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

In: Art & Perception
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Claudia Muth Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany
Forschungsgruppe EPÆG (Ergonomics, Psychological Æsthetics, Gestalt), Bamberg, Germany

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Marius Hans Raab Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany
Forschungsgruppe EPÆG (Ergonomics, Psychological Æsthetics, Gestalt), Bamberg, Germany

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Claus-Christian Carbon Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany
Forschungsgruppe EPÆG (Ergonomics, Psychological Æsthetics, Gestalt), Bamberg, Germany
Bamberg Graduate School of Affective and Cognitive Sciences (BaGrACS), Bamberg, Germany

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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.

1. Introduction

The perception of artworks rarely—if ever—results in the instantiation of a determinate meaning. Instead, we can describe how perceivers of art enter different phases and variants of Semantic Instability (SeIns; Muth and Carbon, 2016; Muth et al., in press) when deeply elaborating art. Traditionally, perception science is focused on an inverse concept: namely, how semantic stability is achieved; e.g., how we reach the percept of a determinate Gestalt and how we make sense out of a complex scene. Based on previous experiences and knowledge, we constantly form predictions about upcoming perceptual events and match our ‘hypotheses’ (see cycle of perception by Neisser, 1976, or perceptions as hypotheses by Gregory, 1980) or ‘predictions’ (see recent accounts of predictive coding and free energy minimization; e.g., Clark, 2013, Friston, 2005) about the world with the actual stimulation. Mismatches between those are informative as they point out the flaws in our predictions and the need to either instantiate further stimulation through exploration and action, to choose another prediction, or even to adjust our perceptual models that have generated the non-fitting predictions. Such processes of exploration and adaptation are preconditions for the viability of the whole system. The meaning of percepts within this theoretical framework is always related to the state of the perceptual system and the predictions it forms; its actual interactions as well as its history of previous interactions, experiences and adaptations; its emergence from the specific coupling between perceiver and environment (see also accounts of enactivism; e.g., Di Paolo et al., 2007).

We suggest that artworks have the potential to point out these processes of active perception to us by disabling routines or habits we use to create meaning and by complicating the reduction of mismatches between prediction and stimulation. Similarly, it has been stated by others, e.g., by philosopher of mind and art Alva Noë (2000), that art enables us to “catch ourselves in the act of perceiving” as “a mode of active engagement with the world” (p. 128). Art historian Dario Gamboni argues similarly that art can “make the beholder aware […] of the active, subjective nature of seeing” (2002, p. 18).

In the realm of psycho-aesthetics, we find several effects being compatible with the finding that we can gain pleasure by perceiving SeIns when elaborating on artworks: some report positive effects of visual indeterminacy (Ishai et al., 2007), others positive effects of moderate (Jakesch and Leder, 2009) as well as of high (Jakesch et al., 2013, Muth et al., 2015a) levels of ambiguity on liking, interest, and powerfulness of affect (here: all presented in laboratory conditions). Although the ease or ‘fluency’ of processing—we might dare to call it ‘high predictability’—was repeatedly shown to be associated with positive affect (see review by Reber et al., 2004), it can be assumed that SeIns is also able to affect us positively as it offers complexity on the one hand, but also the potential for increasing predictability (Van de Cruys and Wagemans, 2011) or gaining insight (Muth and Carbon, 2016) on the other.

In contrast to the testing conditions in the majority of approaches to psycho-aesthetic research, real encounters with artworks often take place in specific physical, sociocultural, and episodic contexts (some exceptions might be exemplars of street art and art in public space, or seeing digital representations of art via social networks or art prints, etc.). Most importantly, people who attend an art exhibition invest money and time, put effort into the visit, are often specially prepared for their visits and, last but not least, might be particularly inclined to experience potentially challenging artworks. In the present article, we report a follow-up study on Muth et al. (2015b) that attempts to provide a more holistic view of art perception and appreciation by including corresponding person- as well as context-related factors.

