What makes great art?

An exclusive chapter from The Psychology of Art, by George Mather; part of Routledge's 'The Psychology of Everything' series.

The Routledge 'Psychology of Everything' series is publishing its latest wave of titles, and we have some exclusive chapters to share. Read more about the series, and find past chapters on our website, here.

This one is from The Psychology of Art by George Mather.


As discussed in the previous chapters, at the start of the last century visual artists turned away from attempts to achieve physical realism in their work and began searching for some kind of psychological realism instead. This move took art away from the traditional standards of visual beauty that had held sway for centuries. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (Figure 1.2) was so influential because it was the first artwork to reject visual pleasure completely, and assert that the idea or concept was all that mattered for great art. Duchamp reflected in 1942:

I was interested in ideas – not merely in visual products Itwas true I was endeavouring to establish myself as far as possible from ‘pleasing’ and ‘attractive’ physical paintings.

This shift in the criteria of greatness is so profound that it is necessary to divide the discussion of the psychology of great art into two sections. The first is devoted to art created prior to the advent of Modern art, and the second is devoted to art in the Modern and Post-Modern era.

Traditional Concepts of Great Art

Natural beauty was the hallmark of great art for centuries. According to Giorgi Vasari in 1568 the goal of art was simply “the imitation of the most beautiful things in nature”. Over 300 years later the Victorian art critic John Ruskin also saw the primary purpose of art as communicating an understanding of nature:

Go to Nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.

So in this traditional view, art is a conduit for conveying natural beauty. The obvious question is then: Why are natural things beautiful? Philosophers have had fundamental disagreements on the answer to this question. Some philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, believed that beauty is an inherent property of an object, just like its size or weight. Certain objective characteristics of a shape or body, such as balance and proportion, denote its beauty. According to Aristotle in 350 B.C.E.:

The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.

Since the time of ancient Greece, for example, certain body pro- portions have been considered ideal. The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio discussed the ideal proportions of both buildings and human bodies in his multi-volume book On Architecture. His ideal human proportions, based on Greek statues, were famously depicted by Leonardo in his drawing “Vitruvian Man”.

The opposing subjectivist view to the objectivist account of beauty was held by philosophers such as Hume. They argued that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, a socio-cultural construction. Hume wrote in 1757:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. 

Subjectivist philosophers viewed ‘taste’ as a refined ability to perceive quality in an artwork, which could be acquired through education and experience (hence the Grand Tours mentioned in Chapter 2). The art historian Ernst Gombrich used the term ‘beholder’s share’ to refer to the role of the viewer’s mind and brain in their experience of art.

Although objectivist and subjectivist theories of beauty each capture some important characteristics of beauty, a comprehensive account of beauty must include roles for both the object and the subject. There seems to be something about the objective properties of a face, for instance, that defines its beauty. Ratings of female facial beauty tend to be consistent across cultures. Psychologists have identified three specific facial features or configurations in both men and women that are associated with beauty: Sexual dimorphism (such as the sizes of the jaw, eyes and lips), symmetry and averageness in the arrangement of features. Darwinian sexual selection can explain why these particular objective features are subjectively appealing to perceivers: They signal the genetic quality and physical health of a potential mate. So beauty arises from an interaction between the physical features of the object being judged and the predisposition of the subject to value certain features more than others.



Figure 6.1 Nicolas Poussin, “Landscape with a Calm”, c. 1650.

Credit line: Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. 

