A child couldn’t paint that – can people tell abstract art from a child’s or chimp’s work?

By Ed Yong | March 14, 2011 10:00 am

If you wander through New York’s Museum of Modern Art, you’ll eventually come across Painting Number 2 by Franz Kline, a set of thick, unruly black lines on a white canvas. Elsewhere, you will find one of Mark Rothko’s many untitled works, consisting of various coloured rectangles. And in front of both paintings, you will inevitably find visitors saying, “A child could paint that.”

To which Angelina Hawley-Dolan and Ellen Winner replied: “Could they?”

The duo wanted to test the assertion that abstract expressionist art is devoid of talent – that it could be done by a mere child, or even an animal. With keyboards and enough time, monkeys could surely duplicate Shakespeare, but with a paintbrush and a few hours, could a monkey produce a Rothko?

To find out, Hawley-Dolan and Winner asked 32 art students and 40 psychology students to compare pairs of paintings. One piece of each pair was the work of a recognised artist, such as Kline, Rothko, Cy Twombly, Gillian Ayre, and more. The other came from the oeuvre of lesser-known painters, including preschool children, elephants, chimps, gorillas and monkeys. The paintings were matched according to colour, line quality, brushstroke and medium; the students had to say which they preferred and which was better.

Both groups of students preferred the professional pieces to the amateur ones, and judged them to be superior. Even the psychology students, who had no background in art education, felt the same way, although as you might expect, their preference for the professional works was slightly weaker.

Throughout the experiments, the students typically picked the professional pieces between 60% and 70% of the time. These aren’t overwhelming majorities, but they were statistically significant. On average, a child could not “paint that”, even if first glances might suggest otherwise. Nor are the qualities of the abstract art only visible to people steeped in the art world – even untrained people responded to the paintings in some way.

Hawley-Dolan and Winner also found that it didn’t matter if the students were duped into thinking that the paintings came from the wrong “artist”. The duo labelled the pairs of paintings on some of the tests (“artist”, “child”, “monkey” or “elephant”) and mislabelled them on others. Even with these tags, the students still preferred the actual professional painting. The labels only swayed the decisions of the psychology students – they were more likely to judge the professional paintings more positively if they were correctly labelled (but not more harshly if the labels were swapped).

This goes against an earlier experiment by Ulrich Kirk, who found that people find paintings to be more aesthetically pleasing when they’re labelled as having come from a gallery, rather than having been generated by computers. Other anecdotes have also painted an unflattering picture of abstract art. The mother of two-year-old toddler Freddie Linsky managed to dupe the art world by selling her son’s work – including a splash of ketchup on a high chair – on Saatchi Online (admittedly, for a paltry £20). A chimp called Congo fared much better, selling off three paintings for £12,000 at Bonhams auction house.

But none of these stories involved paired comparisons. Hawley-Dolan and Winner think that such side-by-side judgments are better ways of telling if people can discriminate between pieces produced by different painters.

When asked why they made their choices, both groups of students speculated about what the artist was trying to achieve, or what was going through their mind at the time. They saw more of such intentions in the professional pieces than in the more random shapes of the children and animals. As Hawley-Dolan and Winner write:

“People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art.”

Reference: Hawley-Dolan & Winner. 2011. Seeing the Mind Behind the Art: People Can Distinguish Abstract Expressionist Paintings From Highly Similar Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys, and Elephants. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611400915 If the citation link isn’t working, read why here

More on art:


Comments (36)

  1. Christine Goepp

    I don’t understand why children and animals were grouped together in this experiment. I’ve often admired the artistic abstractions of pre-schoolers. I’d be curious to see how just children stacked up against the professionals, in the eyes of both curators and critics and the public, separately.

  2. Pablo Soriano

    This blows my mind. Having people making a living out of something grad students can only correctly tell apart from an ape or a child’s work in 6 to 7 out of ten times (not far away from random choice) is something to reflect about.