2. A Triangular Approach to SeIns in Art

A psychological analysis can describe the experience of an artwork from at least three different perspectives. We can either focus on object-related factors like degrees of complexity of an artwork or the contrast between its elements, on person-related factors like personality, experience, expertise and mood, or on factors related to the physical, semantic, episodic, and socio-cultural context of the encounter. Furthermore, an interactionist account takes into consideration that the reception of the work might have specific qualities and dynamics which are closely related to these three sets of factors but which never evolve out of one isolated set. For instance, Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait in Fur Coat (German: Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock) from the year 1500 has similarities to prototypical depictions of Jesus (e.g., Hall, 2014). But whether these similarities play a role in how the work is received and whether they impose an ambiguous character on it is dependent on the knowledge of the corresponding features by the perceiver. And this person-related factor is again related to the socio-cultural context: if the person’s preceding socialization does not include a familiarity with depictions of Jesus, the experience of the artwork will not entail the described ambiguity of the portrait between ‘self’ and ‘Jesus’. In other words: it will not evoke matches between the stimulation and the prediction of Jesus, as there would be no mental model initiating such predictions (see Carbon, 2017b).

Regarding the experience of SeIns in art, several differentiations can be drawn on a theoretical basis. The concept of SeIns comprises different variants that might not be clearly separable or even mutually exclusive (see Muth and Carbon, 2016). These concepts might describe not only structural features but stages within perceptual processes, being highly dynamic in their nature: hidden images, for instance, (sudden semantic stability, surprising ‘Aha!’, e.g., identifying a face in a random line composition) might only be perceptually revealed after a while and so offer the determinate identification of a certain pattern after a phase of visual indeterminacy (lacking in but promising semantic stability like cues to hidden objects in Cubist art that make us anticipate a determinate pattern but leave us in a constant struggle to find it; see Pepperell, 2006). Such a sudden detection in hidden images provides rewarding insights, so-called ‘Aesthetic Ahas’ (Muth and Carbon, 2013), which can also be found in everyday life, documented by perceptual phenomena such as the ‘man in the moon’ or ‘sheep in clouds’ insights.

Differentiations with regard to SeIns can also be drawn with reference to Berlyne’s description of collative variables (1971). These phenomena evolve because of a collation between object-internal elements or between perceptual cues and expectations. Person- and context-related factors are not separable from these phenomena: e.g., complexity in Berlyne’s sense defines the number of collating (in-)dependent elements which relate to the chunks that a person is able to build out of elements, and these are again inspired or hindered by their context. In the physical context of other digits, ‘1789’ does not form a compound; in the semantic context of a history lesson it stands not only for a year but also for an event, and in the semantic/episodic context of asking the question “What ended in 1789?” during a test, hardly anyone would answer ‘1788’ although it is actually a correct answer.

