make the distinction. (One wonders whether this will also hold true for the computer-generated music created by David Cope’s software.)
“People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist,” the researchers note, “but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko.” This suggests that, for all the sneering done by cynics such as Morley Safer, nonrepresentational art truly does communicate — even if not everyone likes the message.
“People untrained in visual art see more then they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings,” the researchers conclude. “People see the mind behind the art.”