Context May Diminish Art Appreciation

Surprising new research suggests non-experts’ receptiveness to modern artworks may be lessened when contextual information is presented.
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Surprising new research suggests non-experts’ receptiveness to modern artworks may be lessened when contextual information is presented.

In a finding sure to evoke concern and curiosity among curators, newly published research suggests presenting contextual information alongside a work of modern art may be counterproductive in terms of eliciting enjoyment or appreciation.

Writing in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts, psychologist Kenneth Bordens of Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, describes a study in which undergraduates evaluated artworks representing various styles. The 172 participating students had little or no knowledge about art.

Bordens hypothesized that providing contextual information about an artwork “should increase the ability of a viewer to extract meaning” from it and therefore make the encounter more significant and pleasurable. “This should be especially important for abstract works or nonconventional works,” he writes.

To test this widely held belief, he had the students look at photos of two paintings and two sculptures in one of four styles: Impressionist, Renaissance, Dada and Outsider. All participants were given a general definition of art, and a label stating the style the works represented. But half were also provided with a definition of that style, a brief history of its origins and information on the goals of the artists who worked in that style.

They were then asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, not only how much they liked the work in question, but how closely it matched their personal conception of a work of art. This reflects the assertion by philosopher Thomas Adajian that we all possess an “internal prototype of what constitutes art.” Works that conform to this prototype tend to be judged positively, while those that stray far from it are considered less pleasing.

This notion was largely supported by Bordens’ findings. “As ratings of the degree to which an artwork matched one’s internal prototype of art increased, liking ratings increased as well,” he writes. “Dada and Outsider art were rated as matching less well with internal concepts of art, and were liked less than Impressionism and Renaissance art.”

Well, sure. But with a few well-chosen words, curators and critics help us expand that internal definition and appreciate a greater range of art, right?

Don’t bet the Picasso on it.

“Providing contextual information led to participants perceiving examples of the various styles of art as matching less well with their internal standards than when no contextual information was presented,” Bordens writes. In other words, they were more likely to feel a piece conformed to their personal ideas about art — and thus more likely to enjoy or appreciate it — when it was presented without interpretation.

Bordens presents several possible explanations for this finding, which somewhat contradict a 2005 study by University of Vienna psychologist Helmut Leder. He writes that the contextual information presumably led to “greater conscious processing” of the pieces, which may have “led participants to be more critical.”

“In this experiment, the contextual information was very concrete, and may have encouraged participants to think concretely,” he notes. Newly equipped with a clear, rigid definition of what constitutes a certain type of art, the students were perhaps more likely to judge a particular painting as falling outside of its parameters.

In another interesting finding, Bordens reports the students’ reaction to the less-conventional works varied depending upon the order in which they were shown.

“Duchamp’s Nude on a Staircase was rated as more closely matching one’s internal definition of art, and liked more, when presented after the other Dada works than before,” Bordens reports. “After seeing the other Dada works, participants did have a context that affected their ratings.”

So it appears context does matter — when it is provided via visual imagery rather than words.

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