At this year’s South by Southwest festival, Lady Gaga invited a performance artist to vomit on her, in a move that likely provoked some to question her artistic vision, if not her sanity. For others the act probably only added to her mystique, rendering her music that much more enjoyable. New research demonstrates that an artist’s eccentricity, even in realms irrelevant to the medium of expression, can enhance our perception of the artist’s work. But there’s a catch: The oddball behavior can’t feel like a gimmick.
In our minds, eccentricity and creativity go together like, well, Bjork and swans. Just as generating a creative idea requires deviating from conventional modes of thought, quirkiness involves deviation from conventional social behavior. If you ignore the rules in one domain, you may also ignore them in another. Once we form a stereotype of the erratic artist, we may see those who fit the stereotype more snugly as being better artists. (This applies to other stereotypes, too. In one study, listeners liked rap songs better when they thought the musicians were black.)
For the new paper, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tilburg, of the University of Southampton, and Eric Igou, of the University of Limerick, conducted several experiments. First, they showed participants an image of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and told half that the painter was believed to have severed his own ear lobe. Viewers with this information liked the painting more. In another, participants looked at three pieces of art, and half were told that the (fictional) artist was personally eccentric. These subjects liked the works better and were willing to pay more than four times as much for them.