Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

art-museum

(Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

Art Museums Foster an Appreciation for Ambiguity

• June 09, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

New research from Vienna finds viewing artworks in a museum enhances the aesthetic experience.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.