The Mind Behind the Art

This evening I attended an exhibition of senior art majors’ thesis pieces, covering a fantastic array from pottery to acrylic glazes to digital portraits to more modern art pieces, including larger-than-life interactive puppets. I was thoroughly impressed by the effort and achievements of our students, but I suspect that the messages of the piece went over my head.

It put me in mind of one of my favorite studies to teach, intriguingly titled “Seeing the mind behind the art“. Inspired by the not-uncommon reaction to modern art – “It looks like something my four-year-old could paint” – and also by a hoax that passed off a chimpanzee’s creations to a group of art critics, these researchers decided to find out if modern art was really as easy and careless as laymen perceive it. They took art by famous abstract painters, such as Cy Twombly, each placed side-by-side with similar work by a child, a chimp, or an elephant.

A Cy Twombly installation of abstract art.

A Cy Twombly installation of abstract art.

If you’re curious if you could tell an elephant’s handiwork from an adult human’s, you can test your own artistic discrimination here, although there they are presented one at a time instead of side-by-side. There is good news for professional artists: When asked to pick which painting is a “better work of art” and which they like more, even laymen will choose the professional painter’s work over the child’s, elephant’s, or chimps. The bad news is that they’re only picking the professional piece  56% to 65% of the time – it’s better than chance, but not quite a home-run swing.

The researchers conclude that “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings…People see the mind behind the art”. Somehow we pick up on when a brush stroke is designed intentionally to convey some particular message, and when it’s simply moved across a page.

My experience tonight reminds me that while we might notice that intentions are there (two-thirds of the time, anyway) it’s another level of comprehension entirely to recognize and “get” precisely what those intentions are. It may take a remedial art appreciation class for me to describe students’ intense efforts in more articulate phrases than “beautiful”, “colorful”, “complex”, or “interesting”. Perhaps I should enlist of my art double-majors to school me; I expect they might appreciate being the expert while I am the novice.
Hawley-Dolan A, & Winner E (2011). Seeing the mind behind the art. People can distinguish abstract expressionist paintings from highly similar paintings by children, chimps, monkeys, and elephants. Psychological science, 22 (4), 435-41 PMID: 21372327


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