Traditionalist claims that modern art could just as well be replaced by a “paint-throwing chimp”

Jed Dougherty points me to this opinion piece by Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of art at Northwestern University, who writes:

Artists are defensive these days because in May the House passed an amendment to a bill eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. Colleagues, especially those who have received N.E.A. grants, will loathe me for saying this, but just this once I’m sympathetic with the anti-intellectual Republicans behind this amendment. Why? The bill incited a national conversation about a subject that has troubled me for decades: the government — disproportionately — supports art that I do not like.

Actually, just about nobody likes modern art. All those soup cans—what’s that all about? The stuff they have in museums nowadays, my 4-year-old could do better than that. Two-thirds of so-called modern artists are drunk and two-thirds are frauds. And, no, I didn’t get my math wrong—there’s just a lot of overlap among these categories!

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of art that I like (the field’s benchmark for what counts as art), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be artists’ insistence, during the cold war, that Abstract Expressionism was not a complete and utter joke. We know how that turned out.

Art has also failed miserably at its secondary goal of protecting us from terrorism. Did any prominent N.E.A.-financed researchers predict that an organization like Al Qaeda would change global and domestic politics for at least a generation? Nope. Or that the Arab Spring would overthrow leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? No, again.

How do we know that these examples aren’t atypical cherries picked by a retro salon-style artist munching sour grapes? Because in the 1980s, the art historian Philip E. Tetlock began systematically quizzing 284 art experts — most of whom were fine arts Ph.D.’s — on dozens of basic questions, like whether a Motherwell would sell better than a Rauchenberg, when a prominent art movement would diffuse, and what exactly was the point of that “Piss Christ” painting that everybody was talking about a few years ago. His book “Expert Art Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” won the American Fine Arts Association’s prize for the best book published on the arts.

Professor Tetlock’s main finding? Chimps randomly throwing paint at a canvas would have done almost as well as the experts.

Actually, I’d go further and say that a well-trained chimp could do better than the average installation in any given Whitney Biennial.

These results wouldn’t surprise Karl Popper, whose 1934 book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” remains the cornerstone of the artistic method. Yet Mr. Popper himself scoffed at the pretensions of the arts. As Popper put it: “My four-year-old could paint better than that Picasso guy. I could draw ugly women with both their eyes on the same side of their face too. I just don’t do it because it’s so stupid. Sure, Picasso gets the babes, but in the long run he is sooooooo falsified.”

OK, Popper sounds better in the original German. My point is: Government can — and should — assist artists, especially those like me who use history and theory to explain shifting artistic contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

But, please, none of this modern-art stuff. Everything was just fine in the 1870s before those newfangled Impressionists started in with all their gimmicks.

I disagree with Prof. Stevens—somewhat. I too am less than impressed by Jackson Pollock and am even less of a fan of the Abstract Impressionists. On the other hand, I love Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc., and I think Stevens went way over the top in wanting to stop progress at 1870.

Also, for full disclosure, I should admit that I applied for a job at at the Northwestern University art department in 1996 and got turned down. Actually, it was worse than that—they not only dinged me, they also refused to reimburse all my travel expenses. So maybe I’m just bitter.

15 Responses to Traditionalist claims that modern art could just as well be replaced by a “paint-throwing chimp”

  1. Nick Beauchamp June 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    It might also be pointed out that, ironically, “Expert Art Judgment” was in fact partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. See page x in the Acknowledgments.

  2. Joel June 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    The Monkey Cage will politely engage a transparently partisan ideologue like Charles Lane, pretending all along like he’s arguing in good faith. But when a theorist lobs insults in the paper of record, you can’t take the heat? And, to be clear, it’s mostly just insults. Even so, if I were worried about having my grants taken away, I’d put the hammer down on the real threat, instead of picking on someone who’s intellectual interests have already put them on the shit-end of the discipline’s prestige economy. Besides, by my reading, she doesn’t go too far beyond Nate Silver in his recent dust-up with Matt Dickinson.

    • Andrew Gelman June 23, 2012 at 8:17 pm #


      I’ve never heard of Charles Lane but I’ll take your word that he’s transparent. I don’t know what you mean by “can’t take the heat,” but that’s ok as long as you know what you mean by it.

      Also, you can feel free to put the hammer down on whatever you’d like. In fact, let’s make a deal: We’ll put the hammer down on what we want to put the hammer down on, and you put the hammer down on what you want to put the hammer down on. Look: everybody’s happy!

      • Joel June 23, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

        When the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll go around pounding everything.

        • Andrew Gelman June 23, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

          When the only tool you have is Stata, everything looks like a regression.

          • Jacob Hartog June 24, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

            Personally, everything looks like a multilevel Poisson with random intercepts and random slopes, but that’s probably because I like looking at Jackson Pollack too much.