Picturesque landscape paintings provide another interesting example of how beauty judgements emerge from the interaction between objective properties and viewer preferences that are rooted in our evolutionary past. Landscape is one of the most popular genres in Western art. Certain physical features in landscape paintings seem to be universally liked by spectators, and can be found in the work of the greatest landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and John Constable (see Figure 6.1). Their work tends to depict a predominantly rural and open view into the distance, with a scattering of trees and vegetation, rather than one enclosed by dense forest or overhanging rocks. Water features such as a river or lake are often included, as well as human and animal figures, and perhaps a distant building such as the ruin of an ancient castle. The 18th-century landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown created gardens for grand houses that were inspired by landscape art, containing undulating open spaces broken up by clumps and belts of trees, incorporating water features such as lakes and streams. What makes landscape art so attractive and picturesque? As in the case of facial beauty, several possible ultimate explanations are rooted in evolution. One hypothesis argues that we prefer certain landscape features because they form part of the ancestral savannah landscape in which humans first evolved. However, there is relatively little sound evidence to support the hypothesis. Furthermore, humans evolved in environments that underwent continual change, either due to natural events (climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes) or migration. So a retained preference for one ancient habitat seems implausible. Nevertheless, some aspects of landscape preferences in art may relate to ancient habitat selection. Curiosity about landscape may be a vestige of the adaptive urge to explore our local environment in search of food, shelter and mates, and is found in many animals. The pleasure engendered by features denoting ‘mystery’ in landscape art (such as a path disappearing into the distance) may relate to innate curiosity which, as noted in Chapter 2, is rewarding in itself. We also may be predisposed to search for places that offer a good view and a safe refuge, and find it rewarding to find such places in a landscape. Other humans, animals and water are also so important for survival that we are predisposed to seek them out in a landscape.

These two examples of natural beauty, one based on human faces and the other on natural landscapes, emphasise how traditional judgements of beauty in art depended at least in part on the extent to which artists were successful in capturing the psychological essence of real-world subjects that we find inherently interesting and attractive. Seventeenth- century Northern European still life paintings create such captivating and convincing trompe l’oeil depictions of everyday objects that the viewer is tempted to reach out and pick them up. The power of Rembrandt’s or Holbein the Younger’s portraits rests on their ability to capture the subtle play of emotion, mood and temperament on the face of the sitter. Direct gaze is also instinctively powerful, whether from a real person or a painted portrait. Other figurative paintings that are widely regarded as among the greatest in the Western tradition engage with the viewer at an intellectual level as well, initiating a mental search for the meaning of the work. Paintings such as van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434), Velasquez’s “Las meninas” (1656) or Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (1862) are famous for the debates that they have inspired about the rationale for the artist’s choice of the particular people and objects that were included in the painting.

By the start of the 20th century artists began to question traditional notions of aesthetic merit. In 1927 one of the instigators of abstract art, Kasimir Malevich, declared:

When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, “Everything which we love is lost. We are in a desert. . . . Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!” . . . But this desert is filled with the spirit of non-objective sensation which pervades everything This was no ‘empty square’ which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of non-objectivity.

The public is still convinced today that art is bound to perish if it gives up the imitation of ‘dearly loved reality’ and so it observes with dismay how the hated element of pure feeling – abstraction – makes more and more headway.

The time was ripe for new definitions of ‘good’ art to emerge, that tapped into a different aspect of human psychology.

Modern Concepts of Good Art

As outlined in the previous chapter, by the late 1800s artists had begun to explore ways to abandon realistic depictions of visual beauty in favour of a purer, more abstract and fundamental concept of beauty that was rooted in the way we perceive the world, but at the same time detached from it. The French writer Appollinaire said in 1912:

While the goal of painting is today, as always, the pleasure of the eye, the art-lover is henceforth asked to expect delights other than those which looking at natural objects can easily provide.

According to Picasso, writing in 1935:

Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.

The shift away from traditional standards of aesthetic beauty in the late 19th century has made judgements of what makes great art much more difficult. The abandonment of traditional, life-like appearance in art, which taps into evolved human preferences for certain real-world forms, has clouded judgements of artist quality. The art establishment initially resisted the move. In 1890 Cezanne was considered to be a clumsy artist, whereas Bougereau’s work was viewed as impeccable. Nowadays Cezanne is regarded and one of the time- less giants of Western art, while Bougereau is little more than a foot- note in 18th-century French art. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were once far less well regarded in Vienna than other artists such as Hans Makart, but now the tables are turned.

The art critic Clive Bell argued in 1914 that aesthetic emotion is aroused by “significant form” in certain artworks:

In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call ‘Significant Form’, which is “the one quality common to all works of art” . . . it need be agreed only that forms arranged and combined according to certain unknown and mysterious laws do move us in a particular way, and that it is the business of an artist so to combine and arrange them that they shall move us (see Zeki, 2013).

