These Scientists Are Trying to Quantify Your Taste in Art

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Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 - Vernissage
Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

This week, the old adage “there’s no accounting for taste” is being tested again as tens of thousands of people descend on Miami for what’s known as the art world’s spring break — a Champagne-fueled art-and-design extravaganza. Art Basel Miami Beach is the country’s biggest contemporary art event, with 20 satellite fairs that sell some of the world’s most radical sculptures, photographs, and paintings. 

Art Basel–goers would surely love to believe that they, and they alone, are responsible for their impeccable taste in art. But recently, researchers have begun to study the neurological and psychological underpinnings that help explain why you may love an abstract Cy Twombly drawing, but your friend thinks it looks like a bunch of scribbles his toddler made.

For one, you might like an artist you see hanging in a big museum like the Whitney or at a fancy art fair simply because it’s there. Behavioral strategist Samuel McNerney once wrote about what psychologists refer to as confirmation bias and how it relates to art for Scientific American. As he explained, “just as we only look for what confirms our scientific hypothesis or personal decisions, we likewise only listen to music or observe art that confirms our perceived notions of good and bad aesthetics.” In other words, if it’s at Art Basel, it must be great.

And the more you view a particular artist or type of work— say, cutting-edge conceptual art— the more you may like it. Cornell psychologist James Cutting showed undergraduates images by renowned Impressionists and a collection of lesser-known ones, presenting the unfamiliar work four times more often than the masterpieces. Those students exposed more frequently to unknown artists preferred them more often than the control group who hadn’t seen them as much. “All of us, as members of a culture, absorb what is around us,” Cutting concluded. “We like [the images] we have seen before, and particularly those we have seen many times.”

At the same time, researchers have also found that some of our art preferences may be rooted in biology — and that there may be intrinsic properties that many off us agree make certain art bad. A team of American and British scientists questioned Cutting’s theory that increased exposure to an artist or his work is why you like it more. After all, he’d only used art of a fairly high merit, even if it wasn’t by famous Impressionists. And if the art exposure theory held, these researchers asked: Are the “bad art” pictures on Tumblr really bad or just unfamiliar to you?

Instead, according to their study, published in the Journal of Aesthetics, we like a piece of art for its inherent value, not because of various social or environmental factors. The researchers repeatedly exposed study groups to two sets of images: one by the Pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais (who hangs in Tate Britain), and another, by American artist Thomas Kinkade, whose work has been described as, “so awful it must be seen to be believed.” Participants reported no greater appreciation for Millais the more they viewed his work. And people liked the Kinkade less the more they saw it.

Then again, Adrienne Betz, director of the behavioral neuroscience program at Quinnipiac University, isn’t convinced any of these explanations fully hold the key. “Your brain recruits many corresponding neural areas in order to process and appreciate visual work in front of you,” she told Science of Us. “It all could really just be a matter of taste.”