    Just think about you had to run a set of experiments to tell whether this (or other) blog was being writen by an ape. Donations could still be encouraged, but… well

  3. I second Christine. Did the professionals outperform the children (on their own)?

  4. Ooh, do a cohort study of kindergarteners, follow-up thirty years later and see if the ones who did good finger-paintings became professional artists.

  5. Giles

    If 40% thought that something I did professionally was the most likely the work of a child or animal, I would be concerned.

  6. Ed Yong

    Couple of points: the study didn’t ask “Can you tell which was by an adult and which was by a child/chimp/etc?” but “Which did you prefer, or think was better?”

    Secondly, would you regard athletes with the same disdain, given that they are another group of people who devote their lives to things that animals can easily do better at?

  7. If your goal as an artist is to make childlike art – because you aim for a certain innocence or are looking for the rawest form of painterly expression – it wouldn’t be necessarily be a problem if your art is easily confused with a child’s painting.

    There’s quite a bit of difference between the artworks: I don’t think anyone would mistake Mark Rothko’s measured squares for a painting by an animal.

  8. Pablo Soriano

    @6. Animals, not children. If we are not paid for dirting ourselves (well, not admittedly), why should we get a living from something a child can do equally well or nicely? Or, on the contrary, why are we required formal education for the majority of jobs?

    I do prefer seeing gimnastics, and think they are better, as performed by athletes than by an animal/child. The same goes for competitive sports (though maybe chimps playing football… humm).

  9. Cathy

    I tend not to judge art by whether I think a child could do it, but whether I think *I* could do it. If an artistpassing something off as professional art draws or paints worse than I do, they’re geniuses for making money off terrible art. I had one thirty minute art class for half of a school year in high school, and while I did learn a great deal during that class, I never once thought of majoring in art. I draw or paint for myself. I thus judge professional artists harshly if they slap some paint on a canvas and call it a day. At least put SOME effort into it….

  10. Andrew

    I’m with a number of the commenters above – I don’t find this flattering to the artists at all. 60-70% identification may be significant statistically, but I’m a musician, and if I could only get those sorts of figures I would be, um, somewhat disappointed.

  11. @ Andrew – I bet that if I put the best thing you could play up against the song of a nightingale, you might get those sorts of numbers.

    @Cathy – You said: “I thus judge professional artists harshly if they slap some paint on a canvas and call it a day. At least put SOME effort into it….” I think that’s an unfair criticism. Abstract art may look simple, but that doesn’t mean that no thought or effor twent into it. From this paper: “Although many people believe that abstract expressionism reflects no skill, art historians and artists would strongly object. Jackson Pollock’s paintings were highly planned, and Hans Hoffman spoke of the thoughtful process involved in creating an artwork: “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”

    Finally, for what it’s worth, I’m somewhat arguing the toss here. I personally don’t get much out of a lot of abstract expressionism and I agree that the study has some issues that are worth expanding on (testing children separately to animals, as others have pointed out). But I don’t like lazy arguments and the “My child could paint that” one falls into that category for me.

  12. Idlewilde

    Hey, 6 or 7 out of ten isn’t as good as you make it sound. It’s close to just 50%. A professional artist should get at least 8 or preferably 9 or 10 out of 10.
    T o those who believe that a non professional can’t pass a judgement, I passed my art class with a 3.9 out of 4, and my painting got published in college’s art cards collection.

  13. Bennett

    As an amateur illustrator, I find it much easier to draw lifelike figures than to draw figures with comic proportions and features. I’m pretty sure the general public would assume it’s the opposite. The thing is, solid craftsmanship can be easily taught. Spend a few years taking the right courses and reading the right books, and anyone can belong to that 0.1% of the population who are skilled in rendering realistic portraits. To belong to the top 0.1% of that 0.1%, however, requires going beyond mere training. Which, to some, might resemble not having any training at all.

