You don’t have to be eccentric to make respected art but it helps

Research suggests the public are more likely to embrace an artist acting and living on the fringes of ‘normal’ society than one who looks and acts like the rest of us

Surrealist Salvador Dalí admitted to having frequent sensual dreams about Adolf Hitler as a woman. He also had a pet aardvark, an intense fear of grasshoppers and one of the most iconic moustaches in pop-culture history. Bit of an oddball?

Irish artist, designer, architect and one-time pilot Eileen Gray might have been considered a tad eccentric in some circles too. In her 20s, Gray lived in Paris with her pet panther, and she used to dress up as a man and go out with her girlfriend to bars where women were only allowed entry if chaperoned.

In both cases, their eccentricity is seen as secondary to their artistic legacies. But research from the University of Limerick and University of Southampton suggests the public are more likely to embrace an artist acting and living on the fringes of "normal" society than one who looks and acts just like the rest of us.

In a modern context the success of both Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga is only partly driven by their talent as musicians. In each case, they have sold the public an artistic "lifestyle" we might not necessarily want for ourselves but are happy to peer into from afar.


Psychological experiments
Dr Eric Raymond Igou and Wijnand Adriaan Pieter van Tilburg, whose paper From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist Eccentricity Increases Perceived Artistic Skill and Art Appreciation was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

"We conducted a series of psychological experiments with students here on campus," explains Dr Igou, from the University of Limerick's department of psychology. "The research began with an experiment that had participants evaluate Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers , having never seen the picture before. With some groups we informed them that the artist in question cut off his ear lobe. With others we said nothing. The painting was evaluated more positively when we reminded participants of this eccentric behaviour."

This first study, he says, looked at the idea of eccentricity being associated with artists. “Some call it oddness, weirdness, deviation from the norms, unpredictable behaviour,” he says.

“In another study we showed people pictures of a fictitious artist, ‘Jon Stefansson’ from Iceland,” he adds.

“We gave some groups pictures which presented the artist in an eccentric way, and others where he looked more conventional. Again the link with artistic skill only emerged when he was displayed as eccentric.”

In a series of other experiments, the researchers consistently found that highlighting an artist’s eccentricity transferred into their perceived artistic capacity. “Knowing this, the first question one must ask is if there’s any truth to it,” he says.

Dr Igou’s research found that people had to perceive an artist’s eccentricity as authentic in order to make that link with talent. In their last experiment his team looked at participants’ perspectives on Lady Gaga. The experiment related to whether people believed her to be the real deal – as in, does she wear a meat dress when at home doing the dishes, or only when in front of a camera?

“Many people were doubtful of her authenticity and consequently those doubts transferred over into the evaluation of her art,” says Dr Igou.

Creative dishonesty
While the arts must be the only field where you're taken more seriously if people think you're an oddball, there can be more sinister factors at play. If an artist does take on an affected eccentricity for reasons of notoriety, one might argue this requires some level of dishonesty, ironically another trait that has been linked with creativity.

Francesco Gino (Harvard University) and Scott S Wiltermuth (University of Southern California) will soon publish a paper in Psychological Science proposing that dishonest and creative behaviour share a common, fundamental trait: they both involve breaking rules.

According to their research, “creativity may lead to dishonesty, and dishonesty may lead to creativity”.

A number of experiments were carried out on a sample group including tests with built-in opportunities to cheat for money followed by tests measuring creativity. According to the research “those who cheated were more likely to be creative after behaving dishonestly, even when accounting for individual differences in their creative ability”.

Dr Brian Hughes from the NUI Galway psychology department is not convinced. "I think it is safe to say that the conclusions drawn involve quite a considerable leap from the methods employed," he says.

“In my opinion, at the end of the day the researchers measured creativity and rule-breaking in questionable ways. The findings are interesting, but before any serious conclusions are drawn about actual creativity and actual rule breaking, we would need to do more research to see if any of this stuff generalises into the real world.”


Much of the world's dishonest behaviour can be attributed to our desire to accumulate more money. In a nutshell, money makes us lie.

New research published in Psychological Science attempted to see if money's "deleterious effects" could be "offset by focusing on time, a resource that tends to receive less attention than money but is equally ubiquitous in daily life".

Across four experiments, they examined whether shifting focus on to time could “salvage individuals’ ethicality”. The research found that “implicitly activating the construct of time, rather than money, could lead individuals to behave more ethically by cheating less”.

This may restore your faith in humanity at least a little, but the research still found that the potential for monetary gain can make the majority of us liars and cheats.

"Certain environments will promote certain kinds of behaviours," explains TCD's Dr Ian Robertson, author of the blog

“In an environment where money is the focus, you’ll be more likely to see certain types of selfish behaviour, and certainly the evidence suggests that people who are wealthy – and who subscribe to a ‘greed is good’ philosophy – are more likely to subscribe to unethical processes.”

But it’s not only Gordon Gekko who can be dishonest. “Our perception is locked in a context,” says Robertson. “That context makes it possible for us to access only a part of our thoughts, and a limited range of possibilities. Were you to change that context you could open up new possibilities.

“For example, someone might behave dishonestly in the present moment, but if somehow you could get them to think about their lives in a more long-term way, suddenly they would access different memories.

“There is such a vast amount – literally billions – of memories and thoughts we can think about at any given time. It’s very hard or random for us to choose from different things, so we tend to think and remember things appropriate to the context we’re in.”

John Holden

John Holden

John Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in science, technology and innovation