Sunday, March 13, 2011

What's behind abstract art

In a recently published study, Boston College psychologists Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner showed 72 undergrad students (40 psychology majors and 32 studio art majors) a series of similar-looking paired images, one by an renowned abstract expressionist such as Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, and the other by a child or one of the four animals: monkey, gorilla, chimpanzee or elephant. They asked the participants which one they liked more, and which they think is better.

Paintings by animals: (clockwise from top left) monkey, chimpanzee, elephant, elephant.

It turned out that non-art students preferred the professional artwork 56% of the time, while art students did so 62% of the time. But when it came to judging which was the better piece of art, the two groups had very similar results: the art students chose the professional piece 67.5% of the time, and the non-arts 65.5%.

Standing in front of an abstract painting, some people may say, "my grandson could have done that." But the research shows that participants preferred professional paintings and judged them as better more often than the nonprofessional ones. People can tell the differences between an artful human creation and random doodles, even they can't articulate the reasons like art critics and historians do. It seem the art of abstract expression does communicate - it's more accessible than most people think.

What's more interesting to me is that the two questions the researchers asked were phrased to separate personal preference ("like more," which is based on immediate emotional reactions) and and judgment ("better," which is based on cognitive evaluation). People can recognize something is good, but still not like it. Or to put it the other around, when people don't personally like something, they can still judge it as better. It makes me think about art and design criticism. Can we have more professional and objective evaluations than just saying "it dazzles me"?

"Analysis of the justifications revealed that when participants preferred the professional works, and judged them as better, they did so because they saw more intention, planning and skill in those works than those done by nonprofessionals," Hawley-Dolan and Winner write. It seems there are certain patterns behind successful abstract art and design, and an objective criticism is possible.


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