The Magazine

Aping the Abstract


One day, while doing some boring computer programming, as a diversion, I drew a picture in Microsoft Word and sent it to my friend in Belgium. He replied that his co-workers asked whether it is Picasso or Matisse. To check whether it was a mere anomaly or an indication of some deeper truth I produced more pictures. I mixed them with immortal masterpieces of modern art and put online my “True art, or fake?” quiz. The takers are to tell the masterpieces from my doodles.

Abstract or Doodle?

Who created this: the author of the article, or an immortal artist?

Apart from automatically recorded scores, occasionally I get feedback. This note arrived from a Cornell University professor: “I recognized that one of them was like a Mondrian, but it seemed to lack the sense of balance which good modern art is supposed to have.” Apparently, Mondrian’s art loses balance when his heavyweight name is detached from it. Even art critics are not sure that they can tell true art from fake: “I got 92%, which is a relief since I write about art.” It is thus not surprising that sometimes the quiz provokes angry reactions. One New York artist responded with the following utterance: “Go [profanity] yourself and your [profanity] academic quizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.” As if in response to this attempt at intimidation, one of my readers wrote: “Dear Mr. Simkin, just continue with this.” And I have.

In three years, I had over 56 thousand test results to analyze. The average score is 66 percent correct. This is not much better than the 50 percent one can get by random guessing. The 16 percent difference could be because many quiz takers had already seen the masterpieces identified as such. One of respondents wrote: “I gave this test to my oldest son who is teaching sculpture at The Finnish Art Academy. Much to my chagrin, he could not only separate the art from the chaff, but also name all the artists.”

So, most of the takers failed the quiz, but, maybe they are idiots who do not possess the proper gnoseological code to comprehend the masterpieces? Fortunately, I took care to record quiz takers’ IP addresses. Thus, I could select the scores received by those who downloaded the quiz from elite places. For the analysis, I chose people from Ivy League schools and Oxbridge. The average score of the 143 cognitive elite was 71 percent. Apparently, they, too, don’t know the code.

Many bloggers discussed my quiz. One such blog entry described an interesting story. Some tricksters had shown a picture painted by an ape to a director of an art museum. The director attributed it to a Guggenheim Prize-winning artist.


Who painted this: an artist or an ape?

This brought about my new quiz “An artist or an ape?” It is now the time to release the results. The average score earned by over 164,000 people is 79 percent. A better result than on the other quiz, but one would expect so: the pictures were painted by members of different species. It is interesting that mistakes are at all possible. Moreover, one of ape paintings was attributed to an abstract artist by over 50 percent of quiz takers. The elite again did not much outperform the crowd. The average score of 367 Ivy Leaguers/Oxbridgers is 81 percent.

When someone dares to question the genius of modern artists, advanced people tell him that he does not understand their abstract messages, similar to how an illiterate person does not find a meaning in written text. Ape art, however, can be mistaken for abstract masterpieces. Apes are not capable of abstraction. Modern art is therefore not abstract, but apestract.

The book of Ecclesiastes states:

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, ‘See, this is new?’ It hath been already of old time, which was before us.

The conveyed above blasphemy against the strange gods of modern art is no exception. In the 1920s, the Los Angeles writer Paul Jordan-Smith, under pseudonym “Pavel Jerdanowitch,” founded the “Disumbrationist” School of Art. After several art critics praised his daubs, Jordan-Smith announced that all of it was a hoax. In 1964, Swedish pranksters hanged an ape painting in an art gallery, attributing it to unknown French artist Pierre Brassau. Art critics praised the painting.

People do not see in apestract masterpieces anything they would not see in anyone’s painting. The aforementioned hoaxes long ago had shown that the art critics do not see as well.

So, why does the high status of apestract art go unchallenged!?

One old Soviet film can help us understand. It is a 1971 documentary on psychological experiments that reveals the power of suggestion. In one of such experiment, a group of seven people is shown five photos of five different people. The experimenter asks the members of the group if among these photos are two portraits of the same person. Six members of the group are the experimenter's accomplices. They had been instructed to convince the test subject that a certain two photos are of the same person. Often they succeeded. One test subject explained why he was taken in:

I felt embarrassed before my comrades. They were so knowledgeable, could emphasize things so competently, could notice every small detail, compare and link everything together.

The same mensch?

Brainwashing can make you believe that these photos show the same person.

Could it be that the high status of masterpieces of apestract art is not challenged because people feel embarrassed before Trotskyite art dealers? After all, these comrades are so knowledgeable and sophisticated…