Are More Eccentric Artists Perceived As Better Artists?

A study finds part of the reason people love Lady Gaga and Vincent Van Gogh is that these are very eccentric artists, and people have strong, unconscious stereotypes that eccentric artists are better.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Think for a moment about an artist who is really out there in some way. Maybe a musician comes to mind, somebody like Lady Gaga or a painter like Salvador Dali. New research now asks whether you like such artists because of their art or because they conform to a mental stereotype of how artists are supposed to behave. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly on this program. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Lady Gaga, Salvador Dali, and the suggestion here is you're not really buying their art, you're buying what? Their persona?

VEDANTAM: Well, you might be buying their art but it's probably not just their art, Steve. There's new research that shows there's a particular quality among artists that tends to bias us into believing they are great. That quality is to be eccentric in some way, to wear outlandish clothes, act in outlandish ways, do socially inappropriate things. Now, we all know that artists do socially inappropriate things.

Maybe some of us have suspected that some artists act in eccentric ways just to get our attention.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

VEDANTAM: But this is the first time I've seen empirical evidence that shows that being eccentric has a measurable effect on our judgments of art and artists. I spoke with Eric Igou. He's at the University of Limerick in Ireland and along with his co-author Wijnand Van Tilburg, he examined the effect that being eccentric has on our perceptions of art. In one experiment they asked volunteers to evaluate a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh - there's a painting of sunflowers - and some volunteers were reminded that Van Gogh was an artist who cut off his own ear.

ERIC IGOU: We found just reminding people that Van Gogh cut off his earlobe led to more appreciation, higher appreciation of, his art.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to imagine the person's thought process there. Subconsciously, I suppose, they're thinking, wow, this is really intense. This is some crazy, over the edge guy who did this amazing art.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. The interesting thing is people might have known about Van Gogh cutting off his ear before but just being reminded of it brought that front and center. Igou thinks that this connection is happening because in our minds the image of the true artist is mixed up with this image of the tormented soul, the person who's driven by these strange impulses. Here he is again.

IGOU: Eccentricity is an essential part of the stereotype of artists and another aspect is they are creative. And these two aspects are linked. So the more you're eccentric the more you may also be seen as creative.

VEDANTAM: You know, to be fair, Steve, it's possible that there actually is a connection between being eccentric and being a great artist because many great artists have indeed been eccentric. It's also fair to point out, of course, that there are lots of eccentric people who are not great artists.

INSKEEP: Are not great artists. Some of them might even believe that they are. I'd like to ask if this is in a sense a function of branding, though. If you do some wildly unusual thing it fixes you in the public mind. People have some idea of who you are and that's part of your brand.

VEDANTAM: It could be. Now, the thing is with these experiments you're asking people to compare the same artwork when you know the person is eccentric and you know the person is not. This even happens with artists whom you're not familiar with. You know, Igou and Van Tilburg have identified there are important limits on this link between being eccentric and being creative.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: They found this connection holds only if the kind of art you are doing is really out there, if you're really wild. So it's the connection between being wildly artistic and eccentric that makes sense. If you're just a run of the mill, you know, middle aged rock band, you know, dyeing your hair is probably not going to make you seem more artistic.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: They also found, interestingly, that it's really important that being eccentric you have to seem authentic. So with Lady Gaga and Salvador Dali, it doesn't look like they're putting on an act. The researchers have found that when it looks as if this is a marketing trick, people stop making the assumption that being eccentric is the same as being artistic.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam is a hardly eccentric at all NPR correspondent who brings us social science research. Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can follow him on Twitter at hiddenbrain. You can follow this program on Twitter at MORNINGEDITION and at NPRInskeep.

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