Does Eccentricity Raise the Value of Art?

Artists may often be eccentric, but does eccentricity increase the worth of an artist’s work?  That’s the question asked by psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou in a new paper on eccentricity and art. Here’s a summary from BPS Research Digest:

Wijnand van Tilberg and Eric Igou tested these ideas across five studies. In the first, 38 students rated a painting by Van Gogh more positively if they were first told about the ear-cutting incident. In two other studies, dozens more students rated paintings by a fictional Icelandic artist more positively and estimated it to be more valuable if they were told he had an eccentric personality, or if they saw a photograph showing him looking eccentric, unshaven with half-long hair (as opposed to seeing a photo showing him looking conventional, with short hair and neat clothing).

The fourth and fifth studies highlighted some caveats. Students rated the unconventional art of Joseph Beuys (“The Pack”) more positively if they were told that Beuys was eccentric in that he had a habit of carrying roadside stones on his head. However, the same yarn about Andrea del Verrocchio did not lead to higher ratings for his conventional art (“Lady of Flowers”). Similarly, seeing a photo of Lady Gaga crouching in an usual outfit (tight, all black, with shiny mask) led student participants to rate her as more highly skilled compared to seeing her seated in a conventional black dress; unless, that is, the students were told that Gaga’s eccentricity is fake and no more than a marketing ploy. In other words, eccentricity of the artist leads to more positive ratings of their work, unless that work is conventional, and/or the artist’s unusual behaviour is seen as contrived.

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  1. caleb b says:

    There are many great Calvin & Hobbes comics devoted to just this principle.

    Calvin understood very well that great art required a great story. In one of my favorites, Calvin declares that art is dead and that everything has already been done, therefore he was signing his name in the snow and offering for sale for $1 million dollars, declaring the landscape itself as his work. Hobbes obviously declines (I’m not sure where Calvin thinks he would have found the money). Calvin replies, “The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who is putting on whom.”

    Certainly if I (a sports watching, bud light drinking, Texan, middle class dad with a white collar corporate job) were to place a crucifix in a jar of urine, this would not be art. If however, I were an eccentric New Yorker whose life was devoted to taking pictures of dead things and dribbling my blood onto a canvass with a stick…..well THAT would be art!!

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  2. Phil Persinger says:

    Caleb–

    But if in a parallel universe w/ no Andres Serrano you had produced, out of the blue, the vitrine described in your second paragraph– and that work had some meaning for you– that would have indeed been art by some lights. You just wouldn’t have had– and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted– a market for it.

    There’s art and then there’s “art.” Calvin (and thank you for bringing up that particular strip) could have as easily been talking about the “art” market (which includes agents, dealers, critics, collectors/investors, etc.) as about artists and their work in isolation.

    Van Tilberg/Igou are testing for the effectiveness of “spin.” If your parallel universe version of
    yourself and your body of work– wonder jar, photos, bloody canvas and all– were to be discovered
    as a “primitive” or “outsider” artist and your work marketed as such to the public, you’d be the next parallel-universe Grandma Moses or Jimmy Lee Sudduth.

    Does that marketing change in any way the “meaning” or authenticity of your work for you? For anyone else who might be truly moved by your work?

    By the way, if you’ve heard Lady Gaga sing w/ Tony Bennett you’d know that she’s got some real licks and chops… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPAmDULCVrU

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  3. Shane L says:

    That’s fun and interesting. I’d like to know if this is the case across many cultures. I can imagine that in many modern developed countries there is a strong emphasis on individualism and self-expression. In another culture there may be more emphasis on conformity and social unity, where an eccentric artist may be deemed a self-centered annoyance.

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    • Gary says:

      The WEIRD population—Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic—is the least representative populations for generalizing human behavior. And used in about 80% of recent psychological research. Do you trust the opinions of 20-year-old college students on anything substantial?

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  4. James says:

    I have to wonder whether there is not a major problem with context here. They’re studying the reactions of students, no? Yet on all of the college campuses in my experience, and in many other contexts, “unshaven with half-long hair” is the norm, “short hair* and neat clothing” is eccentric.

    *But not the shaven head look.

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  5. Bill says:

    It’s the inverse correlation to the Turkish astronomer in the novel “Le Petit Prince” who’s discoveries were not taken seriously til he dressed in a European style of clothing rather than his traditional Turkish garb.

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