Nature Versus Nurture in Artist’s Reputations

Caillebotte, Raboteurs

The Economist points us toward a recent study that tries to refute James Cutting’s 2003 paper on the influence of repeated exposure in generating positive aesthetic judgment. The two studies are a kind of nature versus nurture debate for art. Using Gustave Caillebotte’s famously disputed art collection, Cutting tried to measure the effects of taste against raw exposure. In the end, he came down on the side of exposure:

Thus, I claim that artistic canons are promoted and maintained, in part, by a diffuse but continual broadcast of their images to the public by museums, authors, and publishers. The repeated presentation of images to an audience without its necessarily focused awareness or remembrance makes mere exposure a prime vehicle for canon maintenance.Tacitly and incrementally over time, this broadcast teaches the public to like the images, to prefer them, eventually to recognize them as part of the canon, and to want to see them again. In turn, it seems likely that this implicit education also reinforces the choices made by professionals in what they present to that public. The public’s appreciation rewards museums, scholars, and the publishing industry by demonstrating an interested and responsive audience.

Of course, Cutting did not suggest that any work would be esteemed by “mere exposure.” A group of researchers published a paper earlier this year that showed works by John Everett Millais and works by Thomas Kinkade to undergraduate subjects. After repeated exposure, opinions declined toward Kinkade and increased of Millais:

Our results put pressure on a sceptical interpretation of Cutting’s results. They suggest that something other than mere exposure plays a role in judgements of paintings. It could be ‘quality assessment’ or it could be something else. Moreover, the sceptical contention that canons are formed and maintained entirely by mere exposure cannot be the full story; frequent and repeated presentation (or representation) of art works does not look as if it will ensure that they are in the canon, since mere exposure to bad paintings such as Kinkade’s decreases liking for them. We do not deny influence by mere exposure; we suspect that mere exposure is one among a number of factors that goes into the formation of art judgements and canon formation. But our results suggest something more is likely involved in both of these—perhaps that something more is artistic value. More broadly, we hope to have shown the importance of philosophical consideration of empirical work on the arts and provided an example of one of the ways in which that empirical work can inform and pose questions for conceptual work in normative aesthetics.

Gustave Caillebote, French Impressionism and Mere Exposure (Cornell University)

Mere Exposure to Bad Art (British Journal of Aesthetics)