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Artists Working Solo Create the Finest Work—or So We Believe

New research suggests we consider the amount of effort that goes into making a work of art when we're evaluating it—and take off points for collaborations.
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(Photo: Gurgen Bakhshetsyan/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Gurgen Bakhshetsyan/Shutterstock)

Art is very often a collaborative endeavor. Yet the paintings, poems, and piano pieces we esteem most highly are almost always attributed to a single creator.

So is there something special about work that emerges from a individual imagination? If not, what's behind our bias? Newly published research comes up with some surprising insights.

It finds our perception of the quality of a work of art hinges in part on the amount of work we feel went into its creation. Odd as it sounds, the same piece seems less impressive if it is the product of two or three people, as opposed to a solitary artist.

"For creative works, perceptions of quality appear to be based on perceptions of individual, rather than total, effort," Yale University researchers Rosanna Smith and George Newman write in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Their findings suggest art "is not evaluated as a static entity, but rather as an endpoint in a 'creative performance.'"

That notion was first proposed by philosopher Denis Dutton. The researchers note that, in his 2009 book Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, he argued that "how a creative work was made (who was involved, how long it took, etc.) is central to how we determine its quality and relative value."

Our relative dislike for work by multiple authors "appears to be driven solely by people's beliefs, rather than by an inherent difference between individual vs. group-generated creative work."

To exploring that notion, and specifically to apply it to works with multiple authors, Smith and Newman performed three experiments. In the first, 222 adults recruited online looked at two images of a sculpture by Tara Donovan made up of "millions of stacked, translucent plastic cups."

Participants were randomly told it was created by one, two, three, or five artists. After viewing the photos, they rated its quality on a one-to-seven scale.

"As predicted, participants rated the sculpture as higher quality when it was created by a single artist," the researchers report. "As the number of authors increased, ratings of quality decreased."

For the second experiment, the researchers turned to less labor-intensive forms of art, instructing participants to evaluate a painting and poem. The 268 people (again recruited online) viewed a collaborative work of visual art—a 2010 painting entitled New Music by Riha Rothberg and Wayne Mikosz—as well as a poem created by a single writer (Katherine Fallon).

They were randomly told that each work was either the product of a solo artist, or a group project. Once again, those told it was created by one person rated the works more highly. This held true whether or not they were presented with (fictional) names of the artist or artists.

For the final experiment, 71 people were assigned to create a haiku on the topic, "What is water?" Twenty-three did so on their own, while the others worked in groups of three to create collaborative poems.

Afterwards, 229 people recruited online were asked to evaluate the poems. As in the previous experiments, they were informed that some were done by individuals and others by groups, but these notes were assigned randomly and did not line up with the actual authorship.

"When participants were told that a poem was written by one person, they rated it as higher quality than when they were told it was created by a group," the researchers report. "However, there were no perceived quality differences between poems actually created by individuals vs. groups."

This suggests our relative dislike for work by multiple authors "appears to be driven solely by people's beliefs, rather than by an inherent difference between individual vs. group-generated creative work," they conclude.

Smith and Newman are quick to note that one's evaluation of a work of art is based on a variety of factors. But their findings suggest that, in looking at a painting or reading a poem, we're not only experiencing the final product, but also taking into account how much effort went into it.

To that end, the researchers conclude, "people's lay theory is to divide perceived effort by the number of authors." And more perceived effort increases appreciation.

Smith and Newman concede that this bias may not hold for art forms where there are obviously multiple creators, such as stage musicals. They wonder if it would be as strong in Eastern cultures where the individual is viewed less as an independent entity. And they note it is possible that the poorer evaluations for collaborative work may be due to the distraction created when people "draw their attention to determining the specific nature of each author's contribution."

It's also possible that, unlike the rapidly composed poems in the third experiment, the greatest works of art are driven by an intensely personal vision that would only be diluted by collaboration. Then again, perhaps we've simply been conditioned to believe that. It's impossible to say.

In any case, this research provides evidence for Dutton's thesis: When evaluating a work of art, we take into account the circumstances of its creation. Which is good news for Beethoven (who surely gets points for composing music while deaf), but not-so-good news for, say, Kaufman and Hart. Sure, You Can't Take It With You is a great play, but it took two people to write it.