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Do Brexiters Really Prefer Realism to Abstract Art?

A new study claims that the differences between Leavers and Remainers in the UK extend to artistic taste

A museum visitor walks past paintings by Mark Rothko, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photogrpah: Robert Alexander

A museum visitor walks past paintings by Mark Rothko, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photogrpah: Robert Alexander

A museum visitor walks past paintings by Mark Rothko, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Robert Alexander

Can artistic preferences reveal your dislike of Europe? Oxford University sociologists say that Brexiters are fonder of artwork containing realistic rather than more abstract images.

The experts reached their conclusion after surveying thousands who took part in the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union in 2016. They asked respondents to select their favourites from four pairs of artworks, each containing a ‘realistic’ image (including artists Thomas Kinkade and Michael Klein) and a ‘more abstract’ piece (including Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Mark Rothko).

Their findings, published in the paper ‘Preference for realistic art predicts support for Brexit’ in The British Journal of Sociology, say that those who selected all four of the realistic works were 15 to 20 percent more likely to back the Leave vote, than those who chose zero or one of the realistic images.

‘This effect was comparable to the difference in support between those with a degree and those with no education, and was robust to controlling for the respondent’s party identity,’ they write. ‘Preference for realistic art is a robust predictor of support for Brexit.’

Lead researcher Noah Carl told The Guardian that he thought the paper’s findings ‘largely reflects the differences between social conservatives and social liberals […] Leave voters were not much more economically rightwing than Remain voters, but they were substantially more socially conservative.’

The paper suggested that reasons for the disparity in artistic taste might be down to social conservatives evaluating ‘abstract paintings more negatively because they impute less skill or effort to their creators’ and that ‘recent evidence indicates that they also display higher aversion to non-social pattern deviancy […] For example, they are less likely to describe an almost-circular shape as a circle’.

The reseachers also offered an alternative possibility that the disparity could be down to different environments – that for Remain supporters, ‘liking abstract art has positive connotations like cosmopolitanism, intellectual sophistication and open-mindedness.’

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