|Pop star Lady Gaga appears at the
MTV Awards 2010 in a dress
made from raw meat.
Van Gogh sliced off his own ear. Truman Capote insisted he could only think in a supine position while sipping coffee and puffing on a cigarette. Michael Jackson hung out with a chimp, and posed for photographers while sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Lady Gaga attended an awards ceremony wearing a dress made from meat. There’s a stereotype that creative people are eccentric and it’s easy to find examples like these to support the point.
A new study shows that because of this widely held stereotype, people infer that work made by an eccentric person is better and more valuable than work produced by a conventional character. Eccentricity is taken as a sign of artistic skill, except when the work in question is conventional and/or the display of eccentricity is judged to be fake.
Wijnand van Tilberg and Eric Igou tested these ideas across five studies. In the first, 38 students rated a painting by Van Gogh more positively if they were first told about the ear-cutting incident. In two other studies, dozens more students rated paintings by a fictional Icelandic artist more positively and estimated it to be more valuable if they were told he had an eccentric personality, or if they saw a photograph showing him looking eccentric, unshaven with half-long hair (as opposed to seeing a photo showing him looking conventional, with short hair and neat clothing).
The fourth and fifth studies highlighted some caveats. Students rated the unconventional art of Joseph Beuys (“The Pack”) more positively if they were told that Beuys was eccentric in that he had a habit of carrying roadside stones on his head. However, the same yarn about Andrea del Verrocchio did not lead to higher ratings for his conventional art (“Lady of Flowers”). Similarly, seeing a photo of Lady Gaga crouching in an usual outfit (tight, all black, with shiny mask) led student participants to rate her as more highly skilled compared to seeing her seated in a conventional black dress; unless, that is, the students were told that Gaga’s eccentricity is fake and no more than a marketing ploy. In other words, eccentricity of the artist leads to more positive ratings of their work, unless that work is conventional, and/or the artist’s unusual behaviour is seen as contrived.
“To the best of our knowledge,” the researchers said, “this is the first detailed empirical research that establishes a link from creator eccentricity to appreciation of creative works.” Their results build on prior research that’s shown thinking about unusual people boosts a person’s creative output. The findings also fit with a prior study of “stereotype confirmation”, in which listeners rated a rap more positively if they were told it was by a Black artist. “The perception of creative endeavours, typically considered as (usefully) original, deviant, and novel, is deeply embedded in conformist processes,” van Tilberg and Igou said.
WIJNAND ADRIAAN PIETER VAN TILBURG and ERIC RAYMOND IGOU (2014). From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist eccentricity increases perceived artistic skill and art appreciation. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1999