The Conundrum of Modern Art

Prestige-Driven Coevolutionary Aesthetics Trumps Evolutionary Aesthetics among Art Experts

Abstract

Two major mechanisms of aesthetic evolution have been suggested. One focuses on naturally selected preferences (Evolutionary Aesthetics), while the other describes a process of evaluative coevolution whereby preferences coevolve with signals. Signaling theory suggests that expertise moderates these mechanisms. In this article we set out to verify this hypothesis in the domain of art and use it to elucidate Western modern art’s deviation from naturally selected preferences. We argue that this deviation is consistent with a Coevolutionary Aesthetics mechanism driven by prestige-biased social learning among art experts. In order to test this hypothesis, we conducted two studies in which we assessed the effects on lay and expert appreciation of both the biological relevance of the given artwork’s depicted content, viz., facial beauty, and the prestige specific to the artwork’s associated context (MoMA). We found that laypeople appreciate artworks based on their depictions of facial beauty, mediated by aesthetic pleasure, which is consistent with previous studies. In contrast, experts appreciate the artworks based on the prestige of the associated context, mediated by admiration for the artist. Moreover, experts appreciate artworks depicting neutral faces to a greater degree than artworks depicting attractive faces. These findings thus corroborate our contention that expertise moderates the Evolutionary and Coevolutionary Aesthetics mechanisms in the art domain. Furthermore, our findings provide initial support for our proposal that prestige-driven coevolution with expert evaluations plays a decisive role in modern art’s deviation from naturally selected preferences. After discussing the limitations of our research as well as the relation that our results bear on cultural evolution theory, we provide a number of suggestions for further research into the potential functions of expert appreciation that deviates from naturally selected preferences, on the one hand, and expertise as a moderator of these mechanisms in other cultural domains, on the other.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that this latter process of evaluative coevolution can proceed by genetic and/or cultural mechanisms. Where the art expert is concerned, this process depends on cultural mechanisms.

  2. 2.

    Even though bootstrapping is becoming the most popular method for testing mediation (Hayes 2009), we have chosen to use the Sobel test when testing mediation of within-subjects effects given that, to the best of our knowledge, no published bootstrapping method of such effects exists (Andrew F. Hayes, personal communication; Zhao et al. 2010). Moreover, our samples are large enough that they are not vulnerable to the typical problems associated with the Sobel test.

  3. 3.

    In both studies, subjective expertise was higher among female participants (Study 1a: M = 20.39, SD = 6.42; Study 1b: M = 19.87, SD = 7.78) than it was among male participants (Study 1a: M = 14.76, SD = 6.09; Study 1b: M = 15.55, SD = 6.48). Study 1a: F 1,150 = 30.56, p < 0.01; Study 1b: F 1,119 = 10.13, p < 0.01.

  4. 4.

    In addition, as this question was asked of all participants, it allowed us to verify whether experts were better than laypeople at identifying that our stimuli did not belong to the MoMA. A z test to compare two proportions revealed that experts (p = 3.8%) and laypeople (p = 8%) performed equally poorly in distinguishing between real MoMA artwork used as fillers and the face research pictures used as stimuli (z = 1.3, p = 0.11).

  5. 5.

    GLMM on the total sample with the continuous expertise variable yielded results that were very similar to the expertise grouping variable. It revealed the predicted significant interactions between expertise and prestige, F 1,189 = 3.90, p = 0.05, and between expertise and content, F 1,189 = 34.70, p < 0.01. In addition, the analysis indicated a significant main effect of expertise, F 1,189 = 18.34, p < 0.01 and of content, F 1,189 = 4.062, p = 0.05.

  6. 6.

    Adding gender to the model showed that the content effect was partially moderated by gender (F 1,185 = 14.83, p < 0.01): as simple contrast tests indicated, men appreciated pictures of attractive faces (M = 4.16, SD = 1.15) more than those of neutral faces (M = 3.78, SD = 1.35; F 1,185 = 22.31, p < 0.01) because all other contrasts were not significant. This simple effect of men is likely due to the fact that we used pictures of women’s faces. Gender did not moderate the interactions that are of interest to us: expertise and content (F 1,185 = 0.47, p = 0.49) and expertise and prestige (F 1,185 = 0.09, p = 0.76).

  7. 7.

    Although mediated moderation models may seem at first glance a more suitable approach to analyzing data such as ours, to the best of our knowledge, mediated moderation models that can handle a mixed design (i.e., both within- and between-subject factors) have not yet been developed. Consequently, we resorted to the simple, more traditional mediation analyses.

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the members of the Behavioral Engineering Group Research and the Centre for Marketing and Consumer Science at the University of Leuven for commenting on these studies on various occasions. Thanks as well to the members of the Ethology Group at the University of Antwerp and The Centre for Logic and Analytic Philosophy at the University of Leuven for their comments. Special thanks to Morgan David, Sam Franssens, and Yannick Joye for commenting on a draft of the paper, to Els Van Peborgh for discussion, to Anouk Festjens for suggestions concerning statistical analysis and to Gabi Lipede for amendments to the final draft. This paper was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO; Grant no. G085012 N).

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Appendix

Appendix

The multiple choice art quiz consisted of ten questions. One question was the above-mentioned check concerning whether the fact that the face stimuli did not belong to the MoMA was successfully concealed; this question did not count for the expertise score. In seven of the remaining nine questions, we asked who created the visual artwork that was displayed, ranging from Renaissance art (Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel) to contemporary art (e.g., Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) and variously involving a painting, an installation, or a performance. One question concerned who painted the Mona Lisa and another involved placing art genres in chronological order. With the exception of the latter, all questions were multiple choice, offering 4 or 5 options, including an “I don’t know” option.

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Verpooten, J., Dewitte, S. The Conundrum of Modern Art. Hum Nat 28, 16–38 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9274-7

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Keywords

  • Evolutionary aesthetics
  • Coevolutionary aesthetics
  • Prestige bias
  • Expertise
  • Modern art
  • Art appreciation