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17 September 2014
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Do you have to learn to like abstract art?

By Dr Stian Reimers

Still life with water bottle, bottle and fruit dish - Juan Gris
Modern art: an acquired taste?

Our opinions about art may be partly based on the amount of art education we've had, according to our online art preference and personality experiment.

If you've taken part in the experiment, you'll have answered a few questions at the start about the amount of formal art education you've had, whether you see yourself as an artist or a scientist, and whether you create art yourself. This information allows us to address a number of intriguing questions:

  • What's the difference in the art preferences for scientists and artists?
  • What effect, if any, does being an artist have on your appreciation of other people's art?
  • Do people with a formal art education, or just more education in general like different art from the less theoretically minded?

Artists vs. scientists
The scientist and writer CP Snow described Britain as a nation containing two cultures, one based around the arts and one based around the sciences. We wanted to see if artists and scientists really see the world differently. Our results suggest that when it comes to art, they don't. Both groups had Impressionism as their favourite genre and Islamic art as their least favourite.

However, people who described themselves as artists rated all the paintings as more pleasing on average than scientists did.

Hands-on art experience
If we compare people who paint regularly and those who do not, we see a similar pattern of results to that of the artists and the scientists. People who draw or paint regularly liked all the paintings more than their non-artistic counterparts, but both groups liked Impressionism most. However the data shows that people who are hands-on artists are bigger fans of cubist, abstract and Japanese art, relative to non-artists.

Effects of art education
A different pattern emerges when we look at effect of art education on preference. We asked participants how much education they had experienced, from none at all through watching TV documentaries and going to galleries to taking a degree in some form of art. People's opinions about art were strongly influenced by the amount of art education they'd been through. Those with the least education rated Impressionism as the most pleasing genre of art. For people with the most art education, Impressionism was still highly rated, but Cubism and Japanese art came out higher.

At the other end of the pleasure scale, people with the least art education reacted strongly against the geometric shapes of abstract art, rating it as their least favourite type. In some ways this is understandable - although there is a strong aesthetic in abstract images, it is harder to make sense of than representational art, which shows recognizable people and things. In this way, abstract art is easy to dismiss as being 'unartistic'.

People with the highest level of art education were least taken by Islamic art. There may be many reasons for this. One possibility is that, - in the UK at least - education tends to focus more on western art, so people may find Islamic art harder to get any meaning out of. It doesn't, however, explain why Japanese art is so popular among the highly educated.

So overall, it seems that your level of art education has greatest effect on your relative preference for different art forms.

What was the most popular style of painting in the test?

How reliable is the personality profile?

Find out about the art used in the test

Dr Stian Reimers, a research fellow in experimental psychology at the University of Warwick, helped the BBC design the art preference and psychology experiment.

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