Opinion

Study Confirms What We Already Know About the Importance of Artists’ Authenticity

Appendix for "Artist Authenticity" paper (courtesy the authors)
Appendix showing the paintings in used in “Artist Authenticity” study (courtesy the authors)

For all the studies considering how we relate to artwork and artists that are producing fascinating results, there are others that are duds. “Artist Authenticity: How Artists’ Passion and Commitment Shape Consumers’ Perceptions and Behavioral Intentions across Genders,” published in the journal Psychology & Marketing, proposes to study the effect that an artist’s perceived authenticity has on potential consumers’ evaluation of — and inclination to buy — the artist’s work. It also suggests that women and men evaluate art differently. But its evidence and findings feel thin.

The authors of the paper, Julie Guidry MoulardDan Hamilton Rice, Carolyn Popp Garrity, and Stephanie M. Mangus, of, respectively, Louisiana Tech University, Louisiana State University, Birmingham-Southern College, and Michigan State University, define “artist authenticity” as “the artist being motivated by his or her true passions as opposed to other external motivations, such as prestige and profits.” They go on to analogize artist authenticity with brand authenticity, explaining that previous research has shown consumers prefer brands that are perceived as genuine. “As both the producer of the work, and the public ‘face’ of the product, artists fit the definition of a human brand,” they write.

So, the question becomes: how does this authenticity affect a viewer’s judgment about an artwork, and thus the question of whether or not to buy it? Moulard et al attempt to discover this with a survey. Their sample size is small: 518 adults, 288 of whom are undergraduate business students. And for what it’s worth, “32.9% of respondents who reported annual income indicated an income of over $60,000, with 26.1% reporting an income over $80,000.” The survey, conducted online, involved asking participants to evaluate two paintings, presented as the work of a single artist, with the aim of helping a gallery determine what artists to show. All participants viewed the same two paintings, but the appended biographies of the artist varied, indicating different levels of genuineness (from passionate to sellout, essentially). Respondents were then asked to evaluate four categories: artist authenticity, their attitude toward the artist, their attitude toward the artwork, and behavior intentions (regarding browsing and buying), by the use of multiple choice and an agree–disagree scale.

A table from the "Artist Authenticity" study (courtesy the authors)
A table from the “Artist Authenticity” study (courtesy the authors) (click to enlarge)

Their findings, unfortunately, read like a series of fairly obvious statements to anyone who’s spent time in the art world or studying art:

A conclusion that can be drawn from this research is that the artist’s brand plays a pivotal role in how artistic authenticity affects behavioral intentions. Artist authenticity was predicted and found to affect attitude toward the artist.

And:

Given the difficulty in evaluating art (i.e., art is a credence good), the results of the study suggest that consumers use their attitude toward the artist to aid them in their judgments about the artwork.

And:

An artist’s authenticity is a critical determinant of a consumer’s attitude toward the artist, which in turn is a critical component used in consumer appraisals and decision making. In a practical sense, this suggests that the image of the artist must be treated and managed as a brand, since artwork is not merely being evaluated by its own merit (e.g., actual components), but also by consumers’ attitudes related to the artist’s own authenticity.

These are not exactly news. The most interesting conclusion actually stems from something the researchers didn’t find:

Additionally, given that artist authenticity was conceptualized as an artist’s passion about and commitment to his/her work, artist authenticity was expected to affect attitude toward the artwork. Consumers’ perceptions of a passionate and committed artist were expected to lead to perceptions that the outcome of the artist’s labor is high-quality artwork. Surprisingly, however, this relationship was not supported. Rather, the results suggest that attitude toward the artist fully mediated the effect of artist authenticity on attitude toward the artwork.

This suggests that our feelings about an artist affect our judgment of his work more than our evaluation of his authenticity. We may think someone is a genuine and committed artist, but if we don’t like him, it doesn’t matter much.

The authors also attempted to study the different ways that gender plays into our evaluation of artwork. They write:

… the relationship between attitude toward the artist and behavioral intentions was stronger for men. Given that men tend to have a schema-based, heuristic processing style, they are more likely than women to use the artist’s brand as a heuristic. Females, however, process more cues, demonstrating a stronger relationship between attitude toward the artwork and behavioral intentions, due to the difficulty in evaluating art that males are more prone to avoid.

Figure from the "Artist Authenticity" study
Figure from the “Artist Authenticity” study

This could potentially be revealing with further research, but I think the larger problem here is with the limited range of this particular survey. Can we really learn much about people’s art-buying habits from a study that only surveys 500 people, more than half of whom are undergraduate college students? Do undergrads buy art? Even if they do, there’s a vast gulf between agreeing with the statement “I would like to have this artist’s artwork displayed in my home or office” and actually purchasing said artwork. The participants also only saw images of these paintings (which, let’s be honest, aren’t exactly MoMA material) online, which likely influences how they evaluated them. And while buying through the internet is becoming more prevalent, I’d suspect that for most beginner art collectors, it wouldn’t suffice. (The study does not indicate whether these participants have ever bought art before; my assumption, based on personal experiences but potentially incorrect, is that most of them haven’t.) Buying art — unlike books, movies, expensive clothes — simply isn’t ingrained enough in our broader cultural habits.

As for artist branding, it’s no surprise that it matters, but it also seems like a given, at least when dealing with the question of authenticity. Even Damien Hirst, whose brand involves being a “bad boy” and attempting to shock and piss people off, doesn’t actively call himself a sellout. If we’re going to understand the effects of an artist’s image on the sale of his artwork, we’re going to need more nuanced categories and more refined questions.

comments (0)