The Washington Post

Are artists cheaters?

Was Paul Gauguin — shown here in this self-portrait — unethical? (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

This quote, made famous by Steve Jobs, was actually stolen from Pablo Picasso, or maybe T.S. Eliot, depending on which apocryphal tale you believe. Either way, the quote’s prevalence — and its provenance — means a new study may come as no surprise. It claims creative people are more likely to act unethically.

In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, the more creativity a person displayed, the more he or she was likely to cheat on a test for personal and monetary gain. Participants in the study, offered a financial reward for correct answers on a quiz, were more likely to copy the answers from an “accidentally” revealed answer key, Time reports. A creative person’s ability to think outside the box also gives them the creativity to rationalize their own unethical behavior, the study theorized.

It’s not a wholly new idea. Being a liar is a requirement of being an artist, Ian Leslie argued in the Economist. “If art is a kind of lying, then lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order — as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed,” writes Leslie. “Both liars and artists refuse to accept the tyranny of reality.”

Lying and cheating for one’s art — as in making up stories, cultivating a persona, and even appropriating other’s work — is different than cheating for personal gain, though. There have been prominent examples of artists who have engaged in both forms of it. Paul Gauguin’s numerous ethical breaches — beyond sleeping with teenage girls in his adopted homeland of Tahiti — included misrepresenting his paintings of the island to collectors back in France as a garden paradise, when in fact, it was colonized and stricken with alcoholism and disease.

More recently, there is the example of Shepard Fairey, whose famous Obama “Hope” poster became the iconic image of the 2008 campaign, but was cribbed from an image by AP photographer Mannie Garcia. Fairey might have had a chance at winning the lawsuit under the fair use doctrine, but instead, he was caught destroying evidence and had to settle.

The researchers weren’t able to find a link between intelligence and cheating — only creativity. Creative people who deceive still sleep well at night, wrote the study’s authors, professors Francesca Gino, at Harvard, and Dan Ariely, at Duke University. “They behave dishonestly enough to profit from their unethical behavior but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept as honest human beings.”

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts.


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