In 1958, Yves Klein burst onto the art scene with Le Vide, a work in which he simply emptied a gallery interior and painted it entirely white. Three years earlier, Klein introduced his famous monochrome paintings that were technically nothing more than an ordinary canvas covered in flat, blue paint. How was Klein able to gain international notoriety as a cutting edge artist for work that seemingly required no more skill than that of a competent house painter? In order to answer this, one could analyse the historical precedence or the gallery system at the time, but the central question remains: how was Yves Klein able to persuade the art community to accept his artwork as legitimate and collectable? Though he was unlikely aware of it in a formal sense, Klein had developed the ability to represent his artwork in a way that adhered to a number of marketing principles (later established by psychologists) that determine effective persuasive techniques. Using these techniques, Klein was able to attract people’s attention as well as convince them that he knew what he was talking about, that what he was saying was important, and that his artwork was a gateway to understanding his frame of mind. This essay will focus on how Klein implemented four psychological tactics that solidified his standing as one of Modernism’s most sought after and valuable artists. These tactics include source credibility and legitimacy, the halo effect, latitude of acceptance, and the elaboration likelihood model. The popularity and financial success of Yves Klein was a direct result of his ability to persuade people using these four techniques.
From his early childhood, Klein was gifted with a persuasive and eccentric personality, and, as such, he was often the center of attention. Though this disposition would prove indispensable throughout his career, Klein would have to radically transform himself to fulfill his “insane desire to be admired.” The Second World War and Klein’s eccentric personality fragmented his formal education. As a result, he searched for alternative sources of knowledge. He found his outlet in a fascination with Mysticism, a movement that would continue to inspire him throughout his life. This fixation would create a natural pathway to martial arts. Klein’s personality, as well as his interest and longing for alternative education, made him an ideal student of Judo. Though both of his parents were painters, Klein’s first calling was Judo. His overarching desire for admiration was evident in the extraordinary lengths he took to reach his adolescent goal of becoming the most revered Judoka in all of France. It is said that to excel in Judo, physical strength and determination can only get you so far. The rest must come from an unflinching spiritual commitment to Judo and a complete embrace of the spiritual self. Klein’s natural talent and enthusiasm enabled him to travel to Japan where he eventually achieved the rank of Yodan (fourth degree black belt).
Unfortunately, upon Klein’s return to France as its newest and highest ranking Judoka, he was not met with acceptance. Despite his extensive training, the French Federation of Judoka chose not to recognize Klein’s foreign credentials. This seemingly hypocritical attitude, in addition to his disapproval of the increased commercialization of the sport, hindered Klein’s relationship with the Judo community. Klein’s initial aspirations of grandeur were shattered by politics that were out of his control. Though he dabbled in painting and monochromes in years prior, it was at this point that he decided to take up the trade of his parents. Klein’s parents were part of the Parisian Figurative School, which focused on carefully developed technical skill. However, these artistic traits were not hereditary. In fact, it is noted that Klein had such a technical deficiency that he “could not hold a pencil.” This handicap served to direct Klein’s practice away from a traditional visual appreciation to one of pure experience.
Klein’s focus upon pure experience manifested itself in many facets of his art, most notably in his fascination with The Void and in his use of International Klein Blue (IKB). The Void was first exhibited in Klein’s famous 1958 breakout show, “Le Vide,” in the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris. Instead of physically displaying artworks, Klein painted every surface of the gallery white and subsequently presented the gallery space as his work of art. International Klein Blue was the name of the paint used in his famous monochrome paintings. Its unique synthetic properties gave the blue pigment a degree of luminescence that had never been seen in traditional oil paints. However, this luminescence was not intended to be the focus of the painting. Both The Void and the IKB monochromes were not intended as a window into another reality, as was the style within Baroque paintings. Instead, they functioned as a window to something that reached beyond reality into the spiritual realm of pure experience. Although this analysis of Klein’s objectives is now generally accepted, how was Klein able to convince an audience of this in 1958? It is especially remarkable considering how he employed outlandish rhetoric. For example, he advocated for his artworks’ ability to “resurrect the fantasy of lost childhood” or unlock “an extra-dimensional quality that enabled a sublime feeling in the tangible representation of infinite space.” How was he able to persuade his contemporary audience of these claims?
