Scientist explains prestige-biased learning — and why even art experts can’t always grasp art

New research helps explain why experts’ preferences often deviate from laypeople’s preferences in the realm of art.

The two-part study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Human Nature, found that expert appreciation of artwork was driven in part by a prestige bias.

An initial experiment with 151 undergraduate students found that laypeople appreciate portrait photographs depicting attractive faces more than less attractive faces. The participants in the study judged expressionless photographs of women’s faces.

A second experiment that compared 106 artists and other art professionals to 87 lay participants replicated this finding among laypeople. But the second experiment also found that experts were more likely to appreciate the photograph if it was accompanied by a fake copyright from the Museum of Modern Art. While laypeople appreciated the photograph based on how aesthetically pleasing it was, the experts tended to appreciate the photograph based on their admiration for the (fake) artist.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Jan Verpooten of the University of Leuven. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Verpooten: I am interested in this subject both based on my experiences with modern and contemporary art and from an evolutionary perspective. I am regularly faced with art I can’t wrap my head around. That’s not a value judgment about art, nor about myself, that’s just an observation. For example, I recently visited an exhibition in a reputed gallery and one of the less minimalistic works was an ordinary filter cigarette glued to the wall. When I said to the gallery owner I was quite puzzled by the exhibition, to my surprise, she said she was too. Thus, it seems that even art professionals may be regularly confronted with art they feel they are unable to grasp.

I think this topic is also fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint. Evolutionary psychology predicts a number of aesthetic preferences shared among all people and evolved in our evolutionary past under natural (and sexual) selection. For example, it has been shown that faces we find more attractive indicate higher biological fitness. A preference for such faces is adaptive because it helps us with beneficial social and sexual partner choice. All else being equal, you would expect therefore that a picture of a beautiful face will be more appreciated than a portrait of a less attractive face. But it appears that an expert is no longer supposed to simply follow our innate aesthetic preferences.

Cultural evolution theory predicts that when an individual is uncertain about which cultural habits (incl. art preferences) it should adopt, it will copy those associated with prestige because prestige functions as an adaptive indicator of quality. So, maybe, “prestige biased learning”, as it this mechanism is referred to, has taken over the role of innate aesthetic preferences in the art world. Prestige bias implies that the individual copies preferences without actually knowing why; it simply trusts in the reliability of prestige. Thus, if all art experts apply prestige bias, it might explain why elusive art persists. My co-author and I designed the study to test that idea.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our results indicated that experts (artists, curators, etc.) are just as bad as laypeople at spotting fake artworks (expressionless photos of women’s faces) among genuine artworks from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection. This confirms the suspicion that even art experts are not always able to grasp art, let alone recognize it.

Furthermore we found that experts gave higher ratings to the same (fake) artwork if they were told that it belonged to the prestigious MoMA collection, while laypeople weren’t swayed by this information. This finding suggests that experts may indeed trustfully rely on prestige as an indicator of quality.

Finally, as we took the fake portraits from an earlier study of facial attractiveness, we could investigate what the art experts found attractive in the various different portraits. While the laypeople preferred the artworks involving more attractive faces, the art experts’ preferences were in the opposite direction — favoring the less attractive faces. This finding suggests that a trend might exist in the art world to actively deviate from our innate aesthetic preferences.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Yes, there are major caveats. We assumed that expert’s reliance on artistic prestige is linked to modern art’s deviation from innate aesthetic preferences and its opaque manifestations. While our findings support this assumption, much more research is required to conclusively confirm this hypothesized link. Is reliance on prestige a cause, consequence or both of this relation? Are there other factors involved in modern art’s divergence? Furthermore, in this study we only tested this with respect to facial beauty, while our contention implies that it should hold for other purported innate aesthetic preferences as well.

Since innate aesthetic preferences are part of our human nature and thus shared among everyone irrespective of their expertise, it would be interesting to find out why experts are not affected by them in the same way as laypeople when judging artworks. Do experts ignore them or even actively suppress them?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have noticed that our findings sometimes evoke extreme reactions. Opponents of modern and contemporary art see them as a confirmation that it is just a lot of hot air. Devotees consider it a scientific attempt to sideline art. These reactions suggest that the infamous divide between the “Two Cultures” in academia and beyond might still run deep today.

Therefore, I want to stress that it has been in no way our intention to mock art experts. In fact I received artistic training and I am active as an artist myself; my research interest in art comes precisely from my fascination with art and my concern for its current disempowered position in society. By uncovering underlying sociopsychological mechanisms that may cause problems, perhaps we can work on them and ensure that modern and contemporary art can acquire more credibility with skeptics.

The study, “The Conundrum of Modern Art: Prestige-Driven Coevolutionary Aesthetics Trumps Evolutionary Aesthetics among Art Experts“, was also co-authored by Siegfried Dewitte.