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My Kid Could Draw That

Over at Reason, A. Barton Hinkle draws attention to a new study bringing evidence that even ordinary folk can appreciate abstract modern art.  The study’s designers

paired genuine works of art by famous abstract impressionists with drawings made by children, chimpanzees, and elephants. Sometimes they labeled the paintings correctly and sometimes they switched the labels around or omitted labels altogether. Then they asked study participants which works they preferred and why.

Regardless of how the paintings were labeled, the study participants preferred the works by the famous artists 60 percent to 70 percent of the time. What’s more, the subjects explained their preferences by indicating that the works from the pros seemed to have more intention and craft than the works from the children and the animals. As one news account put it, “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.”

The academics behind the study explain that the results show that we have an innate sense of intentionality:

… when participants preferred the professional works and judged them as better, they did so because they saw more intention, planning, and skill in these works than in those by nonprofessionals. In short, they perceived more “mind” behind the artists’ images.

Let’s skip over the fact that children and animals are referred to as “nonprofessionals,” and get to a rebuttal.

Hinkle concludes that the study doesn’t really settle the question of the value of abstract art:

In defense of the philistines of America, one might point out a couple of things.

First, the experiment put the works of individuals who are supposed to be some of the greatest artists of the past century—such as Mark Rothko, whose works have sold for as much as $72.8 million—up against scribbles by children, chimps, and elephants … and the great artists barely managed to squeak to victory. When the paintings carried no labels at all, even art students preferred the famous artists’ paintings only 62 percent of the time, and judged them to be better works of art only 67 percent of the time. “The chimpanzee’s stuff is good, I like how he plays with metaphors about depth of field, but I think I like this guy Rothko a little bit better.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Second, nobody ever had to do an experiment to find out whether people can tell the difference between a painting by a monkey and a painting by Monet. Nobody ever looked at a Rembrandt and wondered if, just perhaps, some merry prankster had given a pack of paints to a pachyderm and told it to go to town.

Give the nonprofessional chimp a handicap, and the chimp and Rothko are still tied, 0-0.

about the author

Lewis McCrary, executive editor, began his career in journalism as an editorial assistant and later senior editor at The American Conservative. Before returning to TAC, he was managing editor of The National Interest and Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. His writing has also appeared at RealClearPoliticsThe Atlantic, and Next City. An alumnus of The Catholic University of America, Cambridge, and Georgetown, he now resides in central Indiana with his wife and two young sons.

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