Klein ascribed the four previously mentioned psychological tactics of persuasion to facilitate his success. The first tactic he employed is encompassed in the theory of source credibility. Source credibility is a term that refers to a body of research that determines how effective the instigator of persuasion is with respect to their physical presentation. In other words, it is not what one says but how one says it. Upon his entrance into the art world, Klein’s Judo training left him in superb physical and mental health, which provided a powerful impression on the people he encountered. Psychologist Richard Bagozzi argues that physical attractiveness is a central component of source credibility because the addressee is likely to associate a positive appearance with a positive influence. This theory explains why models and celebrities dominate advertisements, as they are seen as highly credible sources regardless of their actual knowledge of the product. Klein’s Javanese heritage imbued him with unique good looks, of which he took full advantage. As the final piece of the package, Klein’s magnetic personality gave him a commanding presence during any argument. It has often been alleged that he would occasionally start arguments with strangers and could deliver his case with such passion (regardless of how flawed or absurd it actually was) that the stranger would leave in complete acceptance of his point of view. Though these impassioned arguments may have worked with the general public, Klein could not have relied upon his good looks and charm alone when dealing with the more demanding scrutiny of art critics.
In order to permeate the established art community, Klein had to prove that he knew what he was talking about. Through his preaching of Mysticism, Klein recognized problems of modernity and offered eloquent paths to enlightenment through de-materiality and personal transformation. These teachings may have gone unnoticed had they have been delivered by a less influential character, but Klein brought some unique credentials to the table. As the highest ranking Judoka in Europe, his Yodan level was well known to his patrons and would have commanded respect and admiration from the public. The extensive training Klein experienced in Japan functioned as a recognized prerequisite for the adherence to the dematerialized lifestyle that his works represented. The public’s awareness of his training and lifestyle gave Klein’s rhetoric the type of legitimacy that is vital for any type of persuasion. Furthermore, when Klein spoke about his work he used a unique set of phrases such as “the state of prime matter,” “pure pictorial sensibility,” or “the void.” As described by Robert R. Harmon and Kenneth A. Coney in The Persuasive Effects of Source Credibility in Buy and Lease Situations, the use of technical terminology is highly effective in persuading an audience who is unfamiliar with the corresponding information. This is because it gives the illusion that the source is privy to a whole body of knowledge, such as the Judo teachings, which is both well established and respected enough to warrant its own recognized vocabulary. Klein masterfully employed this strategy to market himself to an unwitting audience who were more captivated by his persona than by his art.
Klein’s high degree of source credibility and legitimacy made him the ideal representative for his work because of something called the halo effect. The halo effect is demonstrated when views or ideas of one object are transferred to another object by association. For example, Tiger Woods was paid to endorse Gillette razors because Gillette knows Woods’ image will subsequently become associated with their razors. Therefore, if one thinks highly of Woods, that person is also likely to think highly of Gillette, thereby becoming more likely to purchase the product. This theory has long been a staple in advertising and brand awareness. Klein became partially aware of this effect through his fascination with medieval alchemic practices. The ultimate goal of the alchemists was to create a substance that could be used to imbue any ordinary item with extraordinary characteristics. To Klein, this alchemical substance was his sense of “pure pictorial sensibility,” a concept he felt he incorporated within all of his works. This is the halo effect in application. As reinforcement, Klein sought to allow the public to experience a “state of ecstasy” through his art. Psychologist Richard Bagozzi also found that when individuals are aroused, such as in a gallery opening, the consequences of the halo effect become strengthened proportionally. This is thought to occur because an individual’s mood increases as arousal increases. This increase, in turn, creates stronger and more positive associations.