  14. deang

    As someone who had a great deal of fine arts education, with a focus on 20th century abstract art, I know that a good part of the appeal of much abstract art is based on its conformity to certain learned design principles, i.e. some effort at arrangement is put into the seemingly skill-less blobs, dots, dashes, and shapes, and that arrangement is often based on one’s study of other artists or comes from one’s education. A Mondrian or Rothko can be appealing even to the unschooled eye because of the arrangement of the forms and colors. That it usually takes education or familiarity in order to appreciate much abstract art is somewhat troubling, though.

  15. tim rowledge

    A professional artist should

    Let’s try to remember that a professional artist is simply someone that makes money from what they sell as art. Professional and amateur are not in and of themselves descriptors of a quality level. About the most you can say is that a successful professional X is *probably* quite good at it.

  16. Oruga

    I’m a book illustrator and biologist and think that 60% is low.
    I also suppose that if images of child/animal art were prepared (preserving composition while cropping, adjusting colour balance of scans) by an artist the result could have been even less.

    It’s true that there is abstract art that is Art. A person have to posses keen feeling of matching colours, composition, working space, etc to create such Art. You change curve few cm and it results in completely different effect.
    But it’s also true that many so called abstract artists are not Artists. They just good at selling rubbish. And you can apply “A child could paint that” to their works.

    @ Bennett
    It depends from two factors.
    1) Amount of time you spend on either classical anatomy and cartoon.
    2) Your own character. Some artists good in design, other colour, cartoon, anatomy. I know artists who are superb in drawing cartoons. It comes so easily to them. Yet ask them to draw you a realistic animal or human, they will have troubles.

  17. amphiox

    For all of the commenters noting that 60-70% doesn’t appear that flattering, just remember that the question asked was which work was preferred, and which work was thought to be technically superior. But the goal of professional artists isn’t always for their artwork to be “preferred” or judged aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes they wish to provoke, or even offend. Sometimes they may choose to feign artlessness. This study actually biases against the professional works because the context of the artist’s purpose is removed from the judgment.

  18. lina

    People see the mind behind the art

    or maybe psychologists do? I would be interested in seeing the results of the same experiment but with the participants being students in another discipline, say finance.

  19. Stosh

    1.) They labeled the paintings “artist,” “monkey,” “child”

    2.) Most were labeled correctly, though a few exceptions were thrown in just to make the “experiment”, what? . . . clearer?

    It would be nice to see what would happen in a real, double-blind study. Though, until you read the entire article carefully, you may think that is what this was.

  20. Cody

    This makes me think of the opening line in Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker piece on Malevich:

    “Kazimir Malevich was the first great artist to make art look like something your kid could do—if your kid had thought of doing it in war-isolated Moscow, in 1915, and was a genius.”

    The whole “I / my child could paint that!” critique really isn’t very helpful. The fact of the matter is that you (or your child) DIDN’T paint that. Of course, having an opinion and voicing it is part of the fun with all of this–the art does its job if it provokes a range of ideas, critiques, opinions, and spurs on discussion.

  21. Commenters #14 and 17 are on the money. And 18, kind of, but there’s more to it.

    People may look at a Rothko or another piece of abstract modern art and say, “a child can paint that.” Maybe so. Physically (and even in those cases, I can usually tell the skilled hand with a brush, even if chaotic in movement).

    Consider this: I, with my art training and skill, could probably replicate a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio, and have it come very close to the original visually–does that mean it is just as good as the original piece when valued for its “artness”? Absolutely not, because the intent and meaning behind the replication is not the same as the original–and that is a large part of what makes art “good” or “genius” aside from the aesthetic appeal.

    Abstract art may look simplistic in its use of color, form, etc, but there is generally a lot of symbolism, allegory and meaning behind the color choices, the composition, and the use of materials/medium. Art has a context, and when viewing and judging it, you can’t ignore that element. What you see before you on the canvas is only a portion of the work–the meaning behind the work is an added element that places the visual component in a context, that then provides meaning–social struggle, personal turmoil, political upheaval.

