But Is It Art?

A new study challenges the merits of modern art


Some years ago Spy magazine punctured the pretensions of the art world with a simple prank. It took a bunch of paintings by preschoolers and hung them in a Soho gallery, then recorded the remarks of art aficionados who showed up and said the gassy sort of things people generally say about modern art. The episode offered some vindication for anyone who ever looked at a modern painting or sculpture and scoffed, "My kid could do that."

But last week the art world enjoyed a few minutes of vindication itself, thanks to a study by two psychologists at Boston College. Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner paired genuine works of art by famous abstract impressionists with drawings made by children, chimpanzees, and elephants. Sometimes they labeled the paintings correctly and sometimes they switched the labels around or omitted labels altogether. Then they asked study participants which works they preferred and why.

Regardless of how the paintings were labeled, the study participants preferred the works by the famous artists 60 percent to 70 percent of the time. What's more, the subjects explained their preferences by indicating that the works from the pros seemed to have more intention and craft than the works from the children and the animals. As one news account put it, "this suggests a blue squiggle created by an artist as a means of expression is fundamentally different than a blue squiggle created randomly by a monkey holding a paint brush."

Take that, you philistines!

The study's results are interesting. Still: In defense of the philistines of America, one might point out a couple of things.

First, the experiment put the works of individuals who are supposed to be some of the greatest artists of the past century—such as Mark Rothko, whose works have sold for as much as $72.8 million—up against scribbles by children, chimps, and elephants … and the great artists barely managed to squeak to victory. When the paintings carried no labels at all, even art students preferred the famous artists' paintings only 62 percent of the time, and judged them to be better works of art only 67 percent of the time. "The chimpanzee's stuff is good, I like how he plays with metaphors about depth of field, but I think I like this guy Rothko a little bit better." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Second, nobody ever had to do an experiment to find out whether people can tell the difference between a painting by a monkey and a painting by Monet. Nobody ever looked at a Rembrandt and wondered if, just perhaps, some merry prankster had given a pack of paints to a pachyderm and told it to go to town.

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Take a hundred people off the street. Show them a kid's finger-painting next to a reproduction of, say, the Sistine Chapel or Bierstadt's "Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains." Ask them which one the toddler did. Five bucks says they'll get it right 100 times out of 100. Heck, even art majors could probably score a solid B-plus.

Some people in the arts community hate this sort of talk. Hate it, hate it, hate it. A few years ago Morley Safer did a "60 Minutes" segment titled, "Yes … But Is It Art?" Among other amusing moments, it featured an auction of contemporary works at Sotheby's in which the auctioneer, trying to correct a catalogue error, says, "Please note that the measurements for this work are reversed. It's actually a horizontal painting—I'm sorry, it's actually a vertical painting." (Again: not the kind of mistake you're likely to make with Renoir.) Reviewing Safer's segment, The New York Times quoted gallery directors denouncing the "60 Minutes" bit as anti-intellectual, smug, philistine, appalling, and reflective of "a sad decline in our society."

Well, maybe. But just because smart people can think of smart things to say about a work of art does not mean the work of art itself is inherently good, does it? Impenetrable, avant-garde art may speak to people trained in art history. Genuinely great art seems to speak to everyone. Some artists, fortunately, still think that's the whole idea. Maybe it's appallingly philistine to say so, but if there has been a sad decline in our society, it probably has happened inside the galleries, not outside.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.