Bell’s concept of significant form in an artwork is independent of recognisable reality. It has fuelled some debates about beauty in art, most recently regarding the parts of the brain that mediate the experience of significant form. However, the definition of significant form is some- what mysterious and circular. It seems that one does not know what a significant form looks like until one sees it. As Semir Seki (2013) points out, although symmetry and regularity are candidate significant forms, they are not universally prized. For example, the Japanese aesthetic sense favours asymmetry and irregularity, called ‘fukinsei’. Some possible sources of significant form were mentioned in the previous chapter. Bell believed that Cezanne’s work manifested significant form most purely. So, there may be a connection between his significant forms, Cezanne’s more abstract basic forms, and the internal forms by which shapes are be represented in the brain. Significant form may also relate to global pictorial properties that resonate with visual processing: Scale-invariance and fractality have been proposed as significant statistical qualities in images that make them more attractive; complementary colours generate balanced neural responses.

Some contemporary criteria for whether an artwork is good have dispensed entirely with visual qualities. Contemporary criteria include art-historical significance, popularity (or the lack of it), financial value and ‘seriousness’. The art-historical significance of a work may be very important for those who know a lot about art. For example, the significance of the painting “Salvator Mundi” changed completed when it was re-attributed to Leonardo da Vinci himself rather than to one of his studio assistants (though specialists still dis- agree on the attribution). On the other hand, if you know relatively little about the artist’s personal, social and cultural history and con- text, this criterion is essentially invisible.

Popularity seems to be largely irrelevant as a criterion of goodness as far as the contemporary art establishment is concerned. Indeed, it may count against an artist and their work. L.S. Lowry has long been popular with the public, but his works are rarely hung in galleries. David Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012 was the most popular in the UK, and fifth most-popular in the world at the time, but was largely disliked by the art establishment. Perhaps the problem with popular artists such as Lowry and Hockney as far as the art world is concerned is that art insiders want to expand the public’s consciousness of what is thought of as ‘good’ art, rather than appear to pander to popular taste. There seems to be a Catch-22–style rule governing the relation between the popularity of an artist and their status in the art world (by which I mean other artists, curators, gallery owners, collectors, art historians, publicists, writers and so on): An artist who is highly praised by the art world will rightfully become popular with the public, and so expand the public’s awareness of ‘good’ art. As soon as the artist holds a popular exhibition, they would no longer be praised by the art world (because the work no longer expands awareness), and should therefore become unpopular. This catch is difficult to avoid. Grayson Perry said, “An artist’s job is to make new clichés”. Research indicates that popularity may feed on itself. One study investigated whether the degree of exposure to art- works itself influences liking (Cutting, 2003). The study concluded:

We like the ones we have seen before and, particularly, those we have seen many times.

The effect of ‘mere exposure’ on liking for something one sees or hears is well known in psychological research. It probably plays an important role in influencing consumer choice during advertising campaigns.

Among the most expensive artworks sold in recent years is a 16th-century Renaissance work attributed to Leonardo (“Salvator Mundi”, around US $450 million), 19th-century Post-Impressionist works by Paul Gauguin (“Nafea Faa Ipoipo”, US $210 million) and Paul Cezanne (“The Card Players”, US $250 million) and 20th- century abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock (“Number 17A”, around US $200 million) and Willem de Kooning (“Interchange”, US $300 million). Art is undeniably now an asset class. It is currently considered as one of the two greatest stores of wealth internationally today (the other top asset class being property). Artworks are so popular as investments because they are marketable internationally, are relatively safe from fluctuations in a particular country’s economy or currency and can be ‘securitised’ to generate income without having to be sold. So, what determines monetary value? The auction price reflects the investment value of a work of art rather than its purely artistic value. There are many factors at work, some of which seem surprisingly simple. In general, large paintings usually cost more than small paintings, but value is largely dependent on the artwork being validated by the community of artists, dealers, collectors, curators and critics. Attention from an influential figure such as John Ruskin or Charles Saatchi can have a major impact on monetary values. Are the paintings listed at the start of the paragraph really the best paintings in the history of art? Is Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players” four times as good as Vincent van Gogh’s “L’Allee des Alyscamps” (a mere US $66 million)? Monetary value is not what makes an artwork important, of course, but monetary value does matter if art is treated as an asset class.