    Good art tells a story, it isn’t just pretty to look at. I have seen some very technically accurate work that is nothing more than a still life, and while beautiful to look at, it doesn’t move me very much from an artistic standpoint. However, if I see a piece of abstract work that may look simplistic, or even chaotic, but I can drive some additional meaning through the title, or the context of the piece in the social time period, or a themed exhibit–then it brings a whole deeper understanding to it. Art in the context it is both created and exhibited in is vitally important to its overall appeal and understanding.

    Great art will take you many levels deeper than just the splashed art of the canvas. It tells you why that is important, the emotion or struggle behind the message–it tells a story. I don’t think it is possible to get all that from a 3-year-old. Or a chimp. You may get the one visual level, but it is shallow and meaningless–like a reproduction.

  22. JRMorber

    I think many forget that the point of art is not always to create the most pleasing picture. Art also seeks to outrage and provoke, to question our understanding of the world, to express emotion, to demonstrate parallels and relationships, and to explore our concepts of beauty, nature, and art itself.

    What is interesting here is not that sometimes works by animals or children were preferred, but that there was a measurable distinction at all. Clearly abstract art is intended to be primitive. It is not as if the artists were asked to draw a picture of a boat and failed.

    What are the subtle mechanisms causing these differences among similar, primitive works in the different groups? How have humans evolved or learned to view art? What are the innate differences and similarities between an adult understanding of the visual world and that of a child or an animal? These are the interesting questions.

  23. @JR You are absolutely correct. The meaning behind the art is the most provocative element, in my opinion. People assume the value of an artist is judged by his ability to paint photo-realistically or make it look pretty. Wrong. And I found this out the hard way in art school. 😉 I can draw photo-realistically, but sometimes I prefer collage work if I have a bigger message I want to put out there. Someone could look at one of my collages and say, “a three-year-old could do that”. Perhaps a three-year-old could paste the paper to the board, but he certainly wouldn’t be conveying the same political message I was.

    Incidentally, did you know that Picasso was a very technically gifted artist, but he chose abstract form because he was delivering a specific message through the shapes, compositions, and colors used?

    Behold, one of Picasso’s figure drawings: http://www.clarkart.edu/exhibitions/picasso-degas/images/f_earlyyears1.jpg

    To view art, extracted from its context, and be expected to judge it on a whole is absurd. You are only judging one element. It’s as absurd as plucking one sentence from a famous work of fiction, and being expected to judge the value of the writer on that one sentence, completely removed from the context that defines its brilliance.

  24. Sparko

    What kind of science is THIS, comparing professional human artists with amateur animal ones?? How can the experimenters not understand the bias built into the very premise? Clearly the comparisons should be with professional animal artists. Yes, you’d have to train them, but the humans presumably had years of study, too. Or you could compare all creatures great & small of amateur standing, hominids included. Those here discussing their criteria of great art, well, I respect their opinions, but they’re missing the experimental point

    Personally I admire anyone who can draw accurately from life. It may make them ‘mere craftspeople’ but it’s still very hard. Find me a cat that can do that and I’ll be impressed. Anyone who can do that and THEN decides to paint in another style will command my respect because I’ll KNOW their work really was one of talent, skill & conscious decision that was under their control. Yes, without that you can make something ‘preferable’ over a monkey’s, but, as you seem to be saying, that’s usually not saying much. And it doesn’t mean I woudn’t enjoy ‘naive’ art of any kind.

    If someone paints to outrage, etc, without the requisite skills, that’s pretty easy. Just listen to the radio. There’s nothing wrong with outrage for outrages’ sake – it’s in the 1st amendment. This is not that kind of art I think is being tested. Some new ‘message artist’ (if this isn’t already so) will no doubt make their mark by studiously copying monkey art to make a statement. Fine. (I hope I just didn’t give away a jackpot idea..)

    But anyway the question isn’t about ‘outrage’ its about telling work by human animals from that of other animals.
    I gather abstract expressionism, as many other academic categories, were exploration by really serious people of – the media or some other intellectual concept of 2-D representation, and not ‘message’ or ‘outrage’, anyway.

