What makes people like art? We usually think it is something deep in the piece itself—a hidden texture or message that captures a truth about the way we see the world and ourselves (like that scene from Ferris Bueller), but sociology reminds us that the people who make, sell, and show the art shape our tastes just as much as the pieces themselves. Some “brilliant innovations” can be just plain weird (and weirdly expensive).
Sgourev and Althuizen set out to understand how social roles shape the way we appreciate art. They are particularly interested in inconsistent art styles, asking when patrons think a contrasting style is “innovative” and when they think it shows a lack of skill. Using a set of lesser-known works from Pablo Picasso—an artist known for his inconsistency—the authors set up an online experimental survey taken by 183 students at a French business school. They gave respondents either a set of consistent or inconsistent paintings and told them the paintings were done by either Picasso (a high status artist), Braque (a mid-status artist), or Fresnaye (a low-status artist). The respondents rated the paintings’ aesthetic value, market value, and overall creativity.
Respondents were more likely to say inconsistent works were more creative or aesthetically pleasing when told the artist was a well-known painter with high status, and less likely to give such positive reviews to low-status painters. The study’s authors conclude that “inconsistent works by a prominent artist are given the benefit of the doubt and interpreted as a sign of creativity,” while the public may be less forgiving to the lesser-known. So, the next time you go to a museum, it may be worth asking whether the art is great, or the artist is just “hot right now.”