The Flynn effect in art


Dear Artist,

The Flynn effect is the year-on-year rise of IQ test scores. It was named after the New Zealand political scientist James R. Flynn. The average rate of rise is around three IQ points per decade, although it varies greatly in many parts of the world. Various explanations for the effect include improved nutrition, smaller families, stable families, better education, greater social and environmental complexity, free thinking, passion, ambition, increased size of the cranial vault, better gene pools and racial interbreeding.

Is it possible that some of these same factors may be improving creative intelligence as well? If some of us are getting smarter, is it possible that we’re getting more artistic? Does better nutrition, for example, make us better artists?

As long as the answer to the question, “What is art?” remains arbitrary and vague, it will be difficult to say. But taking conservative, realistic art as an example, those who cruise current art media often come to the conclusion that many of today’s painters are doing better work than Tintoretto, Titian or Turner. Contrary to my regular pontifications, the old guys didn’t always get it right. There are certainly a lot of highly competent artists these days.

Since the abstract revolution, a lot of what now goes by the name of art has moved into a zone where anything goes. Artists, critics, intellectuals, dealers and curators now find a place for horse buns in the Tate and MOMA. Measuring this art against a baseline standard is difficult. And, as the art-education culture has found, grading is impossible.

Still, quality marches on. In my lifetime, art quality has appeared to improve. There’s certainly more competition, and there are a lot more folks working toward high standards. Art literacy has become a democratic right. The ubiquitous media invites the cross-breeding of ideas and promotes cross-cultural vigour. Workshops are hotter than barn dances. Greater societal freedom, the rise of leisure time, and longer life expectancies in the developed nations may have helped us do our thing. One might conclude that creativity, sensitivity, understanding and capability — our artistic IQ’s — are on the rise.

Best regards,


PS: “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” (Bernard McFadden)

Esoterica: The Flynn effect, as it relates to IQ, while greatest in developing nations and immigrant cultures, may have diminished in some places. Test results from over 500,000 young Danish men between 1959 and 2004, showed that performance peaked in the late 1990s, and has since declined moderately to pre-1991 levels. This was partly attributed to a simultaneous decline of students entering advanced-level school programs. Another study shows that the Flynn effect may have ended in the U.K. This well publicized study compared results of IQ tests taken by 11 year old children over a period of three decades. It showed a precipitous drop. If scientists are now finding IQ scores to be moving downwards in some countries, is it possible AQ scores might also be vulnerable?


New media expansion
by Lawrence Charles Miller


original artwork on canvas
by Lawrence Charles Miller

As our external nervous system grows — printing press, telegram, radio, television, computer, Internet, etc. – our collective internal nervous system expands. What would the great dead artists do with new media? Would they turn away? The laboratory is wide open. We just need to say something that describes our human vibe in a way that transcends as many tethers as possible.





Economic advantage
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA


“Morton B. Fig”
oil on canvas, 30 x 34 inches
by Lisa Chakrabarti

There are legions of contemporary artists today who are astoundingly good. I suspect it is because we have more leisure time, as well as materials being much easier to come by. For example, the choice to make one’s own paint is an option, not a necessity. Economics is part of everything, and art is no exception.




Flynn Flam
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“I Remember When”
pastel painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Paul deMarrais

I don’t see much Flynn effect going on at all in this country. Having now passed age fifty,I find that I am increasingly old fashioned in my views and tastes. Values of quality and cultural interests are old fashioned. As the population ages, the “older” people are fueling the rise in excellent traditional art, workshops, interest in culture. But I think what you see at Wal-Mart is more indicative of the way the average person is going. Globalization and its henchmen (like Wal-Mart), have cheapened us and cheapened our attitudes about quality and craftsmanship. The arts suffer when people see no value in paying for them and supporting their production.


Learning from reference
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA


“Summer Splendor”
giclee print
by Gregory Packard

Like a mathematician first learns the math that has already been learned before going on to make mathematical breakthroughs, today’s artists have the luxury of learning from reference, much of what, to our predecessors, were breakthroughs. Monet said that as an artist you need two lives, one to learn to paint and the other to paint. To a large extent Monet lived that first life so that many of us could take that knowledge and spend most of our lives painting with it. I don’t know that artists are getting more creative, but with technology, worldwide communication and easy access to what is already known, today’s artists certainly get a running start.


Art is expression
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA


“Flight Simplified”
acrylic on paper, 13 x 19 inches
by Beth Deuble

‘What is art?’ is the same question as, ‘What is being human?’ Art for the artist is simply an expression of our experience in the world — expressing a feeling, an impression, a thought, a reaction, an influence, etc. Cultures have, for thousands of years, found all kinds of ways to express themselves. Were they more free? Were they better fed? Did they have more leisure time? Perhaps, as modern people, we are in the midst of a great renaissance, a realization that the simple effort and act of expression is as valuable as our modern day vocations.


