SeIns: Semantic Instability in Art

in Art & Perception
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Many artworks defy determinacy of meaning by inducing a variety of potential meanings. We aim to describe different kinds of such semantic instability (which we call ‘SeIns’) by comparing related concepts as well as specific phenomena in order to arrive at concise definitions. These analyses will be positioned in the framework of Predictive Coding. Furthermore, this article fathoms the specifics of semantic instability in art and presents a psycho-aesthetic account on the appeal of semantic instability in art. We propose that one factor for the appeal of semantic instability might be that it offers the opportunity of rewarding insight. Furthermore, we suggest that positive affect can be gained not only by arriving at an insight but also by anticipating it — a crucial point with regard to those kinds of semantic instability that are not ‘resolvable’ into semantic stability. Current challenges within this field of research include the necessity of an empirical approach to classes of semantic instability, the lack of a specification of psycho-aesthetic theories on the appeal of each class, as well as the need for an integration of context- and person-related facets of the experience of art.

SeIns: Semantic Instability in Art

in Art & Perception



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    Famous Ready-Made ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp from the year 1917; photographed by Bart Everson in 2014, license via Creative-Commons. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    The so-called Rubin’s Vase displaying a vase or two facial profiles, depending on the respective interpretation. The specific composition shows the two authors, who also created this image.

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    Macků, M. (1989). Gellage No. 6 [photograph]. Retrieved from

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    Cubist artwork by Juan Gris ‘Mann im Café (Man in Café)’ from the year 1914. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Indeterminate or potential image: Robert Pepperell’s (2005) ‘Paradox 1’ provides cues for potential detection but never reveals a determinate Gestalt. Image courtesy of Robert Pepperell. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Hidden image: the indeterminate pattern becomes determinate as soon as we detect a face in it (highlighted in the right panel). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Exemplary frames of the stop-motion movie ‘Konstrukte’ by Claudia Muth from the year 2009.

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    Adaptation from original hidden image by Karl Dallenbach (1951).

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    Stefan Wewerka (1969). Untitled; chair-sculpture, corner chair. Munich: Pinakothek der Moderne. Photograph by Claudia Muth. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Models of one static (A) and two dynamic accounts of semantic ‘instability’ (SeIns) and ‘appreciation’ (B+C). In Model B the pattern of changes represents a mechanism by which appreciation is negatively linked to SeIns. Model C considers the positive effect of one or several Aesthetic Ahas on appreciation; caused insights are indicated by exclamation marks (‘!’). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    A preliminary model of dynamics in SeIns and appreciation; adapted from Muth et al. (2015a). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Model A considers the positive effect of one or several Aesthetic Ahas (!) on appreciation. Model B additionally integrates the effects of context and person alluded to by variations of the strength of the dimensions (light colored areas). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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