Fritz Lang directing 'Metropolis' (image via

Fritz Lang directing ‘Metropolis’ (image via

It’s common wisdom by now that the art market system thrives on brand-name, star-driven principles: individuals sell, groups not so much (and this despite the fact that many individuals don’t make their art alone). But why? Do we really think solo artists make more valuable work than collectives?

This is indeed the case, say two researchers in a new paper called “When Multiple Creators Are Worse Than One: The Bias Toward Single Authors in the Evaluation of Art,” in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Laying out a number of experiments conducted with this question in mind, Rosanna K. Smith and George E. Newman write in their abstract that they’re investigating “whether people perceive the same work of art to be of lower quality if they learn that it was a collaborative work (resulting from the efforts of multiple artists) versus the work of a single artist.” Over the course of three studies, they prove that hypothesis and offer a number of possible explanations as to why.

In study 1, Smith and Newman showed 222 participants the same sculpture but varied the description of how many creators had made it (one, two, three, or five). Participants consistently evaluated the sculpture more favorably when they thought only one person had created it. They also found that “as the number of authors increased, ratings of quality decreased,” Smith and Newman write.

Study 2 attempted to test for the factor of “identifiability,” which the authors explain as follows: “It may be that single authored works engender a more vivid picture of the process behind their creation than group authored works. This vividness may heighten viewers’ sense of understanding or empathy, which in turn increases perceptions of quality.” (This, they note, is different from identity, i.e. the distinction of knowing that something is a Hirst or a Warhol.) For this study, 268 participants saw the same painting and poem, but Smith and Newman varied both the number of creators of each and whether or not those creators were identified. According to their results, “only information about the number of authors, but not whether the authors were identified, affected quality judgments.”

In study 3, the goal was to examine potential differences in the actual quality of artworks by single versus multiple authors. To do this, Smith and Newman recruited 71 people to write poems individually and in groups; 229 other participants were then each assigned a randomly selected poem to read, given accompanying information — either true or false — about whether it was created by an individual or a group, and asked to evaluate it. The researchers found that “what people believe about the number of authors may have a greater impact on assessments of quality than how many people actually created it.”

The big question, of course, is: why? Why do people consistently express this subconscious preference for individually created works? Smith and Newman suggest a number of factors, including the idea of an artwork as “an endpoint in a ‘creative performance.’” They write:

In certain cases, however, people may value an object, such as a work of art, for its history (e.g., where it came from or how it was made). Dutton (2009) has suggested that this occurs because people evaluate art not as a static entity, but as the endpoint in a “creative performance.” Specifically, Dutton (2009) suggested that a key way in which we assess artwork is by attending to the intentional processes that created it. As a result, information about how a creative work was made (e.g., who was involved, how long it took, etc.) is central to how we determine its quality and relative value.

This way of viewing art also rewards perceived effort, or what researchers call the “effort heuristic.” And Smith and Newman suggest that what’s happening is, when people are called on to evaluate artwork, they “divide perceived effort by the number of authors” — in other words, they assume that a sculpture either took 30 hours of one person’s time or six hours of five people’s time, and naturally the former seems more impressive.

“In future research it would be interesting to examine how perceptions of quality might change when people are made aware of the exact efforts of each contributor,” Smith and Newman write. “For example, is the quality of an artwork rated differently in a case where one person worked for 9 hr while the other worked for 1, versus a scenario in which each person worked for 5?” Finally, the pair bring up the Western cultural emphasis on individuality and independence as a possible motivating factor.

But perhaps most importantly, Smith and Newman point out the distance between our perception of the creative process and its reality. Many artworks — whether they’re listed under a single name or multiple — are made by many minds and hands. Not only that, but studies have shown the immense benefits of collaboration. “This too may make for an interesting line of future research,” the authors write, “as one could examine how organizations and individuals may navigate this disconnect and the potential types of interventions and framings that may lead to more favorable evaluations of collaborative endeavors.” Perhaps, for instance, a strong group/collective name (i.e. good branding) can help close the evaluation gap. The heart of the matter is really something that’s haunted Western society for centuries: how do we move away from the genius myth and towards a more honest notion of creativity?

h/t Pacific Standard

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

3 replies on “Study Finds We Prefer Art Made by Individuals over Collectives”

  1. Interesting. I wonder if there’s a difference in artwork vs song. Seems in my anecdotal experience that people like it when one member of a band/group is charged with writing the song but that the overall appreciation is diminished if the other musicians haven’t had, or haven’t appeared to have had, a clear, demonstrable part in its creation too.

    1. Yes, I was wondering about how this would apply to music, too, since that seems to be the one art form where creation is expected to be collaborative. But then if you think about pop stars, everything is marketed under their name when producers actually play a huge role in the creation of their hits.

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