Artistic content slipping?
by Bill Engell, PA, USA

IQ trends aside, I’m sensitive about the nature of what we refer to as art. Personally, I admit to being a painter, but almost never refer to myself as an artist. It seems to me that what is on the increase is craftsmanship — more people working at a higher degree of technical attainment. I don’t necessarily see a corresponding increase, at least proportionally, in work that has outstanding artistic content. As an example of the difference, I’ll jump disciplines so as not to start a firestorm about painters. I see a vast difference in the artistic content in the works of a composer such as Salieri — not the all-too-human monster from Amadeus, but the capable craftsman of his musical time — and that of Mozart. I don’t want to be dogmatic about this, but I think we have many more Salieri’s, but not proportionally more Mozart’s.


Unexpected possibilities
by Jesse Silver, Burbank, CA, USA

My favorite definition for intelligence is a very simple one — the ability to make connections. As to the phenomenon of “Radical” art, such as conceptual, performance, etc, much of this “work” is experimental and it mostly fails, though occasionally it illuminates a new and unexpected possibility. If an artist has a good solid grounding, technically, and has the ability to make unexpected connections, he/she will create art, however unorthodox.


Competent copyists
by Ed Pointer, Lindsborg, KS, USA


by Ed Pointer

I agree there are a lot of competent artists these days. In the U.S. there are over 2 million artists and they overwhelm the galleries with their work, even the unaccomplished think their work is worthy. I also agree that art quality has appeared to improve. In fact, the quality of art has improved so much that it begins to look the same. A little time spent looking through a high quality art magazine, specializing in more realistic paintings, will reveal a depressing sameness in both subject and proficiency. After a little time spent “looking at art” one must wonder what has happened to creativity. There are technique copyists galore and, if a copyist is accomplished enough, a gallery will choose to show that artist’s work even though it can be recognized as an obvious rip-off.


Measure of intelligence
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada

Provocative topic!! One question is whether, or how well, IQ tests actually measure intelligence. Do they measure the ability to adapt to that which one has been exposed, to new situations? If that is the case, they can only measure the exposure (quantifiable), not how it has been used (qualifiable). It is true that we have greater access, through various media, to information. I don’t think that means we are using the information better, more creatively, or wisely. Do IQ tests measure creativity? Can they? Perhaps they measure whether the test-takers have become better at taking tests.


Parental influence
by Ken Flauding, San Francisco, CA, USA

A true IQ test is not supposed to measure the level of education, but it should measure the ability to problem-solve and effectively apply creative thinking. I do believe successive generations develop greater capacity for learning as we discover more efficient means of imparting knowledge to our progeny. There is a direct correlation between how early and how much effort is put into this in the critical development stage between birth and the age of seven. I would be willing to bet most young “Geniuses” have all had one thing in common… parents very engaged in the learning process from the beginning.

If scores are dropping in England and other selected areas of the world, could it be the testing criteria has become more stringent or parents less engaged in the learning process?


Children of war
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA

On the flip side of the idea that beneficial environments potentially cause a rise in IQ scores, one wonders what effect constant war and diminished resources have on children. What is the long term effect on those children who do not have improved nutrition, stable families, better education, greater social and environmental complexity (other than learning how to manage trauma) and no free thinking?

We know how creativity, color and artistic expression enhance a person. What happens when a child lives a daily diet of gray rubble and brown dirt, accented only by the red blood of their loved ones? One can only hope that the beautiful blue sky with its white clouds often inspires little eyes to look up and away from the dingy world at their feet.

Regardless of one’s political stance, the fact that the children of all the war-torn and down-trodden countries are under persistent attack by guns, bullets and bombs — which prevent them from receiving those positive elements that raise IQ scores — is a matter of great concern for us all.


Survival of the fittest
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany

If poor nutrition is a major factor in reducing creative initiative and basic physical health in people in developing countries, then it most likely follows that intellectual and creative faculties benefit from a high(er) standard of living. While there is no artistic potential in your intake of protein, a lack of it will certainly hamper rather than help the flow of creative juices! The starving artist is really a myth and probably always was.

One doesn’t have to have studied Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to know that the survival of the fittest is relevant, even in the art world. However, these days, one’s understanding of “fitness” could include clever marketing, having affluent sponsors or cultivating a scandalous image. Just as the outstanding artists of the past copied and learnt from their predecessors, “real” artists of today benefit and learn from the artists of yesterday – yesterday being anything that was ever considered “art,” from the cave paintings onwards. In fact, one of the most prophetic of modern artists, Pablo Picasso, could be said to have taken a lead from those cave artists.

Even if unmade beds and collages of entrails are classified as art by certain circles these days, in retrospect it will be skill, imagination and originality beyond the banal and shocking that survive. Thanks to modern media we are able to view and learn from the best. This must surely speed on the evolution/self-improvement/achievement of the artist, just as our biblical ancestors strove to reach the “land of plenty.” The creative land of plenty lies at our feet.


