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Ellen Winner Explores Relationship Between Art and Psychology

At Boston College, the arts are not merely confined to the McMullen Museum or the Robsham stage. Inside of McGuinn Hall, there is the Arts and Mind Lab, where psychology professor Ellen Winner studies the relationship between art and human cognition. 

Winner provided a glimpse into her research to a room of art department faculty and students last Thursday. Her latest book, How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, details her work in the lab and focuses on the cognition of arts in adults as well as both gifted and non-gifted children. 

In her talk, Winner explained that a main component of her research has been dealing with the way people’s perception of art changes when they learn it is inauthentic. 

“Since philosophers are worried about this, we thought we can experiment to try to understand why it is that people suddenly change their evaluation of a work of art,” she said.

She provided a famous historical example of a painting by Han van Meegeren, which was painted in the style of Johannes Vermeer and sold to one of Adolf Hitler’s highest officials, Hermann Goering. After the war, it was found in Goering’s possession, and van Meegeren was put on trial in Holland for giving a national treasure to a Nazi, but he exonerated himself by painting another Vermeer-style painting in court and proving that the painting in his possession was a forgery. 

One reason people devalue forged works, Winner said, is because they involve fraud, but people often also regard copies of artworks as less impressive.

In her study, Winner arranged participants in different groups and gave each group different versions of the same painting by April Gornik. One group was given Gornik’s original and a copy made by her. Another group was given a copy by Gornik of her own work and a copy by her assistant, both of which were signed and priced at $53,000. Participants rated them for broadly evaluative qualities—the work they found more beautiful or to be overall better. The key finding among research subjects, Winner said, was that there was no evaluative difference between the works. 

Winner’s final highlight from her research was that people don’t regard copies and forgeries as highly because of essentialism, or the belief that some things have an “essence,” or quality that is unique to its identity.

“It’s like if you’re looking at the original Declaration of Independence, you’re going to feel a kind of awe, because you’re thinking that the founders actually touched that document,” she said. 

She explained that because her research team ruled out other factors, such as money, morality, and the fact that the work is not original, her study points to the idea that people consider an artwork’s essentialism in considering its value. 

“[Essentialism is] the feeling that, when you’re looking at a work of art, you are communing with the mind of the artist, and you really don’t want to commune with the mind of a forger or a copier because that’s a less interesting mind,” Winner said.

Winner also touched upon another study she conducted surrounding people’s evaluation of their own statements and perceptions, particularly in relation to art. 

Winner said that people argue frequently when others disagree with them because they believe there is a right and wrong, yet when you ask them, they will admit that they believe their revelations are simply a matter of opinion and not objective. 

“Psychologists are interested in what people believe,” she said. “When we look at a work of art and deem one to be better than the other, [are these] purely personal judgments, or is there some semblance of objectivism present?”

Featured Image by Leo Wang / Heights Staff

February 20, 2020