Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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