When I paint my monkey masterpiece

June 14, 2011

I remember reading, a few months ago, about a study that had compared paintings by artists of the abstract expressionist school to paintings made by untrained children and animals. In the study, subjects were shown a pair of paintings, one from each category, and asked which they thought better. The authors found that in 67% of cases the viewer thought the painting by the professional painter was better.

This meant, of course, that in roughly one-third of cases the viewer thought that the child or the animal had made a better painting, which, one might think, would be pretty damning for the pros, but the authors of the paper put the best construction on their results, noting that subjects “chose the professional work significantly more often than would be predicted by chance”, and then concluding with the pleasant thought that “The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.”

Man or monkey?

Recently an amusing little paper appeared in the arXiv database (the database where new papers in physics are first posted) that finds the cloud in this silver lining. The author, Mikhail Simkin, had the thought to compare the 67% success rate with success rates in other contexts. He notes, for instance, a study on ‘just perceptible differences’ that found that only 72% of people could correctly identify a 100 g weight as being heavier than a 96 g weight when held in the hand; given that even fewer could distinguish the two groups of painters, does this suggest that the ‘artistic weight’, as it were, of the professional’s paintings is only ‘just perceptibly different’ from that of the monkey’s?

Or, again, he compares the results to the Elo rating system for chess players, and points out that players separated by one rank have skill levels more different than that shown between the two groups in the painting study. He concludes that

Since abstract expressionist wins over a monkey only in 67% of cases, the difference in their artistic Elo ratings is less than 200. This means that they either belong to the same category with apes or are just one category above. If we class a gorilla as a novice, abstract art grandmasters are at best class D amateurs.

Well, granted that there are obvious problems with drawing these analogies between art, weights, and chess, this nonetheless strikes me as a creative way to explore the real significance of that 67% result. I confess that there is no love lost between abstract art and me, and these findings, both here and, perhaps especially, in the original paper, put a big ol’ smile on my face and a song in my heart.

By the way, Mikhail Simkin has had a bee in his bonnet over abstract art for a while. He runs an online quiz in which the task is to correctly distinguish real abstract paintings, by acknowledged masters, from ‘ridiculous fakes’, by Simkin himself. Although the test is biased in favour of the real paintings (because people may have seen some of them before), he has found that people correctly distinguish wheat from chaff only about 66% of the time. I took the quiz myself, and scored just 58% (7/12). I would have done worse were it not for some clues, unrelated to the compositions themselves, that tipped me off.

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10 Responses to “When I paint my monkey masterpiece”

  1. Reg Says:

    Oh my! I scored only 33%. My judgement here is like my wife’s navigational skills — one should just pick the opposite of whatever I choose.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Heh. That is a pretty poor showing. I’d have scored 5/12 had I not noticed that several of the pictures were of paintings on canvas, and I thought it unlikely that Simkin had gone to the trouble of actually painting his fakes (as opposed to making them on the computer).

  3. KathyB Says:

    Hee Hee, I only got 2 wrong, but I have a master’s in Art History. And one of the images was blurry so I had to guess.

    One thing to keep in mind is that many of the modern masters were deliberately trying to challenge what we thought of as beautiful in art. Some of them wanted to eradicate representational art because they saw it as a lie, in the Platonic sense, and attempted to focus on the beauty of the materials themselves, or the colours produced.

    Let the debate now begin as to whether either of these ideas were worth pursuing in art….

  4. cburrell Says:

    Smarty pants.

    I know that there’s a lot of ‘meta-art’ behind the art, and that there was an intentional effort to break with the past. I just don’t care for the results, generally speaking, and I think it is hilarious that animals are apparently as capable as the pros of producing ‘likable’ and ‘technically accomplished’ art. I also realize that the aim of much abstract art is not to make something likable or technically accomplished, in the usual sense of the words, but, again, I tend to think that that is itself part of the problem. I’m a real troglodyte in these matters.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    One more thing worth noting is that some types of abstract art are technically very difficult to achieve – for example the last painting in the survey with the three inset squares. It’s very tricky to achieve a flat, even-toned surface on the paint with extremely crisp borders and no evidence of brush strokes.

    • cburrell Says:

      That’s the sort of thing that an artist is more likely to pick up on, for sure. There is an interesting sub-finding in the original paper linked above: they compiled separate statistics for “art students”, and found that they more often preferred the real art over the animal art (63% vs. 56% for the uninitiated), but that in ‘judgments of quality’, which the study authors expected to be ‘responsive to perceived skill’, there was hardly any difference between art and non-art students (68% vs. 66%).

  6. Reg Says:

    Roger Scruton and the BBC did a fantastic video essay on “Why Beauty Matters”. It is posted on YouTube in six parts; the first is here:

  7. Christina A. Says:

    I tend to take more of Kathy’s line and think you’re being a bit hard on abstract/modern art.

    Frankly, stuck to the classical, mediaeval, renaissance aesthetic for a long, long time and only in the past few years have developed more of an appreciation for the new stuff. So much of what we have of the old world is absolutely revolutionary and breathtaking, but so much more is simply treated like a masterpiece for the simple fact that it is old. Having a hard time finding words for exactly why right now, but I find myself enjoying modern art more in galleries – probably helped by a few years picking Kathy up from work in the gallery she was an assistant at.

    When I’ve seen exhibitions for abstract/cubist/modern artists, what becomes apparent is that they began as absolute masters in their trade by classical standards and there is a deeply sought and deliberate attempt to find something innocent but also technically ambitious through their art. Picasso sought desperately to return to how he’d painted as a child in his later years – this is extremely difficult for any adult. I feel that these artists are looking for a balance between a high degree of composition and simplicity – not an easy thing to achieve. On the other hand, so much of what is called “post-modern” today is simply created by the act of throwing away convention and the avoiding of discipline and training to literally create “monkey-works” – for these pieces, I have little interest.

    Back to the Picasso project: Next time you are colouring with I., pay attention to how difficult it is for you to avoid drawing representational figures and just scribble while she is so easily and naturally delighted with the sheer creation of line and colour (and eventually, shape). It will help you to understand why some artists have sought to de-nude their own work to find that innocence again.

  8. Francesca Says:

    I like abstract art. I also got 10/12, and I thought it a bit unfair to call that 83%, though doubtless that is what it is!


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