3. A Triangular Approach to the Appreciation of SeIns in Art

The given perspective suggests that each perceptual process is an attempt to actively construct semantic stability involving person- as well as context-related factors rather than a passive registration of determinate meanings. Artworks might be special cases in this regard: they sometimes make us reflect on the persistent perceptual attempts to create semantic stability by hindering automatized perception. And the context in which we usually encounter artworks guides our expectations in a specific way, being a sociocultural context marked by certain conventions—famously pointed out by art itself in the case of Duchamp’s ready-mades, who exhibited manufactured objects as they were without major changes, for instance a bottle rack in 1914 or a urinal in 1917. Several artists play with the violation of both: perceptual habits as well as the context of art perception itself (e.g., institutional critique or installations and works on-site). Such ‘prediction errors’ should lead to negative affect because “they signal that there is something wrong with the mental model we use to generate the predictions” (Van de Cruys and Wagemans, 2011, p. 1038). Various theoretical accounts provide an explanation as to how the encounter with such displeasing, highly arousing deviations of stimulations from predictions is still able to ultimately evoke pleasure in the perceiver. One line suggests that we enjoy a decrease in uncertainty: Berlyne (1971), for instance, claimed that we either like moderately arousing stimuli (of a moderate level with regard to collative variables) or those enabling a reduction of arousal. So-called ‘fluency’ accounts state that we prefer objects which are easily processed, and this might be even more the case if easy processing is not expected (Reber et al., 2004). Also in the case of humor, mirth seems to be induced by a resolution of incongruity (with humor this comprises surprise, juxtaposition, atypicality, and violation; see Warren and McGraw, 2016) if the insight associates very remote ideas (Amir et al., 2015) and the perceivers appraise “something as both a violation and benign” (Warren and McGraw, 2016, p. 407). In the domain of art perception, Van de Cruys and Wagemans (2011) propose that we can regain pleasure after large prediction errors by a subsequent increase in predictability. The encountering of uncertainty, or disorder, might even be necessary for such a pleasure: Chetverikov (2013) hypothesized that “when we are forced to continue our interaction with an object but cannot make any novel and correct predictions about it, we will begin to dislike it” (p. 387) and Dörner and Vehrs (1975) showed that we appreciate patterns (abstract arrangements of elements) more if we experience order in them only through effort. More recently we proposed that instead of an ongoing increase in certainty, SeIns in artworks might allow for the experience of rewarding insights but these might not always be resolutions of SeIns (Muth et al., 2015a). Even the mere expectation of such an Aesthetic Aha might increase interest (Muth et al., 2015b)—contrasting art perception with problem solving.