Post-Modern performance art was arguably a reaction against the commodification of the 20th-century art, in which artists’ studios became production lines. By the 1980s art had, according to some critics, become complacent and surrendered to mass media and consumption. By its very nature, performance art subverted this business model. It leaves no lasting artefact that can be bought and sold on the market. The Post-Modern art movement self-consciously stepped off the conveyor belt of progress through successive movements, each reacting to its predecessor. There were no longer any boundaries defining what was and was not art, or what was good art and what was bad art. Post-Modern artworks often make ironic or even mocking reference to the standards and style that defined previous movements. So contemporary artists tread a fine line, being cynical and ironic without dispensing with seriousness, sincerity and authenticity (as well as marketability). As the video artist Nam June Paik is reputed to have said:

An artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. 

In order to stay on the right side of the line, and signal their serious intent, some Post-Modern artists address huge, global issues in their work. Other artists remain fairly inscrutable about their intent, leaving viewers and buyers to form their own judgements. Conceptualism is pre-eminent in contemporary art. It began in the 1960s, initially promoted by the artist Sol LeWitt, who declared that:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made before- hand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. 

In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg bought a painting by Willem de Kooning and then erased it. The concept was to challenge the viewer to consider whether erasing the work of a fellow artist is a creative act, and whether the act is ‘art’ only because a famous artist had done it. Where art once strived for beauty, it now strives for conceptual ‘seriousness’. The artists, curators, gallery owners, writers and so on who make up the modern art world often try to bestow seriousness on an artwork by means of the text in artists’ statements, exhibition guides, wall texts and press releases. The peculiar form of English to be found in these text forms was called ‘International Art English’, or IAE, in a controversial and satirical essay by David Levine (who is an artist) and Alix Rule (a sociologist). IAE is, they argued, characterised by complex, apparently endless sentences containing many dependent clauses. Almost all verbs are accompanied by adverbs, such as in ‘radically questions’ and ‘subversively invert’. According to Rule and Levine:

IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, automomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces.

IAE apparently has its roots in translated French Post-Structuralist writing of the 1970s, perhaps explaining why it “sounds like inexpertly translated French”. Whatever its origins, the complexity and vagueness of IAE helps to shroud contemporary art in mystery and ambiguity, muddying the waters around the meaning and value of a work. The key to understanding the different psychological processes that mediate judgements of quality in traditional and Modern art lies in the distinction between the sensory and decision factors that bear on perceptual judgements. 

Sensory and Decision Components in Perceptual Judgement

Psychologists distinguish between two components that form part of all sensory and perceptual judgements (see the flow diagram in Figure 6.2). One component is driven by sensory processes, and is the route by which sensory qualities such as colour, size, depth and motion influence judgements. The other component involves the cognitive processes by which knowledge, memory, context and expectations exert an influence on perception. These decision factors were mentioned in Chapter 1 (remember the Hawthorne effect and Grayson Perry’s art goggles). The flow diagram shows a simple example of the interaction between sensory and cognitive processing. In the absence of any other information, the image may appear to be a large irregular black splodge on a white background. Once you know that the image depicts a frontal view of a woman’s face lit from the right-hand side, this contextual knowledge may help a new interpretation of the sensory data (the splodge) to emerge. A further piece of information may induce another interpretation: The splodge also looks like a right-side profile view of a man playing a saxophone.



Figure 6.2 Top: Sensory and decision components in perceptual judgements. Bottom: Even images of simple shapes are ambiguous.

The interplay between sensory and decision factors is not limited to a specific class of ambiguous or impoverished images but is a universal feature of perception. Despite the huge amount of visual information that continually enters the eye, images inherently contain many ambiguities. The lower part of Figure 6.2 shows a very simple example of the problem. What real-world shape created the silhouette image on the left? Very many different flat shapes (just a few examples are shown) all create the same projected silhouette at the eye. The human brain automatically resolves this kind of ambiguity in the sensory data by making use of experience, knowledge and expectations. In the particular case of the silhouette in Figure 6.2, we apply an assumption based on our experience of the built environment that symmetrical rectangular shapes are much more common than asymmetrical ones, and unconsciously reject all but one interpretation.

