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“My monkey could have painted that.” Really?

Can monkeys match humans at abstract art?

People occasionally look at paint splattered on a canvas in a gallery and say, "My child could have painted that." (Or, among eccentric pet-owners, "My monkey could have painted that.") How much better is abstract art than work by kids and monkeys? New research reveals the answer.

Take a look at the two images in this post. Which do you prefer? Which do you think is by a professional artist? (See the answer below.) For a paper in press at Psychological Science, Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner of Boston College collected 72 undergrads, 32 of which were studio-art majors, and showed them 30 paintings by abstract expressionists. Each painting was paired with a painting by a child, a monkey, a chimpanzee, a gorilla, or an elephant. The images were matched on superficial attributes such as color, line quality, and brushstroke, and subjects were asked which piece they personally liked more, and which they thought was a better work of art.

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The first 10 pairs were unlabeled (signatures were scrubbed with Photoshop). Among the last 20 pairs, half were labeled correctly and half were labeled incorrectly (such that, say, a de Kooning was called a Koko and vice versa).

How did the students do? In all conditions, both art students and psychology students chose the professional works as preferred and of better quality most of the time. (See the chart below.) And preferences were pretty immune to labels.

Labels did manage to sway judgments of quality, at least among psychology students. While art students gave the same ratings to professional works no matter the condition, psychology students gave higher judgments of quality to pros when correctly labeled than when unlabeled or incorrectly labeled. (79% vs 66% and 63%, respectively.)

So it seems evident that, most likely, your pet monkey could not have painted that.

If you're looking for a cynical take on the art world, however, here's your fodder: Even the art students preferred the child's or animal's painting over the professional's—and judged it to be objectively better—30 to 40 percent of the time. And that's even when they were labeled correctly.

The next time you try to make a buck passing your progeny's paintings off as masterpieces, remember this: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, and art students about a third of the time.

 

UPDATE: In my brief coverage of the paper I didn't include all of the findings, but it's worth mentioning another important piece of the puzzle. When asked why they preferred a painting, participants made more references to the painter's intentions in their descriptions of the professional works than in their descriptions of the amateur efforts. “This finding shows that we can see the mind behind the art,” Hawley-Dolan wrote me in an email. “We see more than we think we do when we look at abstract art.”

ANSWER: The painting on the left was by a 4-year-old named Jack Pezanosky. The one on the right is Laburnum Hans Hoffman.

The artists included in the study were: Karel Appel, Gillian Ayres, James Brooks, Elaine de Kooning, Sam Feinstein, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Hans Hoffman, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Kenzo Okada, Ralph Rosenborg, Mark Rothko, Charles Seliger, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Mark Tobey, and Cy Twombly.

Related: Why we like works of art by the masters better than those by forgers.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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