You Can’t Ape It: Art Outsiders Can Tell The Difference Between Abstract Art and Finger Paintings

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Anyone who’s stood before one of Cy Twombly’s gigantic scribbles or Jackson Pollock’s chaotic drip paintings knows it doesn’t take an expert to be a critic. One of the most common critiques, “my kid could have done that,” is a claim that’s inspired books and editorials and more than a few threatening tweets from art aficionados defending the genius of abstract expressionism against the harsh judgements of the unconvinced. Despite some of their scoffing, new psychology research published this month in Cognition suggests the uncredentialed public can not only discern Twombly’s skill from a two-year-old’s play, they tend to like the works of master artists better, too.

In a series of experiments, Psychologists Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner along with their colleagues at Boston College—Leslie Snapper, Cansu Oranç, and Jenny Nissel—asked hundreds of art outsiders to evaluate works by famous abstract expressionists such as Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning along with works by lesser-known children, chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, and elephants. They wanted to find out if people without much, or any, exposure to abstract art might still be able to detect the intentionality and skill in the abstract paintings of masters over those created by animals and children. While such a study might offer more fodder for skeptics than put a point in the win column for the art world, people did rate the works of professional artists better.

Researchers asked hundreds of art outsiders to evaluate works by famous abstract expressionists such as Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning along with works by lesser-known children, chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, and elephants.

In their first experiment, they showed participants 30 pairs of images–one by a famous artist and the other by either a child or animal. The images were paired together with the help of art experts to be similar in color, line quality, brush stroke, and medium. After seeing each pair, participants were asked to choose which work they thought was done by the artist. The task isn’t easy. If you want to give it a try yourself, there is a somewhat similar BuzzFeed test for that. On average, participants identified the professional artwork about 64 percent of the time. In other words, they got a D. While this would only barely count as a passing grade in an Art History class, their answers were not random. It shows most people were picking up on a more sophisticated style in the works of famous painters.


Sample pair used in study 1. Left: “Laburnum” by Hans Hofmann, © 2015 The Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Painting by Jack Pezanosky, age 4, reprinted with permission of the parents of Jack Pezanosky.

Winner and her colleagues then ran a second experiment. In case seeing the two images side by side gave viewers an edge at picking out the artist’s work, they showed another group all 60 images, but this time one at a time. In this experiment, participants again identified the professional artwork at a rate better than chance. Not all works were equally easy to spot, however. While the majority—94 percent—of participants could identify Charles Seliger’s Forest Echoes (1961) as the work of a professional artist, the painterly touch of Joan Mitchell’s 1990 Pastel proved more difficult to discern. Only 12 percent of participants said they thought it was done by an artist, let alone the highest selling female artist—Mitchell broke auction sales records last year when one of her untitled pieces sold for more than $11.9 million.

Winner, an expert on child prodigies and gifted children, has also spent a good deal of time investigating how the general public experiences art. She’s run a number of studies on detecting forgeries (even laypeople can do it), what people like about art (it’s not just about beauty), and how what we think about an artist influences how we evaluate his or her work. Back in 2011, Hawley-Dolan and Winner conducted their first experiment testing if people could tell the difference between works by famous artists and those by children and animals. Then, they recruited a few dozen Boston College undergraduates, half of whom were art students, to evaluate each of these 30 pairs asking them two questions: Which image do you like more and why? and Which image do you think is the better work of art and why?


Image used in study: Sam Francis, Untitled, 1989, © 2015 Sam Francis Foundation, California Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Some of the images were correctly labeled artist, child, or animal. Others were mislabeled, and still others were not labeled at all. Across all conditions, both the art students and the non-art students thought the professional work of art was better about 65 percent of the time. In one condition, the non-art students even did a little better at spotting the real artwork. But what the art students lacked in judgement, they made up for in taste. According to their findings, the art students were more likely to like the professional work of art.

Winner and her colleagues wanted to find out what people saw in the works by famous artists that helped them discern its artistic value. In a third experiment published in their present study, Winner and her colleagues asked yet another group of more than 150 participants to evaluate all 60 images across a range of dimensions such as intentionality, structure, inspiration, negative space, and metaphorical meaning. However, this time the participants had no idea they were looking at works by both famous artists as well as children and animals. Winner and her colleagues found two qualities stood out in particular that people ascribed to professional artworks: intentionality and visual structure. On the whole, participants described the works by famous artists as having a greater level of intentionality and more sophisticated structure. Similarly, participants said many of the works by children and animals appeared to be less intentional and structured.


Image used in study: Untitled by Congo the chimpanzee

Winner and her colleagues then looked at the participants’ responses for the easiest to identify artworks, like Seliger’s Forest Echoes. They found participants rated these paintings the highest in intentionality in comparison with the more difficult to identify works like Mitchell’s Pastel. This lead them to conclude that intentionality is one of the main criteria people use to judge the value of an artwork, a claim supported by other studies on how people ascribe value to artifacts.

While Winner and her colleagues’ studies suggest most people are able to discern skill in a variety of contexts, their findings are at odds with a number of other studies. As the authors note, previous studies have found that context does matter. For example, another group of researchers at University College London found that people liked an artwork more when they thought it came from a famous gallery rather than when they were told it was generated by a computer.

Even the art world’s taste doesn’t always (or even often) reflect a keen judgement of skill. Some might remember two-year-old Freddie Linksy, whose mediums included ketchup as well as acrylics. His work was sought after by one Berlin gallery who stumbled upon the misleading Saatchi Online profile his mom made for him as a joke. One collector purchased a painting for £20, saying he liked its “flow and energy.”

Then there’s Congo, the chimpanzee, whose works outsold Renoir and Warhol at auction, fetching more than $25,000. He did most of his painting between the ages of two and four, way before most painters reach their artistic peak. Granted, his  work is pretty good; Picasso reportedly hung one of the chimp’s works in his home. He was also an intentional painter. Congo reportedly threw tantrums if a painting was taken away before he was done working and refused to paint more on a piece once he decided it was finished.

But, for obvious reasons, such cases are exceptions. On the whole, Winner and her colleagues’ work suggest something important about non-representational art and the important role intentionality plays in how we ascribe value to artworks. For the parents of kids who could have done that, science suggests they can’t, at least not without a bit more practice.