    My original point is serious. Pick a few average folks off the street, show them some abstract impressionism, and tell them to ‘do that’. Then compare the result to animal work. (This would presumably leave the problem of human childrens’ lack of motor control mastery out of the equation.)

    If you need any more experiments designed for you, drop me a line. It’s obvious even an amateur can do it.


  25. Erik

    It seems the most reasonable statement that could be made from this study is: “There is a 30% chance my child/chimp/elephant could produce something that is *better* than that, when judged by students knowledgeable in art.”

    And that statement could only be made if the claimant was completely unfamiliar with their own child’s/chimp’s/elephant’s talent and had to resort to the average likelihood.

    In as much as many parents are indeed familiar with their children’s finger paintings, it seems plausible that a number of those making statements of this nature have done so after due consideration and are indeed correct. You have no idea how many observers have stood at those MOMA displays, thought to themselves “You know, that is honestly marginally better than what my child does.” and quietly moved on. Even if you assume a complete absence of considered judgment among the viewers making this comment, on average 30% of them will be accurate, simply based on random chance. Allow such commentators a modicum of respect and you might conclude that on average most of them are probably correct.

  26. amphiox

    I can drive some additional meaning through the title, or the context of the piece in the social time period, or a themed exhibit–then it brings a whole deeper understanding to it

    This is very important to remember. Extending beyond title and exhibit theme to the general idea, the professional artist is expected to do more than produce an image on a canvas or other medium. The professional artist must also develop some kind of explanation and description of the work and what the message it aims to convey is. This description may be hinted at in the title, or the artist’s choice to include the work in a theme gallery, or it may not be directly included and presented with the work itself. But it is implicitly expected that the artist will be able to produce such an explanation and description if asked to, and that this explanation will pass muster with a discerning audience.

    (This is the oft lampooned “my work represents man’s inhumanity to man” schtick.)

    And this is something that most children will not be able to do, and certainly no non-human animal could (even considering the fascinating reports of chimpanzees who can both paint and do sign language naming their paintings). Include this in the comparison, and it won’t even be close.

  27. amphiox

    Personally I admire anyone who can draw accurately from life. It may make them ‘mere craftspeople’ but it’s still very hard.

    It is very hard, and humans are the only creatures known who are capable of this.

    However, even the very best, most highly trained professionals are left in the dust by an amateur with a good camera.

  28. outeast

    Others have alluded indirectly to this, but it bears repeating: the children’s and animals’ pictures were selected for similarity to the ‘real’ works. They were not random or representative choices, so the question tested pertained not merely to a comparison between pro artists’ work and that of children/animals but between pro artists’ work and works by children/animals that (to the experimenters’ eyes) looked like the works of those artists(and presumably the selection worked the other way too). This should (did?) skew the results in favour of the kids and animals, and likely contributed to the 60-70 per cent figure.

    I know that my own kids mostly produce typically and very recognizably childish drawings, but once in a while – by chance – produce something that looks almost like a ‘real’ artist’s work. We had one large painting on the wall for a year or so that was not truly representative of my son’s output at the time but that was genuinely aesthetically pleasing and startlingly similar in many ways to some of Miro’s rougher works. Of course, most people would have been able to tell the difference anyway (as in this experiment), but I imagine that with appropriate presentation some would not – but if so it would have been largely an artifact of the forcing produced by the selection. My son’s average one-year-old output did not compare in any way with the average Miro!

  29. amphiox

    If one looks broadly at the history of art/painting, one can discern two longterm patterns. Initially there was a pattern of increasing realism and increasingly accurate portrayals of physical reality. We see relatively steady improvement in the portrayal of anatomy, proportions, the invention of perspective, advances in color fidelity, and so forth. Art was valued for its ability to reflect reality accurately (perhaps embellished and idealized, of course, but the idea that this is a representation of something real and tangible was usually there). And it was valued because it was something only humans can do, a reflection and expression of our underlying humanity.