  3. David Karol June 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    Andrew: You’ve never heard of Charles Lane? Are you too busy writing on the Monkey Cage to read it?

  4. Thomas Leeper June 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    This is fantastic, Andrew!

  5. Ted Brader June 23, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Well mocked, Sir. (Bitter cherries indeed.)

  6. RobW June 24, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    From Pileus :

    By way of disclosure, I have benefited from NSF funding in the past. But I wonder, is there any real justification for channeling tax revenues into grants for political science scholarship, particularly at a time when we face severe budgetary problems for as long as the eye can see? I can understand the positive externality argument for basic science research–even if I find it less than persuasive–but are there any real positive externalities outside of the physical and biological sciences?

    Perhaps it’s better to pose the question not of whether there are positive externalities but rather how can one prove their existence? Simply listing compelling-sounding NSF-funded projects doesn’t seem achieve this.

  7. Non Ivy League Grad Student June 24, 2012 at 2:03 am #

    The best argument to support Prof. Stevens was the one she never made. Why on EARTH should political science be at-risk of losing NSF funding? Aren’t we supposed to understand the operations of Congress, the problems of collective action in membership associations, framing in political communications, etc., etc.? Why can’t we seem to be able to use that knowledge to do what is the easiest thing in politics – maintain the status quo? Perhaps if we stopped hurling insults at each other…

  8. boba June 24, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    The NIH funds 3 scientists in the US doing limb research in independent labs. (No sure how many they fund in their own house) How do I know this? Because I’m the significant other to one of the funded. She complains about this fact and states that when she goes to conferences and meetings, she is the only US speaker, that the rest of the world is doing this research and we (the US) will lose the expertise in the field. How is this applicable to the topic at hand? The US has limited capital, it can only fund so many investigations, so much research. It must fund the best available research. It does not have the latitude to fund speculative research or science that may lead to discovery, it must fund science that will, without question, provide substantial value to the scientific community. If the best science is done by AIDS researchers, or by polio researchers, two ailments that have a much smaller impact than cancer or developmental biology, then so be it. You fund the best because you can’t afford to fun everything.
    The NSF has a smaller budget, and as difficult a mission. Cutting funding for political alchemy, is in line with that reasoning. Those previously funded did not provide justification for continuing their research. There is no evidence that continuing to provide funding will lead to better results. As such it is time to cut bait and fund something that is worthy of the expenditure. Just because it’s your ox being gored doesn’t mean it deserves anything other than the mocking it receives.

    • Ted Brader June 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      Hey boba,

      Sounds like you may be as ignorant of your partner’s field as of political science. I’m sure granting agencies would happily fund projects that will “without question” produce the good consequences (cures for disease, cheap clean renewable energy storage, world peace) if they knew which ones those were. But they don’t. And you also conflate doing the “best science” with aiming toward the most important goals. They aren’t necessarily the same, and we have good reason to consider both. NIH and NSF spread their funds over many causes, typically judging each by the quality of the science but also allotting more funds to goals that seem both important and closer within reach.

      That’s probably why the overhead and waste on just one of the hundreds of grants in your partner’s field equals the entire NSF political science budget for a funding cycle. We might think those priorities are sensible. But diverting political science funds, or even all social science funding (since they are mostly equivalent in the scientific methods they use and the complexity of what they study), will do little to increase the available grants for your partner or her peers. Given that they have so many more funds at their disposal at the moment, it is safer to infer that more funding isn’t going to her pet projects because her peers have judged those to be less promising than other projects in the health field. Meanwhile, though the science may be relatively young and the problems large and complex, it is probably a good idea for the government to invest at least the modest funds it currently does to a discipline devoted to understanding why wars start and end, how human rights can best be protected, what procedures best allow governments to represent and serve the interests of their people, how communities can overcome collective action problems to solve their problems, what allows citizens to learn and participate most effectively in their own self-government, and even how hiding behind anonymity with fake names renders online political discussion less civil and less productive (to name a few). So I encourage your partner and you to set aside your smug self-importance and consider lobbying your government to spend more on the many important research goals facing this country, rather than coveting jealously the crumbs of your neighbors and engaging in uninformed name-calling.

  9. RobW June 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    So I encourage your partner and you to set aside your smug self-importance and consider lobbying your government to spend more on the many important research goals facing this country, rather than coveting jealously the crumbs of your neighbors and engaging in uninformed name-calling.

    @Ted…if you want to open your wallet and fork over your own money, go right ahead. But please don’t volunteer mine thank you very much!

  10. Doug Rivers June 24, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    Did the NSF pay for Tetlock’s chimps? How did he get his chimps to use Stata? Did his IRB approve torturing his chimps this way?