Bryan Caplan  

The Bias of Modern Art

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For as long as I can remember, the "My child could do that" critique of modern painting and sculpture has resonated with me.  Broadly defined, I hasten to add, modernity creates great new visual art all the time; just look at graphic novels over the last forty years.  But to my eyes, high-status painting and sculpture - the kind displayed in the "modern" section of museums - almost always looks like junk.  When my little boy loudly declared, "That's not art!" at the modern section of the National Art Gallery, I thought of the Emperor's New Clothes and proudly smiled.

I know that most art aficionados will attribute my philistine position to ignorance.  But what's my theory about where they go wrong?  I can hardly call them ignorant; they plainly know vastly more about the art they prize than I do.  Instead, I blame their aesthetic errors on some well-known psychological biases.  Leading the list:

1. Confirmation bias.  Human beings have a serious case of "believing is seeing."  If they expect some artworks to be good - say, because they're in a museum - they'll look around for the faintest sign of aesthetic merit.  They'll rationalize.  And before long, many viewers will convince themselves that almost anything they expected to be good is good.

2. Hindsight bias.  Once people know what actually happened, they find it hard to believe that anything else was ever possible.  Even when "luck" and "coincidence" clearly drive the results, we prefer stories about "deep causes" and "inevitability."  Thus, when an artist achieves world-wide fame, our natural inclination is to attribute his success to aesthetic skill - and dismiss the possibility that he merely won a lottery.

3. Conformity.  Psychologist Solomon Asch famously designed an experiment with one subject and seven confederates.  He gave them a simple task - comparing the lengths of lines - then repeatedly ordered all the confederates to give the false answer.  Result: When everyone else says something wrong, people do more than say the wrong thing.  When debriefed, many subjects seem to sincerely believe the wrong thing.  So if you're in a museum where everyone around you claims soup cans are great art, mere consensus can plausibly change your mind for no good reason

4. Social Desirability Bias.  People prefer to say and believe whatever sounds good.  "The stuff in the museum is great" sounds a lot better than "My child could do that."

While these biases elegantly explain how modern art continues, they admittedly do little to explain how modern art arose.  For that, you need a richer story, probably starting with artists' yearning for originality combined with the immense (and ever-rising) difficulty of actually coming up with anything that's both original and good. 

You could respond, "If people enjoy modern art, who cares about its aesthetic merit?"  I'm tempted to protest, "And people call me a philistine!"  But the better answer is: because (a) in the short-run, bad art crowds out better art, and (b) in the long-run, the prevalence of bad art discourages people who justifiably dislike it from training to do something better.

Last point: the "ignorance" and "bias" stories can both be true!  "People underrate modern art because they're ignorant" and "People overrate modern art because they're biased" are two independent mechanisms.  So even if art aficionados correctly diagnose the philistines that surround them, they're missing half the picture.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Matt writes:

I would push back on two points.

1. Confirmation bias: My understanding is some early modern art is intentionally exploiting what you call confirmation bias. They want us to see that treating something as 'art', for example, by putting it in a museum, makes it art. A charitable interpretation might be that removing an everyday object form its conventional setting forces us to re-examine it with fresh eyes and appreciate it's aesthetic qualities in ways we had not before. I'm thinking of Duchamp's urinal here and Warhol's Cambell soup cans. You can argue if that's good or bad, but I think the artist and the viewers are at least aware that this is what's going on.

2. Hindsight bias: This can cut the other way too. A common retort by art enthusiasts to the claim "I could have done that" is "but you didn't." What seems obvious in retrospect might not have been obvious ex ante.

All that said, I actually agree with for the most part!

Jeffrey E writes:

Your chief objection to modern art is that it is too easy to create something similar, so therefore it cannot be rare, unique, or valuable.

However most modern art, even highly abstract or highly minimalist art, does not match this description of being easy to re-create. In some cases, it takes the experience as an artist to spot the difference.

What I will say about most modern art is that it feels incomplete. It may focus only on one aspect of art - color or linework or composition or subject matter or whatever. These works are better understood as aesthetic experiments than aesthetic products.

