Last fall, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud fetched a record $142.4 million at auction. That was nearly double what Christie’s had projected, highlighting the unpredictability of art appreciation. Art isn’t science, but that doesn’t stop psychologists from trying to get inside viewers’ minds. What makes us like a few splotches of color?
First, we must identify those splotches as art. Researchers found that telling people to imagine themselves a year in the future (a tactic meant to induce abstract thinking) increased the chances that they’d say unconventional pieces such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes qualify as art . The way art is described also sways enjoyment. When subjects received an ambiguous explanation of an abstract piece (that is, an explanation including several statements, only about half of which fit the work), they liked the piece better than they did when they received an explanation that either mostly fit or mostly didn’t. Ambiguity apparently enhances intrigue . Backstory matters, too: when people learned that an artist was eccentric—he mangled his ear, or carried stones on his head—they liked his work more. Unless, that is, the work was conventional or the artist’s quirks were described as inauthentic (as the researchers suggested of Lady Gaga’s antics) .