Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is a monumentally famous painting. It is beloved by people around the world. If tomorrow, it was revealed that Van Gogh had actually worked with two other madly talented painters to create the masterpiece, would we think it any less beautiful?
They answer, according to findings in newly published research by Rosanna K. Smith and George E. Newman, is yes. In their study, Drs. Smith and Newman seek to understand whether viewers value single creator art better than art created through a collaborative process. Our perception of art, they found, is largely dictated by the amount of time and effort we think went into it.
This notion was first put forth by Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, where he argued that we evaluate art not just by the final product, but also by the process that created it. We then use our evaluation of the process and final product to determine the quality of the piece we are admiring.
To measure how our evaluation of process measures up when applied to collaborative art, Smith and Newman conducted three experiments in which they asked participants to pieces of fine art and poetry. The participants were divided into groups by how many authors they were told the piece had.
They found two things. First, the fewer authors a piece had, the higher quality it was judged as having, and that the viewer thinks less of its quality for every added author. A piece with 2 authors is perceived as higher quality than a piece with 3 etc, etc.
Additionally, the authors reported that "When participants were told that a poem was written by one person, they rated it as higher quality than when they were told it was created by a group, however, there were no perceived quality differences between poems actually created by individuals vs. groups." This means that the pieces weren't being judged based on their quality alone, they were being judged for the amount of effort viewers perceived them to take. This happens, Smith and Newman conclude, because "people's lay theory is to divide perceived effort by the number of authors."
The authors point out a notable historical example of their theory. In 1985, Andy Warhol did an entire collection of paintings in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both were beloved, well-known artists by the time their collaborative art show opened. Warhol was world-renowned for being the "pope of pop" with silkscreen prints of everything from Campbell's soup cans to Marilynn Monroe. Basquiat became famous in the late 1970s for street graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan.
The two became friends. According to Warhol's studio assistant, "Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel's new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again." The two made 50 collaborative paintings together, and the critics hated them.
The critics tried to decipher who did what in the work instead of viewing it holistically. According to Basquiat's biographer, critics came to the conclusion that the work produced by the pair was shoddy, and that it ruined Basquiat's career.
Art is rarely the product of a single mind. Products like the Basquiat/Warhol paintings are rare in the fine art community, but they certainly aren't alone. Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely made a sculpture together, and Mark Rothko and Philip Johnson worked together to build the Rothko chapel. In other fields of art such as music and video, collaboration is common and encouraged. Many voices are expected to improve the overall quality of a piece and make it more approachable to a wider variety of people.
But in traditionally solitary art forms like painting and poetry, the more creators a piece has, the less quality it is perceived to have. Ultimately, the researchers found that in Western society, the quality of a product is determined by how many people can claim themselves a creator. What would it matter if Starry Night had been painted by multiple people? Sadly, it apparently matters a great deal.