Thursday, July 19, 2007

A glance at the current issue of Significance: Weighing the beauty of fake art

Jason M. Breslow

A common complaint against modern art is that it requires little skill to make. Give anyone some paint and a ruler with which to draw geometric shapes and lines, and -- who knows? -- he or she could end up as the next Kandinsky. Mikhail Simkin, a research engineer at the University of California at Los Angeles, put that theory to the test, and found that often "the only difference between masterpieces and fakes is in heavyweight names attached to the masterpieces."

Mr. Simkin reports on the results of an online quiz he created to determine how challenging it is to distinguish "true art" from "ridiculous fakes." The quiz presented respondents with 12 images -- half by masters such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, the rest Mr. Simkin's own doodles. Respondents were then asked to determine which were the masterpieces and which were not.

"Respondents did poorly on the test," says Mr. Simkin. The more than 56,000 people who took the quiz earned an average score of 65.9 percent. "But," he asks, "could this be because they are a bunch of philistines, interested only in the material side of life and vulgar in taste?" Apparently not. Respondents from elite colleges and universities in the United States and England fared just slightly better than others, he reports, earning an average score of 71 percent.

What's more, the scores were artificially inflated. The only reason they were as high as they were, the author writes, is that many test takers had previously seen some of the masterpieces.

The article, "My Statistician Could Have Painted That! A Statistical Inquiry Into Modern Art," is available to subscribers or for purchase through Blackwell Publishing.

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