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Why we're attracted to the work of eccentric artists

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: it’s signed, but is it art? Photo/Getty Images

Research suggests eccentricity, like that of Salvador Dali and Lady Gaga, enhances our perception of artistic quality and skill. 

Recently, I paid US$20 to see a toilet. I also took a selfie in front of a nude descending a staircase. Fortunately, I was at an art museum, and the works were Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.

The Nude is a painting, but Fountain is an actual urinal. Duchamp reputedly bought it ready-made, inscribed it with the nom de brush “R. Mutt 1917” and had it delivered for inclusion in a show that had no entry criteria except payment of a registration fee. However, Fountain was rejected on the basis that it wasn’t “art”, before being displayed at Manhattan art gallery 291. And then it was lost.

So I didn’t see the original Fountain but one authorised (with recreated signature) by Duchamp in 1950.

I’ve previously noted that I’m a Salvador Dalí fanboy, so bear this in mind as I talk about what qualifies as art. To me, the Nude is definitely art – it uses paint, it’s technically accomplished and I like it. Fountain, on the other hand …

Art, as with the other things people argue over, is in the eye of the beholder – if you like it, that’s fine.

Movie-theatre attendances have declined over the past 15 years, but more people are going to art galleries and museums. Fewer people buy tickets to the movies, you say, because you can view them online (legally or illegally) at your convenience. But you can also go online and view almost any painting or sculpture at no cost. What’s the difference?

According to clinical and cognitive psychologist David Brieber and a group of Viennese researchers, the answer may lie in “the experience”. Simply, they asked a group of people to rate works from a real exhibition twice – at a physical museum, then online in the lab; in the lab, then at the museum; or twice in the lab.

Lady Gaga. Photo/Getty Images

The results are unequivocal – viewing the works in a museum setting (even after you’ve already seen and rated them virtually) means you like and understand them better, find them more interesting and generally feel more engaged. The displayed works when viewed in the museum first were also better remembered, which suggests that the context enhances the emotional and cognitive processes involved.

Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) was another highlight. The painting is weird and ugly and I don’t like it, but viewing it was a different experience from seeing it in a book. Dali was an odd chap, which is partly why I like his work. In fact, maybe part of the reason I like a painting at all is my knowledge of the artist.

I’m not alone. Studies by Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou suggest eccentricity enhances our perception of artistic quality and skill. We’re more impressed by Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers when we’re reminded that he cut off his ear, and we like Lady Gaga’s music more when her eccentricities are highlighted first. Hilariously, if we’re shown a picture of an eccentric-looking person and told they’re responsible for “fictitious” artworks, we like them better as well.

The reason? Well, we tend to link oddity with creativity, and people such as Dali, van Gogh and Lady Gaga live up to the stereotype. However, van Tilburg and Igou also show that this effect happens only when the eccentricity seems authentic. “The only difference between me and a madman,” Dali apparently said, “is that I am not mad.”

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.