A huge challenge (not only) for psycho-aesthetics is clearly that aesthetic pleasure is ill-defined. There are a few attempts to empirically reveal its multifaceted nature (see Faerber et al., 2010) but generally we need to point out that not every artwork aims at inducing positive affects in perceivers. The ‘mild’ pleasure that we can assess by liking evaluations only covers a minimal range of the variants of affect we can gain by art—thinking, e.g., of experiences of the sublime or of beauty (see also Armstrong and Detweiler-Bedell, 2008). Furthermore, not every person might react to the mechanisms of increased predictability or Aesthetic Aha in the same way: for instance, people differ in their (in)tolerance of ambiguity (e.g., Reis, 1996) and this seems to influence the appreciation of ambiguity in art—even if the effect is far from clear-cut (Muth et al., 2015a)—and the acceptance of unconventional designs (De Bont et al., 1992). Cupchik (1994) already noted that experienced viewers seek challenging artworks whereas non-expert viewers seek immediate pleasure by moderate arousal. Furthermore, one person might be affected in different ways by one and the same artwork depending on the actual goals and mood. Armstrong and Detweiler-Bedell (2008) differ between ‘promotion goals’ and ‘prevention goals’: in simple terms, seeking challenge and mental growth (associated with beauty) versus seeking security and familiarity (associated with a more mundane prettiness). We can also assume that people can be in arousal-avoiding or in arousal-seeking modes (see reversal theory by Apter, 1989). Such person-related factors might again be strongly intertwined with changes in context: appreciation of innovativeness is, e.g., influenced by inducing a feeling of (non-)safety in perceivers via changes in episodic context (Carbon et al., 2013). The Aesthetic Aha effect (Muth and Carbon, 2013) can also be described as an effect of episodic context: detecting Gestalt is rewarding in the context of SeIns. For instance, appreciation of an artistic movie was higher if perceivers were more challenged in the beginning than at the end (Muth et al., 2016). We can easily imagine how important it therefore is for an art curator to take care of the combination of artworks that are presented together in a room or one after the other in case of a series of artistic movies. For instance, some curators and artists discuss the selection of the piece first encountered when entering the exhibition based on how it changes the state and mode of perceivers and—consequently—their subsequent elaboration strategies and responses to other works in the exhibition (personal communication with visual artist Wendy Morris, December 2016). Physical contexts (e.g., specifics of the architecture of the space, but also the context of other works of art being co-presented) are also often specific social and semantic contexts and change person-related factors like mood and mode. Also, artworks are perceived much longer in the museum than in the lab (Carbon, 2017a; Smith and Smith, 2001)—this accounts for ambiguous artworks as well (Brieber et al., 2014). Furthermore, if stimuli are evaluated in a museum context, they are appreciated more than in the laboratory (Brieber et al., 2014). One important question is whether we can disentangle the person- from the context-related factors here: depending on one’s socialization, a museum might qualify as a location in which one’s expectations will be challenged and—again depending on socialization—high ambiguity could be understood as a quality characteristic of good art (see e.g., Bourdieu, 1984, Krieger, 2010). Furthermore, we might perceive the place as a rather playful, ‘safe’ context and consequently adapt an arousal-seeking mode (Apter, 1989) accompanied by promotion goals (Armstrong and Detweiler-Bedell, 2008). We might also (pre-)classify the exhibited works as ‘high and valuable art’ based on the reputation of a museum or gallery and the assumption that it was therefore collected or selected due to its quality as evaluated by experts. This again might motivate the perceiver to put some effort into its elaboration. In terms of predictive processing, we might assume that prediction errors are never independent of observer and context because the prediction itself is formed based on previous experiences and ‘meta’-predictions based on the specific context. If we encounter a ready-made in an exhibition, like the ones by Duchamp, we might be surprised by familiarity. In other words: the context of the exhibition triggers predictions of novelty (or innovativeness) of the exhibited works. Based on this prediction, the familiar objects are ‘errors’. From yet another perspective, the fact that you are surprised by novelty is again a kind of irritation that you might not have predicted. If you are familiar with the history of 20th century art, you might not be surprised after all as you form completely different predictions based on another model of what art is or can be (on the conceptual difference between novelty and surprise see Barto et al., 2008). Another example for the hierarchical setup of predictions is provided by Friston et al. (2012) who state that we are generally predicting a dynamic world and are surprised if it is not; the authors exemplify this by the experience of an empty football yard. Emotions as well are strongly context-dependent: according to the sequential check theory of emotion differentiation by Scherer (2001), the experience of emotions is dependent on the outcome of evaluations—appraisals—of the situation. Scherer (2001) suggests that multiple subjective ‘stimulus evaluation checks’ are performed and specify major families of emotion and potential adaptive responses to the situation. These would concern the relevance of the event (e.g., suddenness, predictability, pleasantness, and goal relevance), implications for one’s well-being and goals (e.g., causal attribution, outcome probability, discrepancy from expectation, need conduciveness, and urgency), coping potential (e.g., controllability, power and resources, and adaptability), and normative significance with regard to self-concept (internal standards) and norms (external standards). Regarding the question of how contextual factors as well as dynamics are integrated in perception and appreciation, it is assumed that appraisals are constantly repeated and updated and that there is strong interactivity between levels of processing with high or low automaticity (basic sensory–motor, schematic, and conceptual). Like this, e.g., novelty can be checked based on comparisons of higher-level estimates. Scherer (2001) notes that whereas one set of appraisals (relevance, implication, coping potential, and normative significance) would build up on the others’ ‘preliminary closure’, the single checks proceed in parallel. This model provides a good impression of how multilevel subjective evaluations of a situation—like the one of an exhibition—could take place and hereby include context and dynamics.