    Then photography was invented, and that whole trend reversed itself. New art movements arise that progressively become more and more abstract. One can see it the appearance of impressionism soon after the popularization of photography, where artists are still trying to portray things with a physical existence in reality, but trying to extract some abstract impression or essence from it which the camera cannot capture, through things like pointilism and cubism and all the way to modern abstract art which has no pretense of even trying to portray reality. Because what was the point of portraying reality realistically through art anymore, when a simple and cheap machine can do it better than any human could ever hope to? To keep the humanity in art, artists had to seek an area where machines cannot go, and that is in abstraction.

    One must keep this historical context in mind when evaluating modern abstract art. Scoff or criticize the simplicity or apparent haphazardness of it if you wish, but do not overlook that this is in many cases the whole point. You are free to pine for the days of the Mona Lisa if that is what pleases you aesthetically, but remember that if Leonardo had access to a camera, he would probably have just photographed his model and then maybe touched it up a bit, before returning his attention to his real artwork, which in all likelihood would have been abstract.

  30. You could do a similar test with a 10 second clip of a cat walking on a piano vs. a 10 second clip of some fairly avant, atonal piano composition. But it would be meaningless (‘my cat could write that’) because, of course, the cat can only do it for 10 seconds and you never hear the whole score. In the same sense, if the above test was extended to multiple pieces by Artist A and Child B the distinction would be immediately obvious because the small child, like the cat, has little or conscious intent or craft. 4 year olds with intent and craft tend to attempt representational subjects anyways.

  31. Gaebolga

    The problem here (and which is highlighted well by the non-traditional nature of abstract and expressionist art) is the simple fact that the audience is the artist. The audience makes the meaning, finds the connection, feels the emotion (or not). The artisan (painter sculptor, writer, composer, actor, etc.) can, through skill and experience, make it easier for the audience to find meaning in a work and can influence the type of reaction the audience is more likely to have, but in the end, there is no art without an audience.

    A person can train herself to be a better artist (audience) by studying the medium in question, but such study doesn’t lend validity to any particular reaction, it merely ensures a higher fidelity to the artisan’s intended meaning; since one assumes that an artisan is working within the context of a medium’s established history, a shared knowledge of that history makes it easier for the artisan to communicate through a work of art. But still, the true artist, the one who actually makes the meaning of a work of art, remains the audience.

    So in a sense, it doesn’t actually matter if the artisan of a work is human, animal, or even a natural force (although non-human artisans are obviously not working within a historical artistic context).

    Truly, wherever you go, there is art.

  32. Jeremy

    I’m kinda disappointed in this study.

    1) The combination of animals and small children is not really conducive to conclusion. When you have two groups like this isn’t the point that you can clearly and concisely determine the differences between one and the other? But animals and children are really REALLY different.

    2) Mislabeling some paintings is basically adding a completely extraneous variable to the test. It is an interesting idea, but should be something for a later test, a follow-up. This feels more like a blob test than anything.

    3) I don’t like that the ‘test’ group was so uniform. Psychology students may not have bias’ of artists, but what other possible bias might they add that you didn’t think of accounting for? I’d say a random sampling would have been better, if you really wanted to do this.

    4) Even still, why have two groups, both Artists and Psychologists in the first place, compared to a random sample? Once again, trying too far to get too much data out of this.

    Ultimately it feels like any results would have to be reported as a join of all variables. “Artists fared better than psychologists when comparing monkey drawings that had been mislabeled as being from known Artists.” That is starting to sound like a Monday Night Football statistic ;).

  33. Sorry if I missed it, but did the study go into *why* one was preferred over the other? I assume adults could produce clean lines better than children or animals, and the paintings featured seem to reflect that.

  34. Did the 4-year-old also entitle the painting “Unittled”? If so, I’d be very impressed with his early mastery of spelling.

  35. Chris

    I wonder why they labeled the paintings at all? Double blind would have been a better test. And using recognizable works and asking art students to judge them- also asking for bias there. That being said- I myself prefer te work of the 4 year old up above..

  36. jom

    Without knowing how painted what, I thought the one on the left was pained by an “artist”


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar