Scientific "proof" that abstract art is only 4% better than what a kid could do

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There's no quicker way to whip up a pointless debate than to discuss abstract art. Does it defy and profoundly challenge our preconceived notions of what art can be...or is it just some crap any second grader could during playtime?

UCLA researcher Mikhail Simkin has been behind a ton of unusual papers, including one that compared the influence of congresspeople to sand avalanches and another that used Google to rank the 20th century's greatest physicists. But this one has to be the most gleefully, giddily controversial one yet, because it's attempting to quantify the relative merits of abstract arts, which is one of the most fundamentally subjective topics imaginable.

Here's how he did it. Awhile back, Simkin created a site where people can guess whether the images in question are great pieces by famed abstract artists or just some random crap that he himself created. The average score on the quiz is 66% right. That's good new for proponents of abstract art, because it's much better than random chance, and it suggests people really can tell the difference between "real" abstract art and amateur imitations.


Simkin also looked at another study that showed art students can tell the difference between professional abstract art and that done by children or animals at a 67% success rate. Again, that's much better than chance, but interestingly it's a very similar percentage to that of the general public. That might suggest we can distinguish real abstract art on some sort of fundamental level, and that specialized knowledge doesn't actually confer any additional insight into the form.

But how does this compare with the human ability to distinguish things in other areas? Simkin looked at one fairly well-known experiments in which people are asked to pick up and compare different weights. As the weights get closer together, people have more difficulty determining which is heavier, and the subjects could only distinguish a 100 kg weight from a 96 kg weight 72% of the time.


That 72% clip is, of course, better than any of the success rates for abstract art. Simkin points out that, if you were to translate the results from one study to another, you could say professional abstract art is the 100 kg weight, and stuff done by kids is the 96 kg weight. And that is the scientific proof that abstract art is 4% better than what a kid or an animal could do. Hey, I said this is study was gleefully controversial.

Simkin's paper also offers another comparison point. Using that same 4% difference, he compares the difference between professional abstract art and children's random drawings to that between a chess novice and the next-lowest ranking, a D-class amateur.


So yeah...if I can quickly and somewhat inaccurately summarize this paper, the world's greatest abstract artists are no better than the world's second-worst chess players. And, with that in mind...discuss!

arXiv via Technology Review. Top image is cropped version of Fernand Léger's "Railway Crossing."