Even a Monkey: Telling Good Abstract Art from Bad

Walk through a modern art gallery, and you'll likely hear comparisons of the masterpieces on the wall to children's finger-painting. But a new study proves that people really can tell the difference between the masters and toddlers.

Even a Monkey: Telling Good Abstract Art from Bad

“I could paint that!” Or, “Even a monkey could paint that!” Walk through any museum or gallery containing modern abstract art and you’ll most likely hear similar sentiments from those who think little of abstract art and those who make it. There’s no difference between the paintings selling for thousands and sometimes millions and the finger painting of children in kindergarten, or so the argument goes. A recent study published by two psychologists argues against that idea by showing statistically that people can tell when an abstract painting is done by an adult human. Their experiment asked people with no, little, or much art knowledge to distinguish works by an adult human painter found in an art history book from artwork by a human child, a gorilla, a chimpanzee, an elephant, and, yes, even a monkey.


“Seeing the Mind Behind the Art: People Can Distinguish Abstract Expressionist Paintings From Highly Similar Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys, and Elephants” by Angelina Hawley-Dolan from the Department of Psychology at Boston College and Ellen Winter of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education appeared in the March 2011 issue of Psychological Science. They asked 72 undergraduates—40 psychology majors and 32 studio art majors—to look at two images side by side and say which one was by a human master. “We matched professional and nonprofessional paintings according to various attributes (color, line quality, brushstroke and medium),” Hawley-Dolan and Winner write in the article. “Paired images were presented side by side in PowerPoint on a laptop; as much as possible, the images were equated in size and resolution.” Despite these equalizing factors, a clear difference could be seen.

The psychologists showed the first 10 pairs without labels, followed by 20 pairs with labels such as “artist” or “monkey” that were deliberately incorrect half of the time. “Which do you like more? Why?” the psychologists then asked the undergraduates. “Which image do you think is the better work of art? Why?” Such questions separated preferences (“like”) from judgments (“better”), which is really the issue when people make the classic “Even a monkey…” crack. The non-art majors preferred the artists 56% of the time, whereas the art majors preferred them 62% of the time. When it came to judging what was art (i.e., “better”), the non-art majors picked the artists a whopping 65.5% of the time, only slightly topped (67.5%) by the art majors. “In the aesthetic domain,” the researchers concluded, “people can recognize that a work is good, but still not like it.” In other words, people might dislike abstract art, but they can still tell when it belongs in a museum versus a kindergarten or a zoo. (You can take a version of the test here.)

I confess to not always “getting” abstract art. I can stand in front of a swirling, tumultuous Pollock and be mesmerized. Even in reproduction, certain works by Rothko touch me deeply by color contrasts alone. And yet, for some reason, I simply cannot get Cy Twombly. Works such as his Untitled (Scenes from an Ideal Marriage) (shown above) say nothing to me regardless of how long I listen. I once spent almost an hour in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s gallery dedicated to Twombly’s 15-part Fifty Days at Illiam hoping that total immersion in his visual language would allow me to speak it, like living in Paris for a year to learn French. Alas, I still can’t speak Twombly, but I do accept that he’s important to art history, not just because the experts say so, but because he’s doing something unusual and striking, even if it doesn’t strike the right note with me.

I’m glad that the psychologists shaped their study the way they did. You simply can’t quantify what people like. It’s a fruitless exercise. You can, and they do, ask people what is better and what is not in art. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that he knew pornography when he saw it. This study helps art lovers argue that people, even those who don’t like abstract art, know art when they see it. The evidence is clear, even to a monkey.

[Image: Cy Twombly. Untitled (Scenes from an Ideal Marriage), 1986. Oilstick; oil and water color on paper 52 x 72 cm. (20.5 x 28 in.). © Cy Twombly.]

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