Lay Perceptions of Two Modern Artworks

in Art & Perception
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The paper is based on 82 open-ended interviews conducted by as many students during 2006–2013. The respondents were presented with pictures of two artworks, The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí and Which Link Fails First? (1992) by Teemu Mäki, a Finnish contemporary artist. They were asked to comment and compare the two pictures and tell which one they liked better. The respondents’ spontaneous comments show different aspects of how an artwork is perceived and evaluated. The interviews were analysed both qualitatively and quantitatively. As the result of in vivo coding, 40 variables were created for use in a content analysis. The respondents focused on different things when evaluating the two artworks. When commenting Dalí’s painting, they paid attention on its affective and sensory characteristics, while Mäki’s work was discussed primarily in terms of its message and perceived lack of professional quality. In parallel, a selection of interviews was analysed in order to reveal the temporal sequence of discussing and evaluating different aspects of the paintings. The analysis showed three ways of discussing, which were called naïve, scholarly, and deliberative. The temporally structured model of aesthetic appreciation and judgement suggested in 2004 by Leder and his co-workers was used as a heuristic device for an analysis of the shifts of attention that take place when a discourse is created and anchored in perception. Both cognitive psychology and phenomenological sociology emphasize the dependence of perception on context and intention; there is reason to take that theoretical starting point seriously.



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  • A model of aesthetic experience. Simplified from Leder et al., 2004.

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  • Comments on two artworks by type of statement and temporal sequence (interview 67, F, 21 years, non-university student).

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  • Comments on two artworks by type of statement and temporal sequence (interview 37, F, 51 years, PhD in humanities).

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  • Comments on two artworks by type of statement and temporal sequence (interview 17, M, 22, humanities student).

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