So seeing always involves a flexible, hugely complex but consciously unknowable interaction between the incoming visual information, our experience, and the expectations set up by context. Traditional criteria for good art rely heavily both on sensory data from the neural sub-systems that evolved to automatically process images of natural scenes, and cognitive data based on the recognition of real-world forms and their context. Modern criteria for good art rely more heavily on the decision factors that influence judgements by means of the knowledge-based, conceptual content of art. IAE could be seen as one way to supply this content. 

Authentic Versus Fake Art

Fakery is a significant problem in art. Many artworks have been passed off convincingly as the work of great artists even though they were produced by expert fakers who copied the style of the artist. There may be many more fakes on display and in circulation than the art world is willing to admit. For example, an expert on the work of the 17th-century artist Frans Hals estimated that only around 70% of the paintings attributed to him were authentic (see Bellingham, 2012). The most infamous faker of the 20th century, Han van Meegeren, produced a fake painting by Hals that was validated and bought by a Hals connoisseur as the genuine article. Van Meegeren also created a number of fake paintings by Johannes Vermeer. The world’s foremost experts on Vermeer had declared his fakes as genuine, and rejected van Meegeren’s claims to have painted them until incontrovertible proof was provided (van Meegeren only confessed because he was accused of the treasonous offence of selling Vermeer’s work to the Nazis during World War II; selling a fake was a different matter alto- gether). The faker John Myatt released over 200 fakes onto the art market before he was caught. Only 80% of his fakes have been recovered, so about 40 of his paintings are still masquerading as the real thing in galleries around the world (he won’t disclose where they are). After serving four months of a 12-month sentence, Myatt went into business legally creating what he calls ‘genuine fakes’, signed with his own name (with a hidden computer chip to prevent anyone passing the work off as the product of another artist).

Fakers such as John Myatt, Han van Meegeren, Ken Perenyi and Wolfgang Beltracchi have an undeniably extraordinary ability to paint in the style of many of the world’s greatest artists, making the task of detecting the fakery incredibly difficult. It can be difficult to establish the credentials even of original works of art. Historically, artists have often neglected to sign their work, or to keep records of what they painted and to whom they gave or sold their works. Furthermore, from the time of the Renaissance the work of successful artists has involved significant contributions from assistants and apprentices in their studios. So the provenance of a newly discovered painting may be obscure, and reliance then falls on contemporary experts or connoisseurs on whom the art world has conferred the authority to adjudicate on whether a given work should be accepted as authentic. Art historians and critics have long argued that connoisseurship is the safest way to establish an artwork’s authenticity. Connoisseurship can be defined as:

The received tradition that a practiced expert observer can tell an original from a fake or forgery by using a combination of visual memory and optical astuteness in order to identify the unique ‘hand’ of the artist (Bellingham, 2012).

The practice of connoisseurship became established in the 19th century. In 1880 the Italian art critic Giovanni Morelli argued that artistic attributions should: 'not only be aesthetic and subjective ones, depending on individual taste and humour; they must be based on tangible facts perceptible to every observing eye'. 

Modern forensic analysis is now used to check the physical characteristics of a painting (chemical properties of the paint, X-ray, infrared imaging and so on) but this evidence is not always conclusive. When creating fake paintings by Johannes Vermeer, the artist Han van Meegeren took great care to re-use canvases dating from the time when Vermeer was at work, painted with exactly the same pigment mixes as Vermeer, and he even built a special oven to ‘cook in’ a convincing impression of the fine network of surface cracks (craquelure) that develop in 300-year-old paintings.

Ultimately, the decision about whether to accept a work may be forced to rely on a connoisseur’s judgement: Does the work look like a painting by the artist under consideration? The last sentence of Giovanni Morelli’s argument above is particularly problematic from a psychological perspective, because perceptions can never be regarded as ‘facts’. As discussed in the previous section, perceptual judgements always involve a combination of sensory data and cognitive or decision factors. A connoisseur’s judgement may be unconsciously influenced by their desire to be the person who unveiled a rare, newly discovered masterpiece by Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer or Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, cognitive processes are particularly active during a judgement about authenticity. Recent neuroimaging research (Huang et al., 2011) indicates that judgements of authenticity activate brain areas that are known to be involved in other tasks that require the evaluation of multiple goals and hypotheses. The scale of the fakery problem in art demonstrates the power of cognitive biases in judgements of authenticity.

