Dislike Abstract Art? Try It Again With a Less-Cluttered Mind

Italian researchers pinpoint a psychological factor that helps determine our reaction to non-representational artworks.
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(Photo: Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock)

The last time you visited an art museum, did you find the abstract paintings sort of ... annoying? Were you drawn to the landscapes and portraits, but turned off by the squiggles and dots?

New research suggests this preference may reflect your personality. But it also may be a sign that you've simply got too much on your mind, or that the physical environment—the gallery itself—leaves something to be desired.

An Italian research team led by psychologist Antonio Chirumbolo reports people with a strong need for cognitive closure—that is, to have quick, definitive answers to vexing questions—are less likely to appreciate abstract art.

While that's not surprising, the researchers note that while this desire for certainty is a constant for some people, it can be induced in others. If environmental cues are unwittingly prompting this mindset, they are effectively making people less open to abstract art.

"Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers' implicit evaluation of the artworks."

In the online journal PLoS One, Chirumbolo and his colleagues describe two experiments. The first featured 60 women between the ages of 19 and 30, none of whom had any training in art or architecture.

After filling out a questionnaire designed to measure their dispositional need for closure, they completed an Implicit Association Task in which a series of images (abstract and figurative) and words (positive and negative) flashed onto a computer screen. Researchers noted how quickly and accurately they categorized each word and image.

Overall, "participants tended to exhibit an implicit preference for figurative art over abstract art," the researchers report. But this tendency was exaggerated for those with a high need for cognitive closure.

The second experiment featured 54 women between the ages of 19 and 28, again with no art training. After their baseline need for closure was established, they were randomly assigned to a "high cognitive load condition" in which they were instructed to memorize nine numbers, or a "low cognitive load condition" in which they told to memorize one number. They then completed the same categorization task.

Again, those who were inherently inclined to seek closure showed an implicit dislike for abstract art. But so did those who were distracted by the need to memorize nine numbers. Indeed, the effect of the cognitive overload was distinct from, and stronger than, the participants' baseline need for closure.

Chirumbolo and his colleagues explain that in situations where "information processing is more costly and effortful, the desire for unambiguous and stable knowledge predominates, and anything which runs counter to this is perceived as unpleasant and displeasing."

In other words, if distractions are soaking up too much of your brain power, you have little tolerance for ambiguity. You want to get a strong sense of what you're looking at and move on.

With this in mind, "Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers' implicit evaluation of the artworks," the researchers write. Anything that reduces viewers' cognitive load, from simple-to-navigate galleries to clear, understandable explanatory labels accompanying the works, will help.

"Beauty is not an intrinsic characteristic," Chirumbolo and his colleagues conclude. "Judgments about beauty are individual and subjective, and depend on psychological factors."

So if you hated that Jackson Pollock exhibit, think back to your state of mind on the day you visited the gallery. If your mental to-do list was long and distracting, you may want to go back in a more relaxed state. You may find the experience much more enjoyable.

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