What was your research project about?
“I conducted research on art appreciation. Why do we like and create art? Those two questions go hand in hand. No one creates art that they don’t want to look at. And this being the case, why do we like certain types of art, but not others? These are questions that encompass more than can be studied in one doctoral research project. So I focused on four elements, which resulted in four studies on the contrast between light and dark, how lay people and art professionals look at art, authenticity and the context in which art is presented – for instance whether we see it in a museum or at a restaurant.”
How did you end up choosing this subject?
“In a roundabout way. I once embarked on a degree in Industrial Design, only to realise that I was only interested in the drawing aspects. So after that I attended an academy of fine arts. During the theory lessons, we were told that art appreciation is always subjective and relative: the quality of art cannot objectively be measured. That always struck me as quite improbable, because after all, we do have museums, and we can take art classes, which generally involve some kind of assessment method. So it can’t all be completely random. This is how I ended up doing a master in Arts and Culture Studies at Erasmus University, where the general consensus was that what is considered art is determined by social and cultural factors. That, too, struck me as a rather one-sided view of art. So I threw in a neurological perspective as well, since it is my hypothesis that biological and neurological factors also play a part. I wrote a bachelor thesis on that way back when I was doing my pre-master programme. It ended up becoming Chapter 2 of my dissertation.”
I read in your preface that getting your PhD wasn’t easy.
“I completed my master degree six years ago. I really wanted to continue my research and wrote several grant applications, in association with my supervisor, Koen van Eijck. They were all rejected, but in the meantime, I continued conducting research in my spare time. After a while, I’d written so much that all I needed was an introduction. So we decided that I’d complete my dissertation as an external PhD student, in my spare time. In the meantime, I embarked on another PhD research project on the philosophy of science. I started out in Tilburg and ended up in Turin. I’m currently putting the finishing touches to that dissertation as well, and hope to be awarded my PhD in December. That will be handy in terms of timing too once I’m ready to apply for a Veni grant, because that must be done within three years [of getting a PhD].”
So you wish to keep conducting research?
“I hardly know what else to do. I really enjoyed doing this and I haven’t found anything else yet that I enjoyed more.”
What was your key conclusion?
“If you increase the contrast between light and dark in a painting, the painting will get a significantly higher rating. Given the number of filters on Instagram that boost contrast, that was to be expected. People love that kind of stuff. Several reviewers of our paper thought we had made a mistake, as they couldn’t believe the values we had come up with. Generally, such significant effects are rarely seen in statistical analyses of psychology research. But we repeated the test four times, and the values always remained the same.”
Did you encounter other kinds of sceptics as well?
“I really did my best to try to get paid for the work I was doing. I submitted four grant applications. I always received the same criticism: the project wasn’t feasible enough. It didn’t matter which experts or what kind of material I presented, they always said my approach was too interdisciplinary. It was not in line with what others were doing. At least that’s how I interpreted it. When we published our papers, too, we received some genuinely nasty responses.”
In your acknowledgements section, you expressed your gratitude to NWO and Stichting De Verre Bergen for not giving you any money. Was that sarcasm?
“Yes, it was a bit. That said, though, I did end up in Turin for my current research project because of their rejections. That wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for all those setbacks. So in a roundabout way, I’m grateful to them for that.”
Did you ever consider giving up research, rather than writing a second PhD dissertation in your spare time?
“No, that would have been very strange. I’d already come this far.”
What’s on the cover of your dissertation?
“I designed it myself. It’s a painting by Mondrian. Mondrian used high contrast in this work, and it worked perfectly as a cover, what with those lines and empty spaces where I could put text. What’s funny is that I actually prefer Mondrian’s slightly older work, which isn’t all that rich in contrast. I’ll be wearing a Mondrian tie, Mondrian tie pin and Mondrian socks during my PhD defence ceremony.”