Together with colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, Matthew Pelowski and Michael Forster from the Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods at the University of Vienna have observed the influence of social and financial contextual information on the pleasures of art. The focus was on the question whether the purchase price, the prestige of a gallery or the socioeconomic status and educational status of other persons have an influence on the personal taste.
We like what experts or peers like -- and what is expensive
During the study, students assessed a series of paintings according to personal pleasure. Before the presentation, the participants learned that certain social groups had already seen and evaluated the works before them. These included either peers (fellow university students), experts (museum curators at respected museums), or a group of similarly aged university dropouts who were currently unemployed and long-time social security recipients. The results were then compared with a control group that had evaluated the images without social context information.
"Results showed that when participants thought that either experts or their peers liked a painting, they also liked it more," says Pelowski. "However, when they thought that the unemployed dropouts didn't like a painting, participants went in the opposite direction and said that they liked it more."
In a second study, the researchers also showed that telling participants the (fictitious) sales price of a painting at an art auction, significantly changed the way they rated art. Very low prices made participants like art less, very high prices made them like art more.
Art is used to show allegiance to desirable social groups
"These results provide empirical support for a 'social distinction' theory, first introduced by the French Sociologist and Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu," explains Pelowski. "According to how we use our evaluation and engagement with art in order to show allegiance to, or distance ourselves from, desirable or undesirable social groups." Both studies also have important implications for museums, suggesting that the context can affect how we see art.
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