Stereotype threat
Robert Genn

May 29, 2009

In 1995, Stanford University psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua 
Aronson coined the term "Stereotype threat." At the time, they were 
dealing with such stereotypes as "Girls do poorly in math" and "African 
Americans are challenged in higher education." Their idea was that the 
mere knowledge of expectations affected performance. Conversely, such 
stereotypes as "Jews are smart" seemed to have a positive effect on 
Jewish academic performance. Prophesies and indigenous myths can be 

As artists, one of our frequently heard stereotypes is "Painters are 
poor." A more gentle variation is "While painters may live enriched 
lives, they suffer a lifetime of having no money." Funnily, this 
stereotype hasn't been around long--mainly since Paul Gauguin deserted 
his wife and kids and tried to live cheaply among the brown ladies of 
Tahiti. Somerset Maugham wrote a play about it: "The Moon and Sixpence."

These days, the poor-artist stereotype is sometimes reinforced in art 
schools where instructors advise students on the thrills of their 
impending poverty.  

In the Stanford psychologist's theory, the most recent or oft-repeated 
stereotype has the most potent influence. Students who were issued a 
written test, for example, tended to do better when asked for their 
personal details at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the test.

When I was about ten years old, my dad took me to visit a couple of 
Fine Artists. Both these painters seemed to me to lead enriched lives, 
working with integrity and to be anything but poor. They had no day 
jobs and, apparently, no inheritance to keep their families comfortable. 
They worked long hours and sent excellent art to distant dealers. The 
penny dropped in my bony little head that an artist could prosper, and 
the penny has been lodged there ever since. 

Popping the festering bubble of stereotype ought to be part of our job 
description. Here are a few more to think about: "Collectors prefer 
their artists to be male," "Art is what you can get away with," and 
"Painters are flogging a dead horse."

Best regards,


PS: "Some members of stigmatized groups lag behind others because 
they have internalized the stereotypes." (John Cloud, Time Magazine)

Esoterica: One of those artists my dad and I visited was quite elderly. 
We bought his old, much-sanded drawing table, which I still treasure. 
It was this sort of experience that gave me the idea of the Eternal 
Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Artists. While we tend to be solitary, 
we are part of a greater movement that spans generations. And while 
misery, poverty and poisonous pedagogy lurk beside our paths, we can 
take power from the positive in one another.