Questions about the authenticity of artworks are not confined to fakery. Connoisseurship is also brought into play when deciding on the correct attribution of artworks that were not intended to deceive spectators. For example, there is a painting in Apsley House, UK, called “Danae Being Seduced by Jupiter”. The painting has been attributed to the Venetian master Titian. But in 2019 an expert on Titian, Professor Charles Hope, challenged this attribution, arguing that the painting is a copy by a ‘minor hand’. He argued that the paintwork is “inferior” and that a “a much more beautiful” version in the Prado, Madrid, is the original painted by Titian. Another expert, Professor Paul Joannides, disagreed with Hope and maintained that the Prado Danae is not Titian’s work, but the Apsley House Danae is genuine. In cases such as this, there is no way to decide between the ultimately subjective opinions of the connoisseurs, giving different weight to the various cognitive factors at work in the decision.

Once a work of art is identified as not the genuine article, either a fake or a follower’s copy of an original, its cultural and monetary value plummets. Are fake artworks really worthless? In monetary terms, the answer is probably yes, for the reasons given earlier about art as an asset class. However, according to Clive Bell (the proponent of ‘significant form’) writing in 1914, fakery should not matter:

If the forms of a work are significant its provenance is irrelevant.

Bell argued that an artwork should retain an authentic aesthetic integrity regardless of its provenance. On the other hand, and as we saw in the first chapter, a powerful psychological characteristic of art is its capacity to express emotion. Once an artwork is identified as a fake, any emotion conveyed in it is likely to be viewed as false, because the faker’s aim is to fool the spectator rather than to authentically express an emotion. 

Originals Versus Reproductions of Art

Prior to the development of colour reproduction technologies in the 20th century, the only way that one could view an artwork, at least in a visual form that approximated the original (e.g. not an etched reproduction), was to view the actual work in the artist’s studio or a gallery. The availability of reproductions is now so ubiquitous than one can view almost any famous artwork simply by conducting an image search on your favoured digital device.You merely need to click your finger rather than travel to a gallery and seek out the artwork on its walls. How much difference can it make to rely entirely on view- ing colour reproductions of artworks rather than the originals? The philosopher Walter Benjamin argued in 1936 that the missing quality in reproductions is the ‘aura’ of an artwork:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. 

Aura or ‘presence’ described in this way seems rather mysterious. Some of that mystery may derive from the cultural memories evoked by an original artwork; its ‘hauntological’ dimension (touched by the ghosts of past art). Scientific studies have shed light on some of the sensory characteristics that contribute to an original artwork’s aura and presence. Studies have found that, although some simple formal qualities are judged in the same way in reproductions as in the originals (such as symmetry and complexity), evaluative judgements of ‘surprising’, ‘interesting’ and ‘pleasant’ are more positive in the original than in the reproduction. Furthermore, artworks are liked more and rated as more interesting when viewed in a gallery rather than in a laboratory, regardless of whether they are originals or reproductions. The combined effects of both sensory factors and contextual factors on viewers’ experience of artworks in galleries echo the previous discussions of how these two sets of factors exert an influence on all perception, not just on art perception. What psychological factors might contribute to the enhanced experiences associated with viewing original artworks as opposed to reproductions?

First, there is the issue of the actual or absolute size of an artwork.

Figure 6.3 The absolute size of an artwork affects the visual impact that it makes on the viewer.

Visual art can vary in size massively, ranging from a miniature portrait barely three centimetres tall, to many metres for a very large painting or an immersive installation (see Figure 6.3). Picasso’s “Guernica”, for example, measures 3.5 x 7.8 metres; Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” is 2.4 x 6 metres; and Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” is 2.3 x 4.4 metres. Size matters to the viewing experience: A modestly sized work of art such as a 17th-century Dutch interior or still-life painting (sometimes less than 50 cm tall) draws in the viewer, inviting them to participate in an intimate experience at close quarters. At the other extreme, monumentally large artworks such as the mural-sized paintings of the American Abstract Expressionists have a grandeur that can overwhelm and surround the viewer.

