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The Neuroscience of Art Appreciation

Extracted from “What is art? Why we like what we like” by Matthew Huston, The Atlantic, July/August 2014

In order to appreciate art, we must first understand that what we are looking at is art. Researchers found that telling people to imagine themselves a year in the future (a tactic meant to induce abstract thinking) increased the changes that they’d say unconventional pieces of work qualified as art (1). The way art is described also sways our enjoyment of it. Ambiguous explanations of an abstract piece (an explanation including several statements, only about half of which fit the work), engenders greater appreciation than statements that either mostly fit the piece or mostly don’t. In other words, ambiguity enhances intrigue (2).  The backstory behind the piece (or the artist) matters too; when people learn that an artist is eccentric, they liked his work more. However the artist’s quirks must be authentic, and the work unconventional (3). The viewer’s own torment however, diminshes appreciation for abstract works, at least among those with a strong “personal need for structure.” The effect is reduced when people are given the name of the work, provided that the title is clearly descriptive. Epigrammatic names such as “Number 12” don’t do much, but seemingly meaningful titles such as “Guardians of the Secret” help viewers overcome their own angst and attribute meaning to what they see before them (4).

Seeing the same piece of art over and over can also increase our affinity towards it. But this effect applies only to art that other critics have deemed “good.” Repeated exposure to two works by the highly considered pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais enhanced subjects’ appreciation, while the same methodology applied to Thomas Kinkade’s kitschy landscapes did the opposite (5). Interestingly, the orientation of an abstract piece plays little role in our appreciation of it; when subjects were shown 40 modern artworks in four different orientations, viewers preferred orientation aligned with the artist’s intention less than half the time (6).

Lastly and most intriguingly, viewers with high taste-bud density don’t enjoy provacative or disturbing art as much as others (7). The sentiment that appreciation of art is a matter of taste may well be literally true!

1. Schimmel and Forster “How Temporal Distance Changes Novices’ Attitudes Towards Unconventional Arts” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Feb 2008.

2. Jakesch and Leder “Finding Meaning in Art”, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Nov 2009.

3. Van Tilburg and Igou “From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga”, European Journal of Social Psychology, March 2014.

4. Landau et al., “Windows into Nothingness”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June 2006.

5. Meskin et al. “Mere Exposure to Bad Art”, British Journal of Aesthetics, April 2013.

6. Mather, “Aesthetic Judgement of Orientation in Modern Art”, i-Perception, Jan 2012.

7. DeWall et al., “Taste Sensitivity and Aesthetic Preferences”, Empirical Studies of the Arts, 2011.



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