In 1961, Piero Manzoni created his most famous art work—ninety small, sealed tins, titled “Artist’s Shit.” Its creation was said to be prompted by Manzoni’s father, who owned a canning factory, telling his son, “Your work is shit.” Manzoni intended “Artist’s Shit” in part as a commentary on consumerism and the obsession we have with artists. As Manzoni put it, “If collectors really want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit.”
Denis Dutton (1944-2010)
University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand
Manzoni originally priced the tins according to their equivalent weight in gold, but they were purchased by the Tate Gallery and other collectors for much more, and, in 2016, one of the tins was bought in Milan for two hundred and seventy-five thousand euros. Plainly, then, some like this work; they believe that it’s of value. Others see it as ridiculous. In The Art Instinct the philosopher Denis Dutton takes considerable pleasure in telling the story of how Manzoni failed to properly autoclave the tins, and many of them, years later, in private collections and museums, exploded.
You’d think that psychologists would have a lot to say about our differing reactions to such creations, but research in art and aesthetics tends to focus on more conventional forms of art. There are a lot of studies on the perception of tonal music, exploring which aspects of musical pleasure are universal and which vary across culture, what babies and children prefer to listen to, how expertise shapes our perception of music, and so on. There is research into figurative art, usually paintings, much of it exploring how we make the leap from a two-dimensional array of colors and shapes to a three-dimensional world. But there’s little research on our reception of work such as “Artist’s Shit,” or the better-known pieces by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
In part, this is because many psychologists, like many lay people, think that whatever is going on when connoisseurs value this work has little to do with aesthetics. Steven Pinker sums up a popular view in How the Mind Works when he writes, “Modern and postmodern works are intended not to give pleasure but to confirm and confound the theories of a guild of critics and analysts, to épater la bourgeoisie, and to baffle the rubes in Peoria.”
Not everyone is so skeptical, though, and two recent books, by prominent psychologists, take these modern and postmodern works more seriously.
Ellen Winner, Ph. D.
Professor and Chair
Ellen Winner, a professor at Boston College, is well known for her research on the psychology of art. Her new book, How Art Works, is ambitious, covering everything from figurative paintings to abstract expressionism, tonal music, novels, and theatre.
What’s unusual about this book is its interest in the philosophy of art, carefully reviewing the central questions that philosophers have long dealt with. What distinguishes art from other things? (What is it about Manzoni’s creation, for instance, that makes even its harshest critics recognize it as a work of art, whatever else they may think of it?) Why do some of us like sad music and scary movies? And are the resulting sadness and fear the same psychological states we experience in real life when, say, a friend dies or we suddenly lose control of a car on an icy road? What makes a forgery worth so much less than an original? What makes some art good?
Other questions that Winner explores have practical import. Educators often defend art and art education by talking about its positive effects. Are they right? Does exposure to classical music make children better at mathematics? More generally, is literature a civilizing force; does reading books make us more moral?
To answer these questions, Winner draws on research in psychology, including studies from her own lab. In some cases, the questions that preoccupy philosophers are identical to the questions of psychologists and so are amenable to straightforward scientific research. Sometimes, though, the philosophical questions aren’t empirical—nobody is going to do an experiment to answer the question “What is art?”—but, still, one can study an interesting near neighbor, in the style of what’s sometimes known as “experimental philosophy.” For instance, you can look at what people (art experts, laypeople, four-year-olds) think is art.
Paul Bloom, Ph.D
This is an engaging project, and “How Art Works” is exhilarating in part because Winner actually has some answers. It turns out, for instance, that, contrary to the speculations of some philosophers, aversive emotions are part of the appeal of certain fictions—the scarier the movie (up to a point), the more people enjoy watching it. It also turns out that there is little evidence that either exposure to art or extensive practice in creating art have more general positive effects on smarts or kindness. You probably know by now that the Mozart effect—the idea that hearing classical music makes people smarter—is a bust, and Winner suggests that this is also the case for other claims about art’s power. Yes, there are many studies showing that children who take art classes tend to later outperform others in all sorts of ways. But such studies suffer from selection effects—the children who take these classes tend to be more advanced to start with. When you do proper experiments, randomly assigning children to classes, such results go away. Winner is in favor of teaching art in school, but she is a purist, seeing art as valuable for its own sake, not because of any other effects it might have.
For me, the most exciting part of the book is Winner’s discussion of visual art, including abstract art. She’s not a hater. She points out that, despite all the jokes along the lines of “my child can paint that,” it turns out that non-experts are perfectly capable of telling the difference between actual unfamiliar works by abstract expressionists and superficially similar ones by children and adults.
Also, following many philosophers, Winner appreciates how our perception of abstract art is powerfully influenced by our understanding of the performance underlying the work’s creation, and particularly our beliefs about what’s going on in the head of the artist. In my own work with the psychologist Susan Gelman, supported by more recent experiments from Winner’s laboratory, it turns out that even children are sensitive to the intentions of an artist: four-year-olds will see splotches of colored paint as a mess if they believe they were the result of a spill, but if they think the image was the product of intense concentration, they are far more likely to call it “a painting.”
Collection of Museum of Modern Art, NY
This sort of focus on the artist’s intention is what goes on in the reaction to work such as Manzoni’s; you can appreciate it only if you know what it was intended to be. This understanding doesn’t mean that you will like the work of art; you might find the idea uninteresting or the performance uninspired. Denis Dutton, for instance, talks about Duchamp’s “readymades”—such as his urinal turned into an art piece—as works of “incandescent genius,” but he sees this sort of artistic innovation (what Arthur Danto described as “the transfiguration of the commonplace”) as akin to a joke that can be laughed at only once. Dutton has a low opinion of “Artist’s Shit,” not because he doesn’t appreciate the idea but because he finds it boring and derivative.
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Ellen Winner is Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children as well as adults. She received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts from Division 10 in 2000.
Paul Bloom is the Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Prof of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University.
He received his Ph.D., in 1990, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is interested in the development and nature of our common-sense understanding of ourselves and other people and much of his research explores moral psychology.
Brilliant! An updated and fresh look at previous concerns on perception and understanding, if not a departure. Look forward to reading this book. Could be a fine live conference, as well.
thank you for your very kind words. I’ve forwarded this to the author.