Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The psychology behind the appeal of original artwork

Why do we place such value on original works of art? Consider The Disciples at Emmaus - believed to be an original Vermeer, it was held in high esteem and sold in 1937 for £1.8 million. Later exposed as a piece by master forger Van Meegeren, however, and its value plummeted overnight.

You could say that we covet originals because of the value that wider society places on them. But that just pushes the question back - why does anyone value originals in the first place? And why with art so much more than other manufactured items?

In a new study, George Newman and Paul Bloom have tested at least two possible explanations - one is that we value original art work because of the originality of the creative performance that led to it; the other is that we feel an original piece is somehow infused with the unique essence of the artist, much like we cherish mundane items that once belonged to a rock star or other celebrity.

In one of Newman and Bloom's five experiments, 180 participants were asked to estimate the value of two paintings they hadn't seen before, both depicting the same scene (one was Son of a Covered Bridge, the other was A Covered Bridge, both by Jim Rilko). Half the participants were told that two different artists had painted the same scene by coincidence. The other participants were told that one artist had produced one of the paintings, and that another artist had seen it and decided to make a copy. All participants were told that there was only one of each painting in existence.

Participants who thought that two paintings had been produced of the same scene by coincidence tended to rate them as having a similar value. By contrast, participants who thought one painting was a copy of the other, tended to value that second painting especially low, and to value the first version of the scene especially high. This shows how we appreciate the originality of the creative performance behind a painting.

In the final experiment, 256 participants read about either a sculptor or a craftsman and their work creating either a bronze sculpture or a piece of furniture, respectively. For the participants who read about the sculptor, those who heard that the process was very hands-on tended to rate the value of the sculpture much more highly than those who read that the creative process was hands-off (involving machinery). By contrast, this distinction made far less difference to the valuations made by the participants who read about the craftsman's work.

In other words, participants placed more value on the bronze sculpture when they thought the artist had touched it more with his own hands, almost as though infusing it with his essence. This effect was enhanced further for participants who read a version of the vignette in which the sculptor made just one copy of his sculpture.

So when we cherish an original piece of art, it seems we do so partly because we value, not just the end product, but the originality of the performance that created it. Moreover, we believe that the work has a special quality about it because it came from the very hand of a particular artist. Copies and forgeries, no matter how close to the original, fall down on both these counts.

"We hope that the research here will engender interest on the broad topic of art within psychology," the researchers said, "as well as more specific questions regarding the role of authenticity in judgments of value."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Newman GE, & Bloom P (2012). Art and authenticity: The importance of originals in judgments of value. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 141 (3), 558-69 PMID: 22082113

-Further reading- A brain-imaging paper published last year reported that the same works of art triggered different brain activity depending on whether they were labelled as authentic or as copies.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Callum Hackett said...

I don't think these experiments are particularly enlightening, and the conclusions being drawn from them are just convenient rationalisations.

In the first experiment with the paintings, we learn absolutely nothing new. The set-up is *exactly* the same as we see in general culture - people value original artwork more. There are multiple reasons why this may be true, and the experiment was not set up in such a way as to distinguish between them, thus concluding that it's necessarily because we appreciate creative originality is unfounded.

The second experiment is similarly inconclusive. For example, it is said that the fact people preferred one sculpture because it was hand-made demonstrates that people consider it to have been infused with the artist's essence, but I could just as convincingly propose that they prefer it because hand-making something requires more technical skill than using a machine, and this grants the artist more respect. Here there is no need to turn to essence as an explanation, so we've learned nothing.

I don't doubt that both of those explanations are involved somehow, but these experiments don't prove it.

Unknown said...

hi Callum - I disagree and I think you've missed some of the logic behind the research. The first experiment created quite an unusual situation in which the same two pieces of unfamiliar art were similar either via coincidence or because one was a copy of the other. Simply being told that one of the paintings was a copy led people to value it less. Simply being told that a painting was made first, led it to be valued higher. This is revealing because the effect had nothing to do with the reputation of a particular artist and everything to do with the originality of the creative process. With regards to the second experiment, the important point here was that a hands-on process only led to higher valuations of the art, not the artefact manufactured by a craftsman. If it were technical skill that led to higher valuations, as you suggest, then both the hand-made artefact and art should have received higher valuations. In fact it was only the art (the sculpture) which supports the researchers' contention that the perceived higher value has to do with the art being infused in some way by the essence of the artist.

pelacus said...

So, regarding pedestrian works of art people placed a higher value on what they thought was original. I'm guessing that if you used two Vermeers in the experiment, for example, people would value both paintings pretty highly. The beauty of the Vermeer identified as a copy might cause the subjects to value it almost as highly as the one identified as original. In other words, I don't understand how the authors of the study can assume people will react the same way to intrinsically valuable art (that is clearly, even to a non-connoisseur, of superior aesthetic quality) as to art that is of very minor quality at best (apologies to Mr. Rilko and his fans!). I think maybe what the experiment showed was that people punish copying rather than value originality.

mbritt said...

I wonder if there's a connection to terror management theory: we value the object that has been touched by the artist because it gives us a connection to the past and future and helps us obtain a feeling of having denied death.

Hey - I didn't come up with the theory, but I think that's what its proponents might say.


Ashley Woodfall said...

Worth noting that the 'participants were asked to estimate the value of... paintings' through the eyes of 'others'? They weren't asked to put their own intrinsic value on them, but to value them on the 'open market' if you will.

This distancing perhaps leads us to ask if the participants were playing at being valuers, rather than assigning and expressing their own value.

Anonymous said...

In the experiment with Son of a Covered Bridge, I wonder if the 'original' artwork was more highly valued because people thought someone had copied it. Mimicry is one way we signal the signficance of a particular behaviour.

Psicolinea said...

You can find the Italian version of this article here: http://www.psicolinea.it/perche-attribuiamo-valore-alle-opere-darte-originali/

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