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Eccentricity of Artists Boosts Appreciation of Their Art

• January 27, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Lady Gaga. (Photo: DFree/Shutterstock)

From Vincent Van Gogh to Lady Gaga, we tend to like artists’ work more if we perceive them as idiosyncratic.

How much one enjoys a painting or a pop song should, in theory, have nothing to do with its creator’s personality. But newly published research finds the degree to which we appreciate an artist’s work is colored by one key character trait: we tend to like the art more if we perceive the artist as eccentric.

According to a research team led by University of Southampton psychologist Wijnand van Tilburg, information that suggests an artist conforms to a widely held stereotype—that creative geniuses are peculiar people—increases the perception they are gifted.

This finding, described in the European Journal of Social Psychology, comes with two caveats: the work in question should be at least somewhat unconventional, and the eccentricity has to be seen as genuine. If those criteria are met, our preconceived notions are confirmed, and our enjoyment is enhanced.

No disrespect intended, but this does help explain the popularity of Andy Warhol.

Van Tilburg and co-author Eric Igou of the University of Limerick demonstrate this dynamic in five experiments, the first of which featured 38 students at a university in Western Europe. Before seeing an image of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, half “were informed that Van Gogh was believed to have cut off his own left ear lobe.” The others were not given that information. All were then asked to evaluate the painting.

There is irony in the fact that our appreciation for creative endeavors is shaped in part by our love of conformity—in this case, the artist conforming to the stereotype we hold of creative geniuses.

“As predicted,” the researchers write, “the art was evaluated more positively when Van Gogh’s eccentric behavior was mentioned.”

The second experiment featured 33 students and a fictional artist, Jón Stefánsson. Half the participants were told he “is often described as very eccentric.” All viewed three of “his” works and evaluated them. Once again, those who perceived him as odd liked the works better.

In the third experiment, the participants—44 students—saw one of two images of the fictitious Stefánsson. One featured an ordinary-looking male in his 20s, while the other depicted a man of that same age who “had half-long hair combed over one side of his head” and “had not shaved for several days.”

All then evaluated three pieces of “his” work. Once again, those who viewed him as eccentric rated his works more favorably.

For the fourth experiment, the 64 participants were introduced to an artist who was similarly portrayed as either normal or eccentric. They then viewed one of two works of art: a piece most would classify as conventional (Lady of Flowers by Andrea del Verrocchio), or one that is decidedly unconventional (The Pack by Joseph Beuys).

The result: “The eccentricity cue increased the evaluations of the unconventional art, but did not reliably affect liking of the conventional art,” the researchers report. This suggests the artist’s peculiar personality was not considered a reliable indicator of talent if the work itself wasn’t similarly strange.

The final experiment revolved around a current pop superstar who is known for her unconventional behavior: Lady Gaga. The participants, 78 university students, looked at one of two photographs of the singer. One featured her in an “ordinary black dress” wearing “regular makeup;” the other “depicted her in a crouched position, wearing a tight black suit, black boots, black gloves, and a large, shiny mask.”

In addition, half read a critical statement about the artist, noting that some critics consider her eccentric persona to be “heavily marketed and strategically thought-through.” All then reported, on a one-to-seven scale, how much they like Lady Gaga’s music, and how highly skilled they consider her as an artist.

The results matched those of the previous experiments—but only for the participants who did not read the discrediting statement. Members of that group were more positive about her music if they saw the photo of her in the strikingly odd costume. But that inflated level of appreciation disappeared among those who were told her persona may just be a marketing gimmick.

To sum up: at least to an extent, judgments about art “depend on the displayed eccentricity of the artist,” the researchers write, “so long as the art is unconventional, and the displayed eccentricity seems authentic.”

So why do we associate eccentricity with talent? Van Tilburg and his colleagues point to a large body of research linking heightened creativity to behavior that deviates from the norm, such as living abroad. This association “possibly contributes to the overgeneralized expectations that creativity sprouts from eccentric artists’ work,” they write.

The researchers note there is irony in the fact that our appreciation for creative endeavors is shaped in part by our love of conformity—in this case, the artist conforming to the stereotype we hold of creative geniuses.

But their findings are in line with previous research finding our reaction to art is surprisingly malleable—sort of like the famous melting clocks of that oddball artist, Salvador Dalí.

Speaking of which, isn’t his work amazing?

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

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