Despite Klein’s later success, his early attempts at monochrome paintings in the late 1940s were met with rejection. Although employing an identical style, methodology, and charismatic personality, he could not attain the success of his 1958 “Le Vide” breakout show. The change was not in Klein’s technique, but it existed instead within the art community as a whole. The psychological concept of latitude of acceptance describes how each individual or community operates within a threshold of acceptance. For instance, if a piece of information lies beyond that threshold (such as the idea of spiritual transcendence through de-materiality) then one will reject it. However, if this information lies within the latitude of acceptance, it will be acknowledged. Unfortunately for Klein, his work fell well outside of the art community’s threshold. Psychologists Alice H. Eagly and Kathleen Telaak argue that the most effective remedy to this issue is to gradually broaden the audience’s latitude of acceptance until the information in question lies within the given threshold. Klein widened the threshold with the help of his trusted friend, Pascal Claude. Together, Klein and Claude published two books that featured reproductions of paintings that never actually existed. These reproductions were more numerous than anything Klein had ever made. In addition, they were also larger in scale and predated his known work by almost a decade. Yves Peintures and Haguenault Peintures were printed to create the illusion of a level of artistic maturity that Klein did not possess. These publications served to increase the audience’s latitude of acceptance, which thereby led to the incorporation of Klein’s monochromes.
By the time of Klein’s famous “Le Vide” debut, the art community had been primed for the spectacle that was to come. On the opening night, three thousand people swarmed the tiny Iris Clert gallery, and the ensuing chaos forced police to disperse the crowd. The following day, the Parisian press printed both positive and negative reviews, which in turn, served to fuel the excitement surrounding Klein’s exhibition. The message was accepted. The public had witnessed absolutely nothing in a physical sense; however, they had experienced Klein’s predicted spiritual realization. Though Klein’s skills with interpersonal persuasion are unquestionable, his most profound influence lies in his ability to impart viewers with the tools necessary to convince themselves of his undeniable authority.
Self persuasion is the final tool Klein employed. Elliot Aronson, author of The Power of Self Persuasion, argues that self persuasion is far more effective than direct persuasion, as evident in a situation such as a sales pitch. He contends that whatever conclusion an individual derives from self persuasion is done so entirely on his or her own accord and with his or her own justification. In marketing himself, Klein skillfully employed a sub theory of self persuasion called the elaboration likelihood model. In this model, the delivery of a message that is not fully understood, such as Klein’s rhetoric, causes the recipient to repeatedly reconsider the information in order to make sense of it. This repetition instills familiarity, which ultimately creates a positive association with the subject, thereby contributing to a personal acceptance of the message. After the opening of “Le Vide,” the Parisian press “found it hard to conceal their confusions over the profound meanings and manifestations of the void.” As well, the striking dissonance between Klein’s “high voltage personality and his works of pure contemplation” further complicated any interpretation of Klein and his works. Psychologists Adam Alter, Daniel Oppenheimer, Nicholas Epley, and Rebecca Eyre found that when attempting to understand a confusing argument, one is also more likely to engage external information. This engagement can take the form of the persuader’s rhetoric instead of one’s own preconceived, internal information, and is therefore usually irrelevant to the argument’s quality. The confusion resulting from Klein’s work was inevitable due to the complex nature of his spiritual rhetoric. Although difficult to quantify, this confusion serves to benefit Klein’s mystique.
The effective application of source credibility and legitimacy, the halo effect, latitude of acceptance, and the elaboration likelihood model ultimately provided Yves Klein with what he so desperately desired – complete admiration. His good looks and charm allowed him to be a very persuasive speaker; however, presentation alone could only take him so far. Klein offered a spiritual and unique message within his artwork that had been legitimized by his extensive Judo training and unique use of vocabulary. By employing the halo effect, Klein ensured that anything he was associated with would share his traits. Klein prepared the art market for his works with fraudulent publications to gradually widen the audience’s latitude of acceptance in response to his artworks. Finally, the difficult subject matter and the discrepancies in presentation made interpretation rather problematic and confusing. However, as discussed in the elaboration likelihood model, this confusion actually increased the effectiveness of self persuasion.
Though he would have been largely unaware of these modern psychological approaches, examining these multiple techniques together can explain why Yves Klein was so successful, despite his use of difficult subject matter and counterintuitive style. Fifty years later, Klein continues to charm the art community with works like RE 46 (SIII) of 1960, which sold for 4.7 million dollars at Christie's in 2006, and his piece entitled RE1 of 1958, which was purchased for 6.7 million dollars. Whether Klein was in fact conscious of it or not, his intelligent and intuitive approach to marketing himself led to a world renowned appreciation of his seminal art work.
1. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 23.
2. Ibid., 42.
3. Ibid., 43.
4. Ibid., 39.
7. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 46.
9. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 54.
10. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 103.
11. Robert R. Harmon, and Kenneth A. Coney, “The Persuasive Effects of Source Credibility in Buy and Lease Situations,” Journal of Marketing Research 19, no. 2 (1982): 255.
12. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 44.
13. Richard Bagozzi, “The Role of Arousal in the Creation and Control of the Halo Effect in Attitude Models,” Psychology & Marketing 13, no. 3, (1996), 252.
14. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 46.
15. Ibid., 48.
16. Ibid., 37.
17. Robert R. Harmon, and Kenneth A. Coney, “The Persuasive Effects of Source Credibility in Buy and Lease Situations,” Journal of Marketing Research 19, no. 2 (1982), 256.
18. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 47.
19. Robert R. Harmon, and Kenneth A. Coney, “The Persuasive Effects of Source Credibility in Buy and Lease Situations,” Journal of Marketing Research 19, no. 2 (1982), 258.
20. Elizabeth A. Bennett, “Obfuscation and Persuasion: What Role Does Jargon Play in Persuading Us?” Humanities and Social Sciences 56, no 5-A (1995): 1753.
21. Richard Bagozzi, “The Role of Arousal in the Creation and Control of the Halo Effect in Attitude Models,” Psychology & Marketing 13, no. 3, (1996), 259.
22. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 45.
23. Ibid., 45.
24. Ibid., 63.
25. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 49.
26. Richard Bagozzi, “The Role of Arousal in the Creation and Control of the Halo Effect in Attitude Models,” Psychology & Marketing 13, no. 3, (1996), 255.
27. Ibid., 255.
28. Yves Klein, Overcoming the Problematics of Art, Trans. Klaus Ottmann (New York: Spring Publications, 2007), 139.
29. Alice Eagly, and Kathleen Telaak, “Width of the Latitude of Acceptance as a Determinant of Attitude Change,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 23, no. 3 (1972): 389.
30. Ibid., 394.
31. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 40.
32. Ibid., 40.
34. Ibid., 40-41.
35. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 49.
36. Aronson Elliot, “The Power of Self Persuasion,” (American Psychologist 11, 1999), 876.
37. Ibid., 876.
39. Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982), 50.
40. Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, (Houston: Rice University Press, 1982), 43.
41. Adam Alter, Daniel Oppenheimer, Rebecca Eyre, and Nicholas Epley, “Overcoming Intuition: Metacognitive Difficulties Activates Analytic Reasoning,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 136, no. 4 (2007), 572.
Alter, Adam, Daniel Oppenheimer, Rebecca Eyre, and Nicholas Epley. “Overcoming Intuition: Metacognitive Difficulties Activates Analytic Reasoning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 136, no. 4 (2007): 569-576.
Aronson, Elliot. “The Power of Self Persuasion.” American Psychologist 11, (1999): 875-884.
Bagozzi, Richard, “The Role of Arousal in the Creation and Control of the Halo Effect in Attitude Models.” Psychology & Marketing 13, no. 3 (1996): 235-264.
Bennett, Elizabeth A. “Obfuscation and Persuasion: What Role Does Jargon Play in Persuading Us?” Humanities and Social Sciences 56, no 5-A (1995): 1753.
Eagly, Alice, and Kathleen Telaak. “Width of the Latitude of Acceptance as a Determinant of Attitude Change.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 23, no. 3 (1972): 388-397.
Harmon, R. Robert and Kenneth A. Coney. “The Persuasive Effects of Source Credibility in Buy and Lease Situations.” Journal of Marketing Research 19, no. 2 (1982): 255-260.
Institute for the Arts, Yves Klein: 1928-1962 A Retrospective, Houston: Rice University Press, 1982.
Klein, Yves. Overcoming the Problematics of Art. Trans. Klaus Ottmann. New York: Spring Publications, 2007.Restany, Pierre, Yves Klein, Trans. Shepley John. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982.