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For the connoisseur who says, ‘My kid could have painted that’
When a gallery in Berlin sought out Freddie Linsky in 2007, having discovered the British artist’s work at the Saatchi Online gallery, there was no indication that Linsky was a two-year-old—likewise when a collector out of Manchester, England, bought one of young Linsky’s abstract paintings through the site. Freddie’s mother, a freelance art critic named Estelle Lovatt, had posted the images with straight-faced (if at times over-the-top) captions, and presented her son not as a child but as an emerging abstract artist.
“I thought people would figure it out,” Lovatt told the Daily Mail. “But a collector paid £20 for The Best Loved Elephant. He said he liked the flow and energy of the picture.”
When it comes to abstract art, can viewers reliably tell the difference between the work of an established artist and that of a child? Does it make a difference if the viewer has studied art? No research has systematically investigated these questions, but a story like Freddie Linsky’s is provocative—as is a 1965 French study, published in the journal Sciencias de l’Art, that recounts how paintings made by chimpanzees in a laboratory were sometimes mistaken for abstract expressionist works. In the spring of 2009, working in Boston College’s Arts and Mind Laboratory with professor Ellen Winner, my advisor in the doctoral program in developmental psychology, I devised an experiment to look for answers.
I recruited 40 Boston College undergraduate psychology majors with no training in the visual arts and 32 undergraduate art students from the Art Institute of Boston (specializing in photography, graphic design, painting, or sculpture) to participate in the study, the purposes of which were kept secret from them. With the help of three professional artists and five psychology researchers, I assembled 30 pairs of abstract paintings. Each pair consisted of a work by an established abstract expressionist and a work by a child or an animal (chimpanzee, gorilla, monkey, or elephant—all of their paintings can appear strikingly similar to those of preschool children). The pairs were chosen for their similarities in color, line, brush stroke, medium, or some combination of these. The professional pieces were by artists working from the 1940s to the 1970s and included images by Mark Rothko, Charles Seliger, Clyfford Still, Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann, and Cy Twombly. The pieces by children came from online databases of preschool artwork in the United States. And the pieces by non-humans came from online databases of zoo galleries.
Pairs were shown to each subject individually, on a laptop screen. The images were made as similar in size and resolution as possible without creating distortion, and any frames or artist signatures were digitally removed. Ten of the pairs carried the correct attribution labels (“Child,” “Monkey,” etc., or “Artist”), another 10 had their labels switched, and 10 were presented with no identification at all. I wanted to find out not only whether people can discern professional quality in artwork, but also to what extent they can be misled into devaluing the work of an established artist. An influential 1931 study published in the American Journal of Psychology showed that people value a work of art more when they believe it is by a famous artist; but it did not investigate whether viewers would dismiss a professional piece if it were branded as amateur.
In each instance, participants in my study were asked, “Which image do you like more?” and “Which image do you think is a better work of art?”
The results were intriguing. To begin with, on the question of superior quality, both groups of students selected pieces by the abstract expressionists well more than 50 percent of the time. On the question of personal preference, however, art students liked the professional works significantly more often than did the psychology students. But the non–art students, even if they “liked” the child or animal art more, were still able to judge the professional work as “better.”
Perhaps the most interesting results had to do with the role of labels in shaping students’ views. The art students were immune to the influence of labels, which had no measurable effect on their choices. The non–art students, too, were unswayed by labels in choosing their personal preferences. But labels did influence the non-artists’ judgments of quality, at least in one direction. In the absence of labels, the psychology students judged the professional works as “better” at a rate above chance. When presented with correct labels, they accurately identified professional art pieces even more often. And yet, crucially, false labeling did not have a commensurate negative effect: Professional paintings labeled as being by children or animals were still apt to be judged superior by the non–artists, at a rate above chance. The participants weren’t tricked into devaluing them. When the students explained why they selected a professional piece as the better work of art, they were likely to talk about the intention and planning that went into the painting. They were able to deduce a human and adult mind behind the professional work.
Angelina Hawley Dolan, MA’10, is a Ph.D. student in psychology at Boston College. Her essay is drawn and adapted from her master’s thesis. The illustration opposite is by a pre-K student. It was paired with Hans Hofmann’s Laburnum (1954), which may be viewed here.