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Abstracts from the 5th Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC)

Berlin, Germany, August 25th–27th 2017

Claus-Christian Carbon and Joerg Fingerhut

This special issue of Art & Perception for the first time comprises the abstracts of talks and posters presented at a Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC). This year’s, 5th installment of VSAC took place in Berlin, August 25th-27th, with 117 contributions selected for presentation and more than 250 participants. This issue includes an editorial by Claus-Christian Carbon and Joerg Fingerhut that introduces the contributions and discussions at the conference. The abstracts of the keynotes presented by Jesse Prinz and Irving Biederman are then followed by those of the peer reviewed presentations: talks/symposia (in order of presentation) and posters (in alphabetical order). The talks are clustered around central topics in the sciences of the arts, such as aesthetic universals vs. cross-cultural differences, some works are focusing on physiological measures in the aesthetic sciences, or on visual statistics of art images, others address the important issue of ecological valid testing of aesthetic experiences. The contributions to this year’s VSAC demonstrated a clear broadening of topics at the intersection of the visual sciences and the arts. Many presentations went beyond the focus on immediate sensory responses to artworks and simple evaluative states in order to also discuss the typical richness and elaborative quality of art experience that psychologists, philosophers, art historians, sociologists, and others recognize as an intellectually engaged, historically situated, and culturally varied phenomenon. The reprint of these abstracts therefore also aims to represent a cross-section of current research and debates in the field.

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Claudia Muth and Claus-Christian Carbon

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.

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Stefan A. Ortlieb and Claus-Christian Carbon

Although kitsch is one of the most important concepts of twentieth-century art theory, it has gone widely unnoticed by empirical aesthetics. In this article we make a case that the study of kitsch is of considerable heuristic value for both empirical aesthetics and art perception. As a descriptive term, kitsch appears like a perfect example of hedonic fluency. In fact, the frequently invoked opposition of kitsch and art reflects two types of aesthetic experience that can be reliably distinguished in terms of processing dynamics: a disfluent one that promises new insights but requires cognitive elaboration (art), and a fluent one that consists of an immediate, unreflective emotional response but leaves us with what we already know (kitsch). Yet as a derogatory word, kitsch draws our attention to a general disregard for effortless emotional gratification in modern Western aesthetics that can be traced back to eighteenth-century Rationalism. Despite all efforts of Pop Art to embrace kitsch and to question normative values in art, current models of aesthetic liking—including fluency-based ones—still adhere to an elitist notion of Modern art that privileges style over content and thereby excludes what is essential not only for popular taste and Postmodern art but also for premodern artistic production: emotionally rich content. Revisiting Fechner’s (Vorschule der Aesthetik, 1876) criticism of highbrow aesthetics we propose a new aesthetic from below (Aesthetik von Unten) that goes beyond processing characteristics by taking content- and context-related associations into account.

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Claudia Muth, Marius Hans Raab and Claus-Christian Carbon

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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Stefan A. Ortlieb, Uwe C. Fischer and Claus-Christian Carbon

In his ground-breaking Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke (1757) presented a comprehensive aesthetic theory based on two types of aesthetic appreciation: the beautiful and the sublime. While beauty inspires us with tender feelings of affection, a thrill of delightful horror attracts us to the sublime. According to Burke these ideas originate in a drive for affiliation (beautiful) and a drive for self-preservation (sublime). He also claims that the sublime is generally the more powerful aesthetic experience. A synopsis of literature on gender differences in aesthetic preferences, personality traits, and social motivation suggests, however, that on average women might be less susceptible to the Burkeian sublime than men. We tested this hypothesis empirically using sixty picture details from a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. One hundred and fifty participants rated these stimuli in terms of threat (respectively safety) and liking. Besides, they completed standardized scales for state and trait anxiety as well as for state and trait depression. We found a strong effect for gender: on average, safety and liking were more closely related for female than for male participants. In the light of these findings we state that Burke’s concepts of the beautiful and the sublime might in fact be confounded with gender-related aesthetic preferences and that his proclivity to the sublime could reflect a male gaze on aesthetics. Finally, we discuss possible indicators for ‘Burke’s fallacy’ in empirical aesthetics today.

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The main objective of Art & Perception is to provide a high-quality platform to publish new artwork and research in the multi-disciplinary emerging bridge between art and perception. As such it aims to become the top venue to explore the links between the science of perception and the arts, and to bring together artists, researchers, scholars and students in a unified community that can cooperate, discuss and develop new scientific perspectives in this complex and intriguing new field.

The purpose is not to minimize or erase the differences between the arts and sciences, which are grounded in venerable histories that are in many ways necessarily distinct. Rather, the ambition of the journal is to combine the differing methods and insights of artists and scientists in order to expand our knowledge of art and perceptual experience in a way that neither could do alone.

Art & Perception will serve those across several areas of science studying the way works of art and design affect us perceptually, cognitively, or physiologically. The editors are also keen to receive submissions from practicing artists, and those in related fields of history and theory, which offer an artistic perspective on perception.

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