Human Nature

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 16–38 | Cite as

The Conundrum of Modern Art

Prestige-Driven Coevolutionary Aesthetics Trumps Evolutionary Aesthetics among Art Experts
  • Jan VerpootenEmail author
  • Siegfried Dewitte


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.


Evolutionary aesthetics Coevolutionary aesthetics Prestige bias Expertise Modern art Art appreciation 



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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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Economics and BusinessUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Research group Behavioural Ecology & Ecophysiology, Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

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