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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

Your child couldn't have painted that

Modern art is a scam.

You hear it all the time. Wander through any exhibition of abstract or non-representational art and you'll overhear someone scoffing "my kid could have painted that."

It isn't hard to see why they might say that. So much abstract art looks like little more than smears of paint across a canvas. And yet, these random splotches of colour sell for millions.

Is there really a difference between Willem de Kooning's Interchange, which sold for $300 million in 2007, and the mindless fingers swirls of a toddler?

The short answer is, yes. If someone wants to pay $300 million for a painting, then that is what that painting is worth. Like my real estate agent friend told me when I was trying to figure out how much the house we had our eye on was worth: "It's worth however much you're prepared to pay to live there."

However, the reasons why someone might want to drop that amount of cash on a piece of art do not have to be connected to the actual artistic merit of the painting. As Adam Conover shows in this video, there are no end to ways that art be used to scam, swindle and deceive.

But does that mean that the art itself is a scam?

For many, the value of art comes not just from the art itself but from the effort or skill required to create it. We want to see the artist's sweet and genius on the canvas. We want someone very, very talented to work very, very hard.

We can measure the talent and technical skill of a representational artist by how close the painting is to reality. A good painting of a duck is that the paint that looks the most like a duck.

However, the goal of abstract art is represent concepts that we can not see with our eyes. Kandinksy tried to create visual chords, to paint music. Picasso's cubism tried to show the same three-dimensional objects from different angles in a single two-dimensional picture. Pollock attempted to represent unnamed emotions or unexplainable thoughts from deep within his subconscious.

So how do we prove that abstract art has meaning and value if the technical skill and deeper meaning isn't immediate obvious?

In 2011, Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner asked 32 art students and 40 psychology to compare pairs of paintings. One piece created by a recognised abstract artist and the other by children and animals.

Between 60% and 70% of the time, the students would pick the recognised artist over the children and animals. Interestingly, even when the paintings were unlabelled or mislabelled, the students still preferred the professional art.

There is a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

As Hawley-Dolan and Winner wrote: “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings...people see the mind behind the art.”

However, you have to wonder, what would the difference be if we compared a realistic picture of horse by a trained artist with one by a toddler? Would 30-30% of people prefer the toddler's drawing then?


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