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Why we like what we like? A take on subconscious choices and art appreciation

Most of us differ in our opinions on authors, actors, and painters. What is it that attracts us to certain creative works (or people) and what is it that doesn\’t. Santanu Borah discusses the psychology of appreciating art (or not!) in this column

Let’s take a quick tour of an old puzzle.

Have you considered why you like a certain piece of art? This is an enduring question in aesthetics, like that famous unanswered question: “What is an object of art?”

Now, that you have two problems at hand, you could make the question even more vexing by adding another question: “Why do you like one painting over another or one artist over another?”

Generally, when you pose such questions in a society where the luminaries or the would-be luminaries (and the wannabe luminaries) hobnob, they regard the question with great seriousness and tend to answer thus: “After considerable deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that the raw power of Jean Michel Basquiat is extraordinary. There is no pretense of higher learning, nor about creating finer art. He is himself.” At first look, this sounds like a well-rounded answer. Introspection’s finest hour.


Dig a little deeper and the introspective power of the answer seems to wane a bit. Whether we like it or not, almost everyone makes up their mind as to why they like a certain piece of art after they have already made up their mind. Many of the reasons given are nothing more than afterthoughts. Somebody with more extensive education in art history might even pin something more “solid” to add body to the viewpoint, like Basquiat “took graffiti and helped it ascend a higher intellectual plane, thus taking it beyond mere vandalism to something sublime that white cube galleries clamour for”.

This is not to say that such views or ideas do not have any place in art. Understanding something with some context at hand is definitely illuminating and adds to the cultural perspective we look for because we are creatures that thrive on patterns. We do not like chaos. But who is to say some other graffiti artist working alongside Basquiat, with a little more luck, personality or mystique could not have been at the same station? We “understand properly” with the vantage point that history provides because it is a safer place. Plus, we do not then have to search for all the Basquiat-like figures in the interest of justice.


David McCraney in his wonderful book, ‘You Are Not So Smart’, illustrates this for psychology enthusiasts. We very often like something because of the emotional states it creates within us and we cannot explain them. So, in order to validate ourselves, we create something up as a rationale for our likes or dislikes. He talks about an experiment by Tim Wilson in 1990 at the University of Virginia, where Wilson asked two groups of students to pick out posters. One group was asked to take any one poster they liked, while the other group was asked why they were picking the poster they picked. After six months, the group who picked out a poster without having to explain why they loved their choice continued to love what they picked, while the group that had to explain their choice hated theirs. It is another thing that the first group generally picked out a poster with a nice image or painting, while the second group mostly picked inspirational stuff.

To summarise, those who didn’t go with their gut and had to dig for pros and cons, did not like their choices. They used afterthought and rationalised emotions. It wasn’t a direct connect. It was a laboured effort, and nobody much likes labour.

This is also the very reason why some of the greatest art of the world was panned by critics and editors because they tried to rationalise their emotional motivations using stories they created on the fly, using methods that were outdated or personal, or they were simply too arrogant to see with “fresh” eyes.


McRaney explains this with an unflattering review of the book ‘Moby Dick’ written in 1851, where the critic says that the book is an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter of fact” and an example of Herman Melville being an exponent of “bedlam” literature and is “disdainful of learning” the craft of an artist. And a century or so later, Moby Dick is a classic of American literature.

While a learned view is always welcome, sometimes it is good to keep the box of reason closed and enjoy something like it was the first time. That is an example of being rational too, after all reason is far too young in the human evolutionary chain. Our emotional responses are far more ancient, like our instinct. It could be argued that following one’s gut is a reasonable method of understanding art.

This also means that before you criticise some art or writing on social media, find out what your true motivations for doing so are.