Thursday 10 March 2011

"The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realise"

At last science comes to the rescue of the arts, with a recent psychology study showing that actually, yes, people can often distinguish between abstract art and paint flung on a canvas by an elephant. Or a monkey. Or a four year-old.

Participants in the study were first shown 10 pairs of images, one by a bona fide artist (artists whose works were used in the study included Gillian Ayres, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Still and Cy Twombly) with the signature erased, and one by a monkey/chimp/gorilla/elephant/child.

The next 20 pairs of images were half correctly labelled (child, artist, gorilla ...), and half mislabelled (for example, a work by an artist attributed to a gorilla).

From the paper's abstract

Participants preferred professional paintings and judged them as better than the nonprofessional paintings even when the labels were reversed. Art students preferred professional works more often than did nonart students, but the two groups’ judgments did not differ. Participants in both groups were more likely to justify their selections of professional than of nonprofessional works in terms of artists’ intentions. The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.

More details, and a table of results for those so inclined, here. And more on the methodology here.

The friend who sent me the link to the study observed that he'd be fascinated to see a similar exercise, but with participants asked to rank artworks in similar styles of similar subjects, by unknown/amateur artists and what I'll call - for lack of a single word - the-kind-of-artist-who-gets-an-exhibition-at-Auckland-Art-Gallery-or-is-represented-by-Hamish-McKay. This made me think: would a watercolour of irises by Flora No-Name rank more highly than one by Rita Angus? Would it matter if it did?

Whenever I try to defend the way the art world works to my non-art friends, I flounder and founder. All I can say is that artworld consensus - in the shape of the major public galleries, dealers, critics, auction houses and academics - place artists on a series of concentric circles, the innermost of which is blue-chip/genius/blockbuster/artists for the ages, and the outermost is you, at home, noodling about on a piece of paper while you're stuck in a phone queue. Some - like Henry Darger - will traverse the lines, but only rarely. Some will move from the innermost circle outwards as their reputation falls, and some will move inwards; extrapolate that over centuries, and you've got art history. But we'll only ever be able to explain and defend this with words and never - the study above aside - science.

Image, from Psychology Today
Left: a painting by 4-year-old named Jack Pezanosky. Right: Laburnum, by Hans Hoffman

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