The artist’s aim in creating a large work of art is presumably to impart a sense of awe; the scale of the artwork conveys the artist’s ambition for the work, and subconsciously influences the viewer’s response to it. These effects of size are obviously lost completely when one views reproductions at reduced scale in a book or on the screen of a small digital device. The art critic Robert Hughes compared the impact of two Picasso paintings: “Three Women”, 1908, measuring 200 x 178 cm, and “Still Life with Chair Caning”, 1912, measuring 29 x 37 cm, one-fifth of the size, as follows:

The former is meant to stand up before the eye structurally, like the Michelangelo Slaves . . . ; the latter accepts one’s gaze more intimately, like a view through a little window. But when both come out the same apparent size in a plate or a slide, the penumbra of meaning inherent in their actual size as paintings cannot survive (Hughes, 1990).

Actual size was also critically important to sculptor Henry Moore, writing in 1937:

Yet actual physical size has an emotional meaning. We relate everything to our own size, and our emotional response to size is controlled by the fact that men on average are between five and six feet high. An exact model to one-tenth scale of Stonehenge, where the stones would be less than us, would lose all its impressiveness.

Since Edmund Burke’s 18th-century treatise on the sublime, the perceived vastness of an object or scene has been associated with its power to evoke feelings of awe or sublimity in spectators. The absolute size of an object can be estimated from incoming sensory data (angular subtense and estimated distance, as discussed earlier in the book). Size is clearly important in an evolutionary context, since it communicates the potential or otherwise of the object to overwhelm the spectator, whether they are viewing a natural phenomenon such as flowing water and tumbling rocks, or a biological form such as a bear. Artists may consciously or unconsciously try to tap into the raw sensory power of absolute size when they decide on the dimensions of their artwork. Indeed, immersive artworks only succeed if they physically overwhelm the spectator. However, there has been relatively little systematic psychological research on the effect of size on spectators’ experiences of artworks. There is some evidence that larger works are judged more positively, and conversely artworks that are rated more highly are perceived as larger.

Apart from sheer size, reproductions of artworks can differ from the originals in a host of other ways. All reproductions are created in two steps. First, the original is photographed or scanned by a recording device. Second, the recorded image is rendered in print or on a screen. Both the recording and rendering processes intro- duce changes. Fine textural details and sharp edges may be blunted in the rendered image, due to unavoidable limitations in the ability of the recording or rendering device to convey such details (e.g. optical blur in a recording lens). The reproduction process may even intro- duce spatial artefacts in the form of visible streaks or moire fringes, caused by fine texture in the original interacting with the limited resolution of the reproduction equipment. In terms of tonal rendition, reproduction technologies enhance mid-tones at the expense of the highest and lowest tonal values, so subtle variations in highlights and lowlights in a painting are unavoidably lost in the reproduction.

Colour rendition is especially prone to loss and distortion. In 1931 the Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (CIE) developed a standard graphical representation of the hues visible to human observers, known as the CIE chromaticity diagram (see Figure 6.4). 


Figure 6.4 CIE chromaticity diagram showing the gamut of visible colours available to painters, and the gamuts available in three reproduction systems.

Pure spectral colours are distributed along the curved perimeter line bordering the colour space of the diagram. Neutral grey lies at the centre of the space. The complete range (gamut) of colours that we can see, and which are available to artists using appropriate pigment mixtures, lie inside the perimeter. The three smaller areas within the CIE colour space of Figure 6.4 represent the gamut of colours available using three different reproduction technologies, due to limitations in the technology; colour film, printing inks and graphics displays. The gamut of col- ours available in reproductions is clearly significantly smaller than that in original artworks, especially in print form (dashed line). In general, the originals contain colours that are beyond the gamut of colours that is available to the reproduction system. One study of paintings in the National Gallery of London found that up to 68% of the pixels in the photographic reproductions represented colours in the original that were beyond the gamut of the reproduction system:

Even the seven-colour [printing] process with six primary inks plus black cannot reproduce certain extreme pigment colours such as cadmium yellow or ultramarine, unless special inks are made up from the actual pigments in question (MacDonald & Moroviç, 1995).

