Sunday, March 27, 2011

Science Sunday: In Which We Test The Maxim That 'A Child Could Paint That'

How many times have you heard someone put down the abstract expressionist art of a Mark Rothko with the comment, "“A child could paint that."

That inspired Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College, and Angelina Hawley-Dolan, one of her graduate students, to determine whether a child -- let alone an animal with a paintbrush -- could indeed so so.

As Ed Yong explains at Not Exactly Rocket Science, the women sought to test the assertion that abstract expressionist art is devoid of talent.

Hawley-Dolan and Winner asked 32 art students and 40 psychology students to compare pairs of paintings. One piece of each pair was the work of a recognized artist, including Rothko, while the others were the works of preschool children, elephants, chimps, gorillas and monkeys. The paintings were matched according to color, line quality, brushstroke and medium; the students had to say which they preferred and which was better.

Writes Yong:

"Both groups of students preferred the professional pieces to the amateur ones, and judged them to be superior. Even the psychology students, who had no background in art education, felt the same way, although as you might expect, their preference for the professional works was slightly weaker."

Throughout the experiments, the students typically picked the professional pieces between 60 and 70 percent of the time, not exactly overwhelming majorities, but statistically significant.

Hawley-Dolan and Winner concluded that on average, a child could not "paint that," even if first glances might suggest otherwise. Nor are the qualities of the abstract art only visible to people steeped in the art world because even untrained people responded to the paintings in some way.

The researchers also found that it didn't matter if the students were tricked into thinking that the paintings came from the wrong "artist." They labelled the pairs of paintings on some of the tests ("artist," "child," "monkey" or "elephant") and mislabelled them on others. Even with these tags, the students still preferred professional paintings, while the labels only swayed the decisions of the psychology students, who were more likely to judge the professional paintings more positively if they were correctly labelled.

When asked why they made their choices, both groups of students speculated about what the artist was trying to achieve, or what was going through their mind at the time. They saw more of such intentions in the professional pieces than in the more random shapes of the children and animals.

As Hawley-Dolan and Winner write:

"People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, 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 even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art."

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