They focus on one aspect of aesthetics, because they are meant to be instructive to other artists who will go on to apply the idea to a full piece. The more abstract the art-piece the more general the application but the more that is required of the viewer to see the application.

I'd compare it to highly technical or theoretical scientific works, which are inaccessible to the general public but are an important part of science.

As for myself I tend to find art more interesting the more modern it gets. Old pictures of bishops and horses may feel complete, but they mostly aren't innovative.

Hazel Meade writes:

I suspect that certain forms of abstract art can only be appreciated by people who have used certain psychotropic drugs, such as LSD.

Not because those drugs addle the brain, but because once a person experiences visual perception differently, they gain an ability to discern aspects of the artwork that aren't as apparent to the inexperienced viewer.

I've been told by people who have drunk real Absinthe (the kind that contains sufficent amounts of thujone to produce hallucinogenic effects), that after having that experience, they immediately gained an increased appreciation for impressionist painters, and that it became clear that the impressionists were painting what they saw while drinking absinthe.

Similarly, it's possible that a lot of abstract art is made by people who have experimented with drugs that affect visual perception and so probably people that have used that drug will be more likely to see what the artist is trying to capture - i.e. the visual perceptive effect of the drug.

Ibrahim Nur writes:

In his series "How to Understand and Listen to Great Music, 3rd edition" Robert Greenberg, towards the end of the lecture series, discusses Schoenberg's work and earnestly asks the listener/viewer to understand that such music is an acquired taste. I've yet to warm up to 12-tone music and to even merely atonal works like the Rite of Spring (which I can't bear to listen to in its entirety) but I enjoy Greenberg as a music educator, and I feel icky trying to characterize the appreciation he so clearly has for Schoenberg's work as being merely delusional or the result of bias or what-have-you.

Here's pianist and writer Charles Rosen, very aged and with much difficulty, giving a lecture on his love and appreciation for modernist music and modern society's difficult response to such works. The subtle theme of the lecture (maybe not so subtle?) is his disappointment that music he loves isn't better appreciated. Again I don't much care for such music either but I'd feel weird trying to theorize about Rosen's appreciation as anything less than sincere.

PS: An out of print book that hilariously attacks classical musical modernism and aimed at the lay reader was written in the 1950s -- THE AGONY OF MODERN MUSIC by Henry Pleasants.

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Chip Smith writes:

This post is frustrating for its lack of specificity. I'm not even sure what Bryan has in mind by "modern art" and I'm less sure what he means by "aesthetic merit." Does he consider, say, cubism to exemplify the former? Does he equate draftsmanship (such as we find in the evolution of graphic novels) with the latter? I feel a hunch, but I'm really not sure.

In any case, there are countless arguments over specific works and movements, but the broad brush treatment presented here, without qualification or specificity, really is suggestive of philistinism (in the pejorative sense). I love Cy Twombly and Dubuffet, but I can't stand Picasso and I have a short fuse for Kandinsky. Which naked emperor has deceived me? I suspect that most museum habitues have similarly disparate tastes, and that an appreciation for context matters regardless.

I also find myself wondering about Bryan's taste in music, and whether he applies a similarly reductive patchwork theory to account for those whose auditory tastes likewise differ from his own.

Fabrizio Ghisellini writes:

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Franklin writes:

Artist and art writer here.

I'm assuming by the "my child could do that" characterization that by "modern art" you mean "abstract art." The question you ought to ask yourself is whether any abstract picture is better than any other abstract picture, in your estimation.

If no, then the whole genre is not for you, which is fine, but it says nothing about those of us for whom the answer is yes. If yes, then you see the core issue of the genre. It still may not be for you, but you recognize the basic validity of the pursuit.

It is indeed difficult to make something both original and good. But the modernists were obsessed with visual goodness, not disdainful of it as you suggest. Walter Darby Bannard in 1968: “if the art-making attitude assumes that art quality arises from the use of the materials of painting to make the painting, then the artist will strive to equip himself with a method of picture construction contrived in terms of these materials, and develop, discover or invent material units of construction – pieces or parts from which the painting can be made.”

Franklin writes:

Also, why wouldn't the Subjective Theory of Value apply to art?

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