Art Museums Foster an Appreciation for Ambiguity

New research from Vienna finds viewing artworks in a museum enhances the aesthetic experience.
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(Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

(Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

How do you judge a work of art? Last week, we presented evidence that the assumptions we make about its creation play a role in our evaluation, with points given for an artist’s perceived hard work.

Now, new research concludes that, at least in the case of visual art, the actual location where you’re viewing it matters. It finds people are more appreciative of artworks if they see them in a museum, as opposed to a prosaic space like a laboratory computer screen.

A research team led by University of Vienna psychologist David Brieber reports viewers tend to respond differently to ambiguity in a museum setting, striving to understand more rather than turning away in frustration.

"The museum context promotes that people engage with, and delve into, the ambiguity in artworks and invest more time on resolving it."

“Our results suggest that time and context constitute more than framing dimensions for the experience of art,” the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One. “Context affects the experience of art.”

For the study, the researches chose a series of photographs from a Vienna contemporary art museum entitled distURBANces: How Fiction Beats Reality.

“The photographs depicted human and objects in blends of urban and natural environments, staged, composed, or manipulated by the artists,” note the researchers, who add that they chose a photo exhibit to minimize the difference between seeing the original works and “high-resolution digital reproductions.”

The study’s participants—44 University of Vienna psychology students with no training in art or art history—were randomly assigned to either visit the museum exhibit, or view the same works on a 31-inch computer screen in a university laboratory. Labels describing the artists and their work accompanied both the originals and the on-screen images.

After taking as much time as they wished to view the works, participants were asked a series of questions, including “How much do you like this artwork?” and “How ambiguous is this artwork for you?” Answers were given on a one-to-seven scale (“not at all” to “very much”).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants in the museum took more time looking at the works (although both groups spent about the same amount of time reading the labels). Those who saw them in the museum also “liked them more and found them more interesting than participants viewing them in the laboratory,” the researchers write.

Arguably the most interesting finding: “The museum context changes how ambiguity affects people’s exploration behavior.” Specifically, participants who considered a work ambiguous tended to spend extra time with it in the museum, but they moved on quickly in the laboratory.

“The museum context promotes that people engage with, and delve into, the ambiguity in artworks and invest more time on resolving it,” the researchers argue, “while in the laboratory context, the point in time where people decide to refocus their attention on another artwork comes sooner for the more ambiguous artworks.”

“Our results,” they conclude, “suggest that art museums foster an enduring and focused aesthetic experience.” One, it appears, where ambiguity, rather than being off-putting, invites further exploration.

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