Why Artworks Are Like People

For this year's Whitney Biennial, artist Philip Vanderhyden remade Gretchen Bender's destroyed "People in Pain" (1988). Is it the same thing? (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
For this year’s Whitney Biennial, artist Philip Vanderhyden remade Gretchen Bender’s destroyed “People in Pain” (1988), seen along the wall at left in this photo. Is it the same thing as the original? (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ever since critic and theorist Walter Benjamin penned his landmark essay in 1936, it’s been accepted as a kind of common wisdom that the aura of the artwork has withered in the (never-ending) age of mechanical reproduction. But a new study suggests the aura hasn’t vanished entirely yet, and perhaps it never will.

Are Artworks More Like People Than Artifacts? Individual Concepts and Their Extensions,” published last month in Topics in Cognitive Science, sees professor George E. Newman and doctoral student Rosanna K. Smith at the Yale School of Management, along with professor Daniel M. Bartels at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, attempting to unravel the question of how people understand identity continuity — basically the conclusion that a person or thing is still itself over a period of time or change — and how that connects with our valuation of art. To wit, they propose that “judgments about the continuity of artworks are related to judgments about the continuity of individual persons because art objects are seen as physical extensions of their creators.”

The researchers conducted two studies. In the first, which involved a small sample group (only 37 undergraduates), participants read hypothetical scenarios in which a college student makes either an original artwork or tool; an exact duplicate is created — either by him or by someone else, with his agreement; and then the original object is destroyed. In the results, duplicate artworks were generally “less likely to be seen as continuers of the original” than were duplicate tools, but duplicate artworks made by the artist himself were “more likely to be seen as continuers of the original.” These findings suggest a difference in how we view objects deemed “art” versus all others, and a lingering belief in the importance of the hand of the artist.

(all study images courtesy George E. Newman)
(all study images courtesy George E. Newman)

For the second study, 303 adults read scenarios about a painting titled “Dawn.” As Newman, Bartels, and Smith explain:

We manipulated information about the painting between-subjects, varying the dimensions of contagion, creativity, and personal attachment. To manipulate contagion, participants either read that the artist “spent several weeks physically painting it with his own hands” or that “he gave instructions to one of his assistants who then painted it.” To manipulate creativity, participants either read that the artist “put a lot of thought into designing this painting” or that “the original design for this painting was actually created by a different artist.” And finally, to manipulate personal attachment, participants read either that the artist “considered it to be one if his finest achievements” or that “he was hired by a hotel to create it as decoration for the lobby and he considered it to be a ‘sell out’ piece.”

All of the participants then read a passage explaining that because of damage to the original painting by mold, gallerists hired another artist to duplicate it and the original was destroyed. Participants were then asked if the second painting qualified as “Dawn” or not (on a sliding scale).

The only strong factor that the researchers found influenced people’s decisions was “contagion,” i.e. whether or not the artist had painted the original work himself. If he had, “participants were more likely to agree that the duplicate was not the same.”

Artwork-people-study3The response sheet for this study also included a text box where participants could write in explanations of their decisions. The paper explains:

When participants provided more elaborate justifications, they made reference to notions of contagion and the artist’s soul. For example, to explain why it was not Dawn participants said, “It wasn’t touched by Frederick’s hands, seen by his eyes,” “It is a copy, not the original which Frederick poured his heart and soul into. A copy may be identical, but it is truly never the original,” “It is a copy, it has no soul,” “The identity of a painting (what it ‘is’ or ‘is not’) must consist of more than just its visual qualities. Art is a manifestation of the soul.” These justifications were quite different than those provided when participants thought the painting was the same—for example, “He did not paint the original painting so the duplicate is not missing the element of him being the painter.”

This means, essentially, that many of us would view the distance between a knockoff Jeff Koons sculpture and an authentic one as shorter than the distance between a knockoff Picasso painting and an original. That is fascinating (and may help explain all the balloon dog lawsuits?).

According to Newman, Bartels, and Smith, then, there is a way in which we think about artwork as being imbued with an essential humanness or essence, which ironically manifests in the artwork’s physical form — or, “the intuitions observed here seem to suggest that the more that people infer the existence of a soul (in the person, or in a piece of art), the more likely they are to rely on the continuity of the same physical matter when making identity judgments.”

They wonder about this seeming contradiction in their conclusion:

This raises interesting questions about how people conceive of the aspect of the person’s identity that is in that artwork. For example, is it seen as a “watered-down” version of the person’s essence? Do changes in who owns the object or the passage of time reduce the extent to which an item contains the person’s essence? Is there a limited quantity of the essence, such that there are a finite number of objects that can be seen as extensions of the self?

These are the pertinent questions from a cognitive point of view, but there are even more from an artistic perspective, namely: what happens to this scenario when the artwork under discussion is not a tangible object but a performance, a concept, or a GIF? Newman et al’s project suggests that the aura of the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction hasn’t changed nearly as much as its nature — and to understand how humans perceive that, we’re gonna need a whole lot more studies.

h/t Pacific Standard

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