Why we prefer art made by individuals over a collective

A new study shows one is the magic number when it comes to perceptions of artistic quality. But why the preference for the non-collaborative?

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Ukrainian art collective Gorsad Courtesy of Gorsad

The art world is increasingly collaborative. Whether formed as a concerted response to a fractured political climate, or a cyber crew spurred on by the online creative economy, collectives are more than communities: for young artists like Gorsad and LuckyPDF, they’re a necessary tool.

New research published this week suggests otherwise. Two researchers at Yale University have published a paper confirming that people perceive the quality of an artwork to be lower if they learn it was a collaborative work versus the work of a single artist. For their paper, "When Multiple Creators Are Worse Than One: The Bias Toward Single Authors in the Evaluation of Art", Rosanna K. Smith and George E. Newman performed a variety of evaluative tests on hundreds of participants. Across three studies, they found that individually authored works engendered a more vivid picture of the process behind their creation than group-authored works – as in, participants assessed the value of art by the processes that created it. The study concludes, simply, that as “the number of authors increased, ratings of quality decreased."

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Are collectives really the future? Courtesy of Holly White of LuckyPDF

Why this subconscious preference for single authored works? The value of collectives for young artists today can hardly be up for debate. The global art landscape boasts more collectives today than ever before. Collectives can face the realities of an online-first world and the crisis of copyright it fosters: thus, we find an art world increasingly marked by collaboration and anonymity.

But if you believe these findings, then our long-held obsession with the biographical individual – and the concept of ‘authorship’ at all ­– is still going strong. Is it just a case of finding a strong branding for these collectives? More than this, we might need to bridge the gap between our conception of the creative process, and its reality: not only have the benefits of artistic collaboration been proven time and time again, but the popularity of off-and-online collectives surely seals the deal. As LuckyPDF told Dazed in 2012, "Maybe importance or relevance isn’t the owner of the voice, but the walls in which the voice echoes against."

What do you think? Ask your subconscious: does it prefer individual or collective artwork? 

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