The out-of-gamut colours must be modified or mapped in the repro- duction onto a colour that is within the gamut of the device, but as close as possible to the original colour. The precise colours that are mapped, and the mapping method, vary with different recording and rendering technologies. So the colours present in reproductions of artworks are only ever approximations to the actual colours used in the original artworks.

For all these reasons and more, a reproduction of an artwork may be a pale and impoverished imitation of the original. Judgements of the greatness or otherwise of an artwork should be considered provisional at best until you have had the opportunity to view the original version rather than a reproduction. Apart from the effect of absolute size, the colour, tonal range and detail that one can see in an original compared to a reproduction often takes the breath away. Very close inspection of an original (within the physical limits set by the gallery) can also reveal intimate details of the artist’s physical mark-making and paint-handling that are completely invisible in a reproduction.

Art and Sexism

Surveys show that about two-thirds of art gallery visitors are female, and about the same proportion study for degrees in the creative arts and design sectors, so a great many women obviously take a deep interest in visual art. Yet a tiny percentage of the art on display in most galleries is made by female artists. The National Gallery of London’s permanent collection of 2,300 works contains only about 10 paintings made by female artists. Just 11% of the 260,000 acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were the work by female artists, according to an investigation by artnet News. Moreover, in the UK in 2018, 88% of auction sales were of art by male artists, with female artists accounting for only 3% of the highest grossing sales.

Under-representation of female artists is a long-standing problem. It was so bad in the 1980s that a group of female artists in New York formed the Guerrilla Girls to draw attention to the problem. They wore gorilla masks and distributed posters displaying messages such as:

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less that 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.

The problem cannot be due to the lack of great art produced by women. The contemporary art world does now at least acknowledge the many female artists throughout the history of art whose work is at least the equal of many of the great male artists. The list includes (among very many others):

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656)

Judith Leyster (1609–1660)

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755–1842) Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Lee Krasner (1908–1984)

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980) Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Agnes Martin (1912–2004)

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929)

Bridget Riley (b. 1931) Maggi Hambling (b. 1945)

Traditional treatments of art history exclude any mention of these female artists. For example, Ernst Gombrich’s influential Story of Art, now in its 16th edition, mentions no female artists at all. Artemisia Gentileschi is now considered to be one of the most accomplished painters in the history of European art (see Figure 6.5), yet the National Gallery in London only recently made its first acquisition of the 60 or so works by Gentileschi (for the relatively modest price of £3.6 million). Only three other works by Gentileschi are in UK collections. The National Gallery Board of Trustees appointed its first female chair in 2015. The Royal Academy of Arts in London elected its first female president only in 2019. Two of its founding members in 1768 were women, but it was not until the mid-20th century that the Royal Academy elected any more. 



Figure 6.5 Artemesia Gentileschi, “Esther before Ahasuerus”, c. 1630.

Credit line: The Metropolitan Museum Public Domain.

Why have female artists been excluded from the art world? The problem is partly a societal and art-historical one. A successful career as an artist generally requires both training and patronage, neither of which have been readily available to women in Western society for centuries, due to traditional divisions in male and female roles. Women were not allowed to enrol in academic art schools until the late 19th century, and were not allowed to draw male nudes, so had to draw subjects such as flowers (now a traditional ‘female’ subject). Historically, several vicious circles have combined to suppress the contributions of female artists to the history of art. Work by female artists has not been collected by individuals or institutions, researched by historians, or conserved by art dealers (all of whom were predominantly male). In turn, gallery acquisition committees have been reluctant to pay high prices for female artists who lack an auction history that could validate the prices. So, the permanent collections of national galleries, which form the accepted canon of the greatest art in history, have an entrenched bias against female art. 

In addition to societal and historical biases, some ingrained psychological biases may also operate to underplay the contributions of female artists. There is no scientific evidence to date that art produced by female artists is inferior to that produced by male artists. Nor, it seems, can the sex of the painter be inferred simply by looking at the art. In a recent online experiment (Adams et al., 2017), non-specialist participants were asked to guess the sex of the artist who produced each of 10 paintings (five were made by male artists and five by female artists). They performed no better than they would have done by tossing a coin. On the other hand, sex as communicated through a name can itself also bias judgements of music, teaching and so on. Such sex-based biases can be added to the other decision biases described earlier that contribute to artistic judgements.

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