Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

painting

(Photo: Gurgen Bakhshetsyan/Shutterstock)

Artists Working Solo Create the Finest Work—or So We Believe

• June 04, 2014 • 9:34 AM

(Photo: Gurgen Bakhshetsyan/Shutterstock)

New research suggests we consider the amount of effort that goes into making a work of art when we’re evaluating it—and take off points for collaborations.

Art is very often a collaborative endeavor. Yet the paintings, poems, and piano pieces we esteem most highly are almost always attributed to a single creator.

So is there something special about work that emerges from a individual imagination? If not, what’s behind our bias? Newly published research comes up with some surprising insights.

It finds our perception of the quality of a work of art hinges in part on the amount of work we feel went into its creation. Odd as it sounds, the same piece seems less impressive if it is the product of two or three people, as opposed to a solitary artist.

“For creative works, perceptions of quality appear to be based on perceptions of individual, rather than total, effort,” Yale University researchers Rosanna Smith and George Newman write in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Their findings suggest art “is not evaluated as a static entity, but rather as an endpoint in a ‘creative performance.'”

That notion was first proposed by philosopher Denis Dutton. The researchers note that, in his 2009 book Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, he argued that “how a creative work was made (who was involved, how long it took, etc.) is central to how we determine its quality and relative value.”

Our relative dislike for work by multiple authors “appears to be driven solely by people’s beliefs, rather than by an inherent difference between individual vs. group-generated creative work.”

To exploring that notion, and specifically to apply it to works with multiple authors, Smith and Newman performed three experiments. In the first, 222 adults recruited online looked at two images of a sculpture by Tara Donovan made up of “millions of stacked, translucent plastic cups.”

Participants were randomly told it was created by one, two, three, or five artists. After viewing the photos, they rated its quality on a one-to-seven scale.

“As predicted, participants rated the sculpture as higher quality when it was created by a single artist,” the researchers report. “As the number of authors increased, ratings of quality decreased.”

For the second experiment, the researchers turned to less labor-intensive forms of art, instructing participants to evaluate a painting and poem. The 268 people (again recruited online) viewed a collaborative work of visual art—a 2010 painting entitled New Music by Riha Rothberg and Wayne Mikosz—as well as a poem created by a single writer (Katherine Fallon).

They were randomly told that each work was either the product of a solo artist, or a group project. Once again, those told it was created by one person rated the works more highly. This held true whether or not they were presented with (fictional) names of the artist or artists.

For the final experiment, 71 people were assigned to create a haiku on the topic, “What is water?” Twenty-three did so on their own, while the others worked in groups of three to create collaborative poems.

Afterwards, 229 people recruited online were asked to evaluate the poems. As in the previous experiments, they were informed that some were done by individuals and others by groups, but these notes were assigned randomly and did not line up with the actual authorship.

“When participants were told that a poem was written by one person, they rated it as higher quality than when they were told it was created by a group,” the researchers report. “However, there were no perceived quality differences between poems actually created by individuals vs. groups.”

This suggests our relative dislike for work by multiple authors “appears to be driven solely by people’s beliefs, rather than by an inherent difference between individual vs. group-generated creative work,” they conclude.

Smith and Newman are quick to note that one’s evaluation of a work of art is based on a variety of factors. But their findings suggest that, in looking at a painting or reading a poem, we’re not only experiencing the final product, but also taking into account how much effort went into it.

To that end, the researchers conclude, “people’s lay theory is to divide perceived effort by the number of authors.” And more perceived effort increases appreciation.

Smith and Newman concede that this bias may not hold for art forms where there are obviously multiple creators, such as stage musicals. They wonder if it would be as strong in Eastern cultures where the individual is viewed less as an independent entity. And they note it is possible that the poorer evaluations for collaborative work may be due to the distraction created when people “draw their attention to determining the specific nature of each author’s contribution.”

It’s also possible that, unlike the rapidly composed poems in the third experiment, the greatest works of art are driven by an intensely personal vision that would only be diluted by collaboration. Then again, perhaps we’ve simply been conditioned to believe that. It’s impossible to say.

In any case, this research provides evidence for Dutton’s thesis: When evaluating a work of art, we take into account the circumstances of its creation. Which is good news for Beethoven (who surely gets points for composing music while deaf), but not-so-good news for, say, Kaufman and Hart. Sure, You Can’t Take It With You is a great play, but it took two people to write it.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.