The Vanity of Small Differences

Empirical Studies of Extrinsic Factors and Artistic Value

  • Shen-yi Liao University of Puget Sound
  • Aaron Meskin University of Georgia
  • Jade Fletcher New College of the Humanities
Keywords: experimental aesthetics, aesthetic judgment, art museum, magical thinking, authenticity, context of appreciation


To what extent are factors that are extrinsic to the artwork relevant to judgements of artistic value? One might approach this question using traditional philosophical methods, but one can also approach it using empirical methods; that is, by doing experimental philosophical aesthetics. This paper provides an example of the latter approach. We report two empirical studies that examine the significance of three sorts of extrinsic factors for judgements of artistic value: the causal-historical factor of contagion, the ontological factor of uniqueness, and the contextual factor of appreciative environment.

We explore the context of appreciation by performing studies in a museum as well as the lab. We found that contagion made a difference in both settings. However, uniqueness only made a difference in the lab setting, but not in the museum. This suggests that the context of appreciation may make a difference to judgements of artistic value. Of broader significance, these studies show the value of experimental philosophical aesthetics and the value of doing in situ empirical research on art.


Arnheim, Rudolf (1954). Art and visual perception: a psychology of the creative eye. Berkeley, CA, US: University of California Press.

Arts Council Collection (2018), “The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry: Education Information Pack”. Available online at .

Brieber, David, Helmut Leder, & Marcos Nadal, (2015), “The Experience of Art in Museums: An Attempt to Dissociate the Role of Physical Context and Genuineness”, Empirical Studies of the Arts 33(1): 95–105.

Brieber, David, Marcos Nadal, & Helmut Leder (2015), “In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art”, Acta Psychologica 154: 36–42.

Brieber, David, Marcos Nadal, Helmut Leder, & Raphael Rosenberg (2014), “Art in Time and Space: Context Modulates the Relation between Art Experience and Viewing Time:, PLoS ONE 9(6): e99019. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099019

Bullot, Nicolas J. & Reber, Rolf (2013). “The artful mind meets art history: Toward a psycho-historical framework for the science of art appreciation.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36 (2):123-137.

Clark, Andy (1997), Being There: Putting Mind, Body, and World Together Again, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cova, Florian, Amanda Garcia, & Shen-yi Liao (2015), “Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics”, Philosophy Compass 10(11): 927–939.

Danto, Arthur (1981), The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fechner, Gustav Theodor (1876), Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Gartus, Andreas, & Helmut Leder (2014), “The White Cube of the Museum Versus the Gray Cube of the Street: The Role of Context in Aesthetic Evaluations”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 8(3): 311–320.

Haugeland, John (1995/1998). “Mind Embodied and Embedded”, in Having Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 207–237.

Huang, Julie Y., Joshua M. Ackerman, & George E. Newman (2017), “Catching (Up with) Magical Contagion: A Review of Contagion Effects in Consumer Contexts”, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2(4): 430–443.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn (2012), “Touch and the Experience of the Genuine”, British Journal of Aesthetics 52(4): 365-377.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn (2019), Things: In Touch With The Past. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leder, Helmut, Benno Belke, Andries Oeberst, & Dorothee Augustin (2004), “A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments”, British Journal of Psychology 95(4): 489–508.

Leder, Helmut, & Marcos Nadal (2014), “Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode — Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics”, British Journal of Psychology 105(4): 443–464.

Levinson, Jerrold (1980), “What a musical work is”, Journal of Philosophy 77(1): 5-28.

Locher, Paul, Lisa Smith, & Jeffrey Smith (1999), “Original Paintings Versus Slide and Computer Reproductions: A Comparison of Viewer Responses”, Empirical Studies of the Arts 17(2): 121–129.

McCallum, Kate, Scott Mitchell, & Thom Scott-Phillips (forthcoming), “The Art Experience”, Review of Philosophy and Psychology.

Nannicelli, Ted (2019), “Aesthetics and the Limits of the Extended Mind”, British Journal of Aesthetics 59(1): 81–94.

Newman, George E. (2016), “An Essentialist Account of Authenticity”, Journal of Cognition and Culture 16: 294–321.

Newman, George E., & Paul Bloom (2012), “Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141(3): 558–569.

Newman, George E., & Paul Bloom (2014), “Physical contact influences how much people pay at celebrity auctions”, PNAS 111(10): 3705–3708.

Newman, George E., & Ravi Dhar (2014), “Authenticity Is Contagious: Brand Essence and the Original Source of Production”, Journal of Marketing Research 51: 371–386.

Newman, George E., Gil Diesendruck, & Paul Bloom (2011), “Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects”, Journal of Consumer Research, 38(2): 215–228.

Newman, George E., & Rosanna K. Smith (2016a), “The need to belong motivates demand for authentic objects”, Cognition 156: 129–134.

Newman, George E., & Rosanna K. Smith (2016b), “Kinds of Authenticity”, Philosophy Compass 11(10): 609–618.

O’Guinn, Thomas C. (1991), “Touching Greatness: The Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club”, in Russell Belk (ed.), Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, Provo, UT: The Association for Consumer Research, 102–111.

Pelowski, Matthew, Michael Forster, Pablo P. L. Tinio, Maria Scholl, & Helmut Leder (2017), “Beyond the Lab: An Examination of Key Factors Influencing Interaction With ‘Real’ and Museum-Based Art”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 11(3): 245–264.

Smith, Jeffrey K., & Lisa F. Smith (2001), “Spending Time on Art”, Empirical Studies of the Arts 19(2): 229–236.

Smith, Lisa F. (2014), “Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs of Applied Research in Museum Settings”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 8(2): 253–259.

Smith, Rosanna K., & George E. Newman (2014), “When Multiple Creators Are Worse Than One: The Bias Toward Single Authors in the Evaluation of Art”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 8(3): 303–310.

Smith, Rosanna K., George E. Newman, & Ravi Dhar (2016), “Closer to the Creator: Temporal Contagion Explains the Preference for Earlier Serial Numbers”, Journal of Consumer Research, 42(5): 653–668.

Walton, Kendall L. (1970), “Categories of Art”, The Philosophical Review 79(3): 334-367.