Botanical art
by Peggy Turchette, Boulder, CO, USA


watercolour painting
by Peggy Turchette

The Flynn effect is clearly apparent in the work of contemporary botanical artists. Botanical art or illustration has seen a huge resurgence in the last twenty-five years, thanks in no small part to wealthy collector Shirley Sherwood’s decision to collect and promote contemporary work. Compare Pandora Sellars to the Bauer brothers, and you’ll see what I mean.




Gallery greed
by Sandy Nelson, Kitty Hawk, NC, USA

Two of the galleries that represent my work had record sales in December and again in January. Rather than applaud my work ethic and abilities, the owners of both immediately went to other galleries and exhibits, searching out artists whose work mirrored mine in style, palette and subject matter, signing all they could locate to show in their galleries. While I realize they are businesses who want to lock onto a hot commodity in their markets, I was truly disappointed that they brought in other work very much like mine to compete with me for sales — especially since I kept them supplied very well. The way I see it, they removed my chances of making more income and did not reward my loyalty. I am now looking for other galleries to represent me because of it. Is this a prevailing problem for artists? Or am I being just too sensitive about their greediness for sales? It appears I will have to change my work in some way in order to make it different from what it was before in order to compete — for income, not artistic concerns. What is your take on this?

(RG note) Thanks, Sandy. Some gallery owners have little or no loyalty. Some, like your guys, go after cloners because they think in terms of “trend” rather than integrity. In the long run they generally shoot themselves in the foot. In my experience, serious collectors get the wind up when they notice the same or similar things by a different name at half the price. Take control and lose these losers by establishing your own stable of dealers, run them like a mutual fund, and honour the fair players with your own loyalty. Don’t change your own growth pattern, change your friends.






Fruit Study: Plums1

oil painting
by Shirley deMaio, Clovis, NM, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Claudia Roulier of Idledale, CO, USA who wrote, “In our family we have a couple of brainiacs (IQ scores bouncing off the moon) and a couple of us who are endowed with a lot of AIQ. I think they are opposite sides of the same coin.”

And also Jean Morey of Ocala, FL, USA who wrote, “I wonder how this correlates with so many galleries closing in this part of the country. Four galleries that handled my paintings closed last year. The teaching and Children’s book work have thrived however. Perhaps here in Florida people want to create art, not buy other people’s creations.”

And also Judy (Fuller) Roberto of San Jose, CA, USA who wrote, “Where art is concerned, our appetites are more sophisticated, perhaps due to greater exposure to art. But then, the same thing has happened to our coffee IQ. Art and coffee — better because we know better, or because we’re smarter?”

And also Barbara Oken of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “The mantra you attributed to Bernard McFadden may be traced to a French pharmacist and psychologist, Emile Coué (1857-1926), whose promulgations of auto-suggestion’s benefits were all the rage in the 1920s.”

And also Joan Bain of Bella Vista, AR, USA who wrote, “I liked the comparison of ‘workshops being hotter than barn dances!’ I’m in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and expect Frank Webb’s watercolor workshop February 10th to the 16th will be more fun than a Fiesta Mexicana.”

And also Jim LeSire who wrote, “If creativity and intelligence are higher now than they were in the past, where are all the Mozarts, Beethovens, and Ravels of our time?”

And also Ron Stacy of Sidney, BC, Canada who wrote, “In fact, the inventor of the IQ test eventually discredited it completely.”

And also Stella Reinwald of Santa Fe, NM, USA who wrote, “Your opening paragraph put me in mind of the movie, Art School Confidential. It’s a satire on the ‘art world’… what constitutes great art, or rather what ‘passes’ for great art. The characterizations are at times a bit obvious, but they are still laugh-out-loud hilarious.”

And also Barb Reser of Topeka, KS, USA who wrote, “I’m an art teacher I’ve been communicating with Dan Pink by email, and he’ll be a keynote speaker at the National Art Education Association convention in New York Mar 13-19. I think his book, A Whole New Mind, ties in with the Flynn effect.”

And also Jaleen Grove of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “IQ/AQ isn’t necessarily the whole story. You need to take into account the runaway population growth associated with the last 100 years or so. More people means more talented folks being born.”

And also Tom Disch of the USA who wrote, “As to a diminishing Flynn effect in Denmark or the UK, surely it may be due to the changing character of the population demographically. Imagine what the Flynn effect might be here in the States if, as some forebode, all Mexico comes to stay in a permanent way.”

And also Ortrud K Tyler of Oak Island, NC, USA who wrote, “Might the rise in art IQ also have something to do with the increased number of established, competent women artist these days?”

And also Clint Watson of San Antonio, TX, USA who wrote, “Consciously working to improve ourselves just a little bit each day — the Japanese call it Kaizan, the Christians call it sanctification, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson calls it Deliberate Practice. I call it developing habits.”




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