Flashback to 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. School children all over the United Kingdom were learning about Her Majesty’s accession to the throne twenty five years earlier. Parents were putting up bunting, making cucumber sandwiches, stocking up on tea bags and baking scones in preparation for a street party or two. Britain at its quirky best.
I was six at the time and have a distinct memory of sitting at a table in school drawing a picture of the royal carriage and decorating it with pieces of gold and sliver foil. The teacher seemed to really like my work and invited my classmates to take a look. Partly embarrassed and partly thrilled, was this the moment that my love for art and design began? And was it truly about a talent for drawing and painting or more to do with the positive affirmation I received?
Rather than having a concrete answer, reflecting back on that moment raises more questions. Is artistic ability part of our genetic code or shaped by our environment? Is art appreciation and a love for aesthetics nature or nurture? As a practicing psychologist as well as a gallery owner and curator, my guess is that it’s a combination of all these things. In turning to the research I found studies that would support my hypothesis as well as research that points strongly and assertively to one camp or another.
Nancy Locke, associate professor of art history at Penn State, shares my view that artists are both born and taught. “There is no question in my mind that artists are born,” says Locke. “Many artists arrive in the world brimming with passion and natural creativity and become artists after trying other vocations.” Before he had devoted himself to art, Van Gogh tried to be a minister among poor miners in Belgium. “He just frightened and overwhelmed people,” says Locke. “He was too intense to act effectively in that capacity.” “Artists are also made,” she says. “They require training, education and a culture of other artists, often an urban culture,” says Locke. “Put an artist in isolation and nobody can learn anything from the work. Artists have to be in touch with other artists, building on what other artists have done.” (1)
However, findings from a 2013 study by the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences concluded that people’s love of music and their appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on natural ability. Authors Neil McLachlan and Sarah Wilson claim their study “overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.” (2)
Turning to neuroscience gives us another perspective. A 2009 study conducted by the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered that the brains of artistically creative individuals have a particular characteristic that may enhance creativity. Researchers found that such individuals have a smaller corpus callosum, the fibers that join the two hemispheres of the brain. This may allow for each side of the brain to develop its own specialization, which in turn may facilitate divergent thinking. (3)
Finally, what about the link between mental illness and artistic ability? Does the cliché of the tortured artistic soul have any scientific backing? In his 2013 piece for Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman reviewed recent research into this relationship (4). The findings may surprise you. A 40 year longitudinal study of 1.2 million Swedes found those in artistic occupations did not have a statistically significant higher rate of psychiatric disorder. The only exception was a correlation with bipolar disorder (5). However, the most fascinating aspect of the study was that the siblings of patients with autism and first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. The suggestion from this and similar research is that the relatives of those suffering from certain mental illnesses have higher levels of positive schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences, impulsive non-conformity and magical beliefs which are, in turn, associated with creativity (6).
Although the exact answer to the question of the origins of artistic prowess still evade us, what about the question ‘why do we love art?’ This is an easier question to respond to but the answers are numerous and will resonate differently with different people. For some it’s the sheer aesthetic beauty, for others it’s the emotions a piece of art evokes. Some revel in the intellectual or academic evaluation and critique of artists, artwork and art movements and some love art for its investment potential and financial return. Early civilizations used art as a form of communication, for story telling and to capture history. Throughout the ages art has served as political commentary, satire and to shape public opinion. The list goes on.
What we do know is that individuals with artistic talent or a love for art and design are often consumed, energized and hugely passionate about the subject. Just ask our trusty mailman who delivers Dwell, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest and Elle Decor to our home every month and my long suffering partner who I drag to every art gallery or exhibition I can find when we travel!
(1) Are Artists Born or Taught? Science 2.0, August 19th 2007.
(2) McLachlan, N., Marco, D., Light, M., Wilson, S. (2013). Consonance and Pitch. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
(3) Moore, D.W., Bhadelia, R.A., Billings, R.L, Fubwiler, C., Heilman, K.M., Rood, K.M., & Gansler, D.A. (2009). Hemispheric connectivity and the visual-spatial divergent-thinking component of creativity. Brain and Cognition, 70 (3), 267-272.
(4) The real link between creativity and mental illness. Kaufman, S. (2013). Scientific American Blog.
(5) Kyaga, S., Landén, M., Boman, M., Hultman, C., Långström, N., Lichtenstein, P. (2012). Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study. Journal of Psychiatric Research
(6) Batey, M., Furnham, A. (2008), “The Relationship Between Measures of Creativity and Schizotypy.” Personality and Individual Differences 45: 816-821.