Could your Kid really have Painted that? Distinguishing between Paintings by Abstract Expressionist Masters and Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys and Elephants

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Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are not good at distinguishing between “insider” and “outsider” non-representational art. Museum-goers commonly comment that abstract expressionist paintings are no different from what a child could do. The reverse occurs as well: even art critics have sometimes been fooled into thinking that paintings by young children were actually made by adult masters (Bar-Lev, 2007; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article2983819.ece/). The goal of the present study was to examine whether adults untrained in visual art can distinguish between work by abstract expressionists and superficially similar work by children and non-humans.

Adults without art training were shown 30 pairs of non-representational abstract images. Each pair consisted of a painting by a recognized artist and a superficially similar painting by a child or non-human. Ten pairs were presented without attribution labels, 10 with accurate labels, 10 with reversed labels. Participants were asked which painting they liked better (preference) and which they judged to be the better work of art (judgment). Choice of work by a master was scored as “correct.”

Preference: In all three conditions, participants preferred works by masters at a rate significantly above chance.

Judgment: In all three conditions, participants judged works by masters as the better works of art at a rate significantly above chance. As expected, having an accurate label elevated the number of “correct” choices. Surprisingly however, having a reversed label did not depress the number of “correct” choices.

Thus, despite the surface similarity between works by abstract expressionists and the albeit charming works by children/non-humans, and despite the oft-heard claims that abstract expressionist paintings look like children’s finger paintings, even individuals with no expertise in visual art prefer works by masters and recognize them as “better” works of art.


Keywords: Abstract Art, Aesthetic Preferences, Visual Thinking
Stream: Teaching and Learning the Arts
Presentation Type: 30 minute Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Angelina Hawley-Dolan

Graduate Student, Department of Psychology, The Arts and Mind Laboratory, Boston College
Brighton, Massachusetts, USA

My continuing research as both an artist and a scientist is to explore and document the art-specific cognitive experiences that have enriched and expanded our human culture.

My research program is at the intersection of the visual arts, developmental psychology and art education, particularly in the area of aesthetic reasoning. I am investigating the cognitive and affective responses involved in viewing and analyzing visual art, specifically looking at the criteria adults and children use to categorize and analyze potential art objects. My current projects explore aesthetic experiences in children and adults when viewing abstract art, looking specifically at the roles attributed to intentionality and visual composition in evaluating works of art. I believe that visual art is a communicative process in which the viewer engages in a visual dialogue with not only the work itself, but also the mind behind the art. I am interested in exploring the nature of this didactic dialogue and how it can be applied to both educational settings and our knowledge of the development of how we come to understand art.


Ref: A10P0110