A new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology confirms what you may have already known to be true: when it comes to art, people like weirdos.
More specifically, researchers found that observers tended to more highly evaluate a work of art if they perceived its creator to be eccentric. To test their hypothesis, they split participants into groups and showed them one of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” still lifes, telling one group that the artist cut off part of his ear, but not the other. Those who learned of Van Gogh’s self-mutilation gave the work higher marks. He’s a bit of an oddball, so there must be something deep going on in these pretty flowers.
Without access to the entire study, however, I’m wondering how the researchers controlled for recognition. I’d imagine anyone who’s been in a grade-school art class remembers the story of Van Gogh’s ear; hearing that anecdote might be enough for observers to recognize the painting as the work of a canonical artist and rate it higher because of that, not any perceived eccentricity.
More interesting is the study’s look at ideas of authenticity. A separate experiment had participants looking at images of Lady Gaga — one of the musician in a black dress, the other showing her “in a crouched position, wearing a tight black suit, black boots, black gloves, and a large, shiny mask.” Those who saw the second photo rated Gaga’s music higher, but only if they perceived her offbeat-ness as authentic: a subgroup that was told her antics are sometimes seen as a marketing scheme didn’t react as positively.
Troublingly, the study seems to rely on certain characteristics being universally perceived as eccentric. Severing his own earlobe gave Van Gogh weirdo cred that’s hard to argue with, but for a person who’s versed in modern art and design, Gaga’s “large, shiny mask” could come off as positively ordinary. Would those people still like her music?
Still, there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you’re an aspiring artist looking to get the masses stroking their chins, throwing the odd meat dress into your wardrobe probably won’t hurt.