Expecting the Unexpected: How Gallery Visitors Experience Semantic Instability in Art

in Art & Perception
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The perception of artworks rarely—if ever—results in the instantiation of a determinate meaning. Instead, when entering an art gallery, we often expect Semantic Instability (SeIns): the experience of perceptual and cognitive habits being challenged. By comparing the experience of an artistic movie in an exhibition with the experience in a laboratory via the Continuous Evaluation Procedure, we found that the movie was less semantically unstable and more pleasing to the eyes of gallery visitors than to those of participants in the laboratory. These findings suggest that a gallery context might induce the expectation of perceptual challenge, thus decreasing the intensity of SeIns and at the same time heightening the appreciation of SeIns. Exhibition visitors might even be on the lookout for challenging experiences.



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  • Exemplary frames of the stop-motion movie ‘Konstrukte’ by Claudia Muth (2009).

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  • Impressions from the Griesbadgalerie Ulm. Top left: entrance to the gallery; top right: first exhibition room, passed by every participant of the gallery context before being tested; bottom: participants evaluating the movie via CEP in a separate room.

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  • Mean strength of determinacy (as a measure of inverse SeIns) for gallery visitors (‘Gal’) and participants in the lab (‘Lab’).

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  • Evaluations of determinacy during both presentations of the movie.

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  • Mean strength of liking for gallery visitors (‘Gal’) and participants in the lab (‘Lab’).

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  • Phase-shifted liking evaluations before, at, and after moments of insight, averaged over all seven moments of insight (=frame ‘0’). Height of bars represents ± 1 standard deviation.

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  • Average strength of liking at seven moments of insight.

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