It is a gloomy spring day in Paris 1969, and people are hurrying in and out of Hector Guimard's pliable, melting Métropolitain station. Suddenly, they stop and stare: what is that? There is something out of the ordinary, something quite weird ascending the stairs. In a deliberately slow, theatrical fashion and well aware of the commotion he is causing, Salvador Dali emerges onto the Paris street, with head held high and not before stopping to pose for a picture. He holds a cane in one hand and a giant anteater on a leash in the other.
Was it performance art? Was it a message to a fellow surrealist André Breton, whose poem ‘After the giant anteater’ inspired Dali’s sketches? Maybe it was just an artist being eccentric, because that is what they do. Or is it that the society perpetuates the stereotype, so Dali’s casual stroll with an anteater is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
A recent article in the European Journal of Social Psychology investigated the connection between an artist’s perceived eccentricity, public evaluation of the artist, and finally, the ‘objective’ quality of the artist’s work. The results illustrate that people indeed seem to value artwork higher, and to enjoy it more, if the artist in question displays unconventional and eccentric behavior. In other words, eccentricity of artists is not just a personality trait but a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.
Eccentricity comes from the Greek term “out of the center” and means exactly that. It is a delightfully simple and effective definition that has been used in a figurative sense only for the last three hundred years. Being eccentric means behaving in a strange, unusual, odd and unconventional manner. In the paper, eccentricity was defined as “deviation from the norm, something that is not routinely expected of human behavior.” Dame Edith Sitwell, British poet often labeled as an eccentric herself, deemed that people who display eccentric behavior are “unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.” Contradictory, and as the authors of the study point out as “intriguingly ironic,” as the “crowd” expects creative individuals to behave unusually, their once unconventional behavior is now a part of a stereotype.
To investigate the relationship between displays of eccentric behavior and art evaluation, the researchers conducted five different studies. In all five studies, participants were randomly assigned to an eccentricity or a control group. In the first study, the task was assessing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and the difference was that the first group was informed about the ear cutting incident.
The second study featured an evaluation of non-existing Icelandic artist Jón Stefánsson and his three op-art paintings. This time, the eccentricity condition group was told that the artist was often described as very eccentric. The third study focused on Stefánsson as well, this time showing the subjects alleged photographs of the artist. The control group saw an ‘ordinary’ young man in ‘normal’ clothes, while the eccentricity group was presented with a picture of an unkempt, disheveled man.
In the fourth study, the researchers tried to rule out alternate explanations of the eccentricity effect by mixing up not only the behavior of the artist but the nature of the artwork too- conventional, such as Verrocchio’s Lady of Flowers vs. unconventional, such as Beuys’ The Pack. Also, one artist was described as ordinary and normal, while the other was labeled as eccentric, a statement that was illustrated by the fact that he used to carry found roadside stones on his head.
Finally, in the fifth study, the authors explored whether the perceived authenticity of eccentric behavior had an impact on art appreciation and evaluation. As it turned out, it does. Here the subjects were presented with two photographs of Lady Gaga, one conventional and the other eccentric. They were also presented with two polarizing opinions about her behavior: that it is a natural expression of her persona or that her image is “most heavily marketed and strategically thought-through in contemporary pop-music.”
The results of all five separate studies were similar. They all showed that the way we perceive art is not only influenced by the quality of art itself, but also the perceived degree of the artist’s eccentricity. The first three studies confirmed that eccentricity is used as heuristic for determining the quality of art, and that people prefer, and value more, the works created by eccentric artists. In the fourth study, the authors’ prediction that the eccentricity effect is more enhanced when the art is unconventional turned out to be true as well. The fifth study showed that in order for people to value an artist higher, the eccentric behavior has to be perceived as real, authentic, effortless and natural.
However, it is not clear why Van Gogh was chosen for one of the studies, as his psychological state was arguably more serious, being troubled with mental illness throughout his life, than that of other artists considered odd and eccentric.
Bertrand Russell said “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” But opinion is one thing, and behavior is another. One’s work may convey a message which is different and odd, but as soon as one behaves differently, it is perceived as unnecessary and strange. Assuming that higher levels of oddity do mean more creative talent and assuming that the eccentricity is not fake (although, the study shows that even fake eccentricity makes art appear more valuable) it is important to point out that eccentricity is not stereotypical only for painters, but writers, scientists, philosophers as well. Basically, for every human endeavor that involves creativity, skill and imagination of a monstrous force.
Our society routinely labels individuals: scientists as “mad” and artists as “eccentric.” For example, there are plenty of scientists who have had quirks in the way they dress, look or talk. Einstein sported a homeless hairstyle, Frida Kahlo a unibrow, Tesla had pigeons for friends, Da Vinci had a wacky fashion sense and wrote backwards. These are all behaviors that might have been viewed in a completely different light had the people not been geniuses who changed the course of history. Could it be then that eccentricity is also a privilege? People seem to brush off someone’s odd behavior if that someone is either rich or a genius. In those cases, eccentricity is expected and thus almost acceptable. As the old saying goes: the poor are crazy, but the rich are merely eccentric.
The questions raised by this study dig deep into a number of disciplines, from social psychology and neuroaesthetics to anthropology and art theory. Do stereotypical expectations about art and artists influence both the public’s judgment and the artists’ behavior? Is an artist’s life art on its own? From the perspective of neuroscience, this study is important as it lights the way into new research, connecting art and science on the quest of exploring neural substructures of creative and imaginative thinking.
Finally, it is not a question whether only certain groups and certain professions should be “allowed” to express themselves in an unusual and unconventional way. It is rather a broader question on individuality and freedom. Eccentricity is not and should not be a privilege; it is a trait common to all humans, albeit in different levels and forms. On the scale of 1 to meat dress, how eccentric are you?
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail dot com or Twitter @garethideas.