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

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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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