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Eccentric Artists Make Good Art (or So We Think)

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 28, 2014

Stock photo of an artist. She’s wearing a bow tie and vest — how eccentric!

We all know the stereotype of artists being a little … you know, different, but two researchers are now saying that if you’re perceived as being eccentric, people will think you make better art.

Psychologists Wijnand Adriaan Peter Van Tilburg, from the University of Southampton, and Eric Raymond Igou, from the University of Limerick, Castletroy, Ireland, have recently published an article titled “From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist eccentricity increases perceived artistic skill and art appreciation” in the European Journal of Social Psychology. In the paper, obtained by Hyperallergic, they detail a series of studies they conducted to measure the correlation between perceived eccentricity and artistic talent.

In the first study, Van Tilburg and Igou showed van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” to a group of subjects, some of whom had been told that the artist allegedly cut off his own ear. Those people liked the painting better. In the second study, the researchers created a fictional artist and some fictional paintings. All of the subjects were also given a brief introduction to the artist, and some of them were told that he “is often described as very eccentric.” Those people consistently liked the fictional artist’s work better and said they’d spend more money on it.

In study #3, Van Tilburg and Igou varied the fictional artist’s appearance: one photograph of him, marking the “low eccentricity condition,” showed “a man in his late twenties with an ordinary posture, short hair, and wearing a regular white blouse”; the other, for the “high eccentricity condition,” depicted “a man in his late twenties who was skinny, had half-long hair combed over one side of his head, had not shaved for several days, and was wearing a black shirt and vest.” (So, pretty much every other guy on the L train.) Not surprisingly, participants generally perceived the latter as being more eccentric, but they also thought his artwork was better.

Study #4 shifted gears a little: participants were shown a conventional artwork — Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Lady of Flowers,” Van Tilburg and Igou write, which we assume is his marble sculpture “Lady with Primroses” — and an unconventional one — Joseph Beuys’s “The Pack,” an arrangement of sleds holding rolled-up blankets and survival kits. The psychologists also offered varying descriptions of the two artists: one was deemed “a respected contributor to art,” while the other was said to have carried “roadside stones on his head to the construction site of his cottage” for decades (an anecdote that came from a Listverse listicle about eccentric people). What they found here was that the eccentricity effect happens only if the art is already seen as unconventional; in other words, subjects didn’t think Verocchio’s classical sculpture was better just because he had a thing for stones.

(screenshot from Van Tilburg and Igou's article)

(screenshot from “From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist eccentricity increases perceived artistic skill and art appreciation”)

Finally, in their fifth study, Van Tilburg and Igou turned to the lighting rod of all things eccentric: Lady Gaga. They decided that “Lady Gaga would serve as an excellent example artist in our examination of perceived eccentricity and evaluations of creativity” because “concrete examples of [her] arguably eccentric appearances” already abound. (Yes.) They showed participants one of two photographs of her — either a picture that suggested high eccentricity (“in a crouched position, wearing a tight black suit, black boots, black gloves, and a large, shiny mask”) or low (sitting, without costume or stage makeup); they also told a subset of the participants that some critics call Lady Gaga’s appearance and image “one of the most heavily marketed and strategically thought-through in contemporary pop-music.” Then they asked everyone to evaluate her music. The results? People liked her music better only when they thought her oddball creativity was genuine.

That’s actually quite silly when you stop and think about it, since nearly every artist’s (and everyone’s) appearance is mediated and thought through in some way. But given the premium our culture places on ‘authenticity,’ it’s not entirely surprising.

Van Tilburg and Igou end with a keen observation about what this means for our evaluations of creativity, which we (especially we critics) often tend to abide by as “fair” in some vaguely objective way:

The finding that the perceptions of others’ eccentricity mold evaluations of creative endeavors illuminates the importance of the social context in its evaluation. This is an intriguing finding given that one might intuitively consider the creativity of work to be primarily rooted in the intrinsic characteristics of the art itself.

The perception of creative endeavors, typically considered as (usefully) original, deviant, and novel, is deeply embedded in conformist processes.

So, to sum up: if you’re an artist, try to look eccentric, but don’t look like you’re trying too hard. And, whoever you are, the next time you’re viewing art or listening to music and think you have a well-thought-out, considered opinion, remember the conformist processes embedded deep within your psyche. Cheers!

h/t Pacific Standard

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  • Helen Glazer

    Interesting article. Made me think about the dark side of valorizing eccentricity in artists, which comes through in the movie “Basquiat” and in this profile of Dash Snow by journalist Ariel Levy. Two years after this article was written, like Basquiat, he died of a drug overdose at age 27: http://nymag.com/arts/art/profiles/26288/

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