When it comes to artists, the crazier, the better. New research in the European Journal of Psychology suggests that people prefer certain artwork when they perceive the creator to be eccentric.
The study's authors, two psychologists from the University of Limerick in Ireland and the University of Southampton in the U.K., note that artists have a long history of unconventional behavior, from Van Gogh's ear-chopping incident to Lady Gaga's…um, everything. Previous research has found links between madness and creativity, but this goes one step further, suggesting that if we already associate great art with the creator being a little crazy, then perhaps we might view craziness as a sign of great art.
The researchers tested their theory by asking more than 250 participants in a series of experiments to evaluate their perception of different art, in conditions where the eccentricity of the artist was either highlighted or downplayed. For example, when rating Lady Gaga’s artistic skill, participants saw a photo of her masked and crouched on the floor, dressed in all black, or looking a little more conventional, sitting in a chair with normal makeup and her hair pulled back. They found in the case of unconventional art—admittedly a pretty subjective, nebulous category—a little eccentricity helps us gauge the (perceived) authenticity of the artist, and thus the quality of the work. Eccentricity did not affect perceptions of art the researchers categorized as conventional, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Lady with a Bunch of Flowers (in contrast to what they categorized as unconventional work, like Joseph Beuys' The Pack.)
It seems that when confronted with a weird piece of art, we want to know if the artist behind it is for real, or just trying to pull one over on us. Maybe this is why everyone is so baffled by whatever the hell Shia LeBeouf is trying to do right now by claiming his repeated acts of plagiarism—first of a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, then of other celebrities’ quotes—are performance art. If he hadn’t spent most of his career presenting himself as a pretty bland, conventional actor, perhaps it’d be easier to swallow the "secret genius artist" stunt he’s attempting.