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The fitness indicator theory can explain some embarrassing questions that ordinary people ask when they are admitted to modern art museums. A common reaction to abstract expressionist painting is to dismiss it by saying «My child could have done that», «Any idiot could have done that», or «Even a monkey could have done that». Instead of condescending at such comments, we should ask what sort of aesthetic instincts they reveal. To say «My child could have done that» could mean «I cannot discern here any signs of learned skill that would distinguish an adult expert from an immature novice». The «Any idiot» comment could mean «I cannot judge the artist’s general intelligence level from this work». The «Even a monkey» comment could mean «The work does not even include any evidence of cognitive or behavioral abilities unique to our species of primate».

Interpreted from a signaling theory viewpoint, such comments are not stupid. Most people want to be able to interpret works of art as indicators of the artist’s skill and creativity. Certain styles of art make this difficult to do. People feel frustrated. They have efficient psychological adaptations for making attributions about the artist’s fitness given their work, but some genres of modern art prevent those adaptations from working naturally. Having paid the museum’s admission fee to see good art, they are instead confronted with works that seem specifically designed to undermine judgments about quality.

fiction, mind, society, translation