4. Rationale of the Present Study

In sum, we state that SeIns as well as the appeal of SeIns in art is influenced by object, person, and context, and that these facets are strongly intertwined. Consequently, it is not only the understanding of perceptual processes that requires such a threefold perspective but also that of pleasure and appreciation: in which situations and locations, and to which people, do artworks with certain qualities appeal? And how does their appeal differ among different persons as well as between different contexts, situations and Zeitgeist conditions (Carbon, 2010, 2011)? In the present study, we aimed at investigating the relevance of specifics with regard to factors relating to person and context for the appreciation of SeIns in artistic movies. We hypothesized that visitors of an art gallery of contemporary art ‘expect the unexpected’: they probably expect and deliberately expose themselves to challenging experiences and hereby employ promotion goals and an arousal-seeking mode. Such deliberate exposure might also point to differences in personality, e.g., a higher general tolerance for ambiguity (see Section 5.4.1). A stimulus that evokes a perceived moderate intensity of SeIns in ambiguity-tolerant people might induce a very strong perceived intensity in more ambiguity-intolerant people. The expectation of it might additionally reduce the perceived intensity. Gallery visitors consequently might rate the SeIns of an exposed artwork lower because they are supposedly more tolerant to it and prepared to experience it (see Section 5.4.2). They might also appreciate the work more in general and in spite of its SeIns (as reported by, e.g., Brieber et al., 2014; see Section 5.4.3). Furthermore, because they might pursue a promotion mode rather than a prevention mode by seeking challenge rather than familiarity, gallery visitors might not rely on easy processing (low SeIns) for liking evaluations as much as participants in the laboratory. Concretely, this could show in stronger links between the perceived determinacy of Gestalt and liking evaluations on the one hand and on the other hand we would expect stronger positive effects of sudden increases in determinacy of Gestalt (perceptual insights) on liking evaluations—a stronger Aesthetic Aha effect, so to say (see Section 5.4.4). Finally—and most challengingly—we will try to reveal how factors of context and person might contribute to these differences by comparing the effects of differences in personality on liking with those of context (Section 5.4.5). To test these hypotheses, we collected data in the laboratory and compared them to data from a gallery (Griesbadgalerie Ulm), both times following exactly the same procedure and using the same material.

5. Methods

5.1. Participants

Fifty-six participants took part in the study. The laboratory group consisted of 28 undergraduate students (23 female; M Age = 23.0 years; rangeAge = 18–46 years) who got course credit for participation. The art gallery group consisted of 28 participants (13 female; M Age = 38.0 years; rangeAge = 18–85 years) who were recruited on-site in the gallery Griesbadgalerie Ulm. None of them got a reward for participation and all of them were regular visitors to the gallery. A Snellen Eye chart test and a subset of the Ishihara color cards assured that all of them had normal or corrected-to-normal vision and normal color vision. They were naïve to the purpose of the study. Note that data from those 28 persons assessed in the art gallery had been previously analyzed to examine the relationship between Aha moments and liking (Muth et al., 2015b), whereas the present study compares it with the data from new assessments in the laboratory.

5.2. Apparatus and Stimuli

Participants watched an artistic movie that had been used previously in scientific contexts and data was assessed via a methodology that had also been developed previously to catch the dynamics of the movie’s appreciation and perception with high resolution (see Fig. 1 and Muth et al., 2015b, 2016). The stop-motion movie (7:20 min; 30 frames per second, see screenshots in Fig. 1) was created by a fusion of photographs of drawings in which identifiable Gestalt evolves out of complex lines, dissolves or changes into new Gestalts. The movie was not originally created for scientific purposes, but proved suitable here as it offers various stages and variants of SeIns via multiple degrees of visual indeterminacy and dynamic experiences of hidden images and multistability.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

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

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

Image courtesy of Claudia Muth (the full movie can be retrieved from https://janus.allgpsych.uni-bamberg.de/Supplements/SemanticStability/CEP_decreasingdeterminacy.mp4).

To assess continuous changes in perception and appreciation, we utilized a Continuous Evaluation Procedure (CEP, a slider with a free movement range of 100 mm, value range 80 to 1024; see for details Muth et al., 2015b; see Fig. 2). The value obtained by the slider is transferred to a connected PC via an FTDI serial-to-USB converter, and an ATMEGA processor updates the current slider position requested via the serial-to-USB interface for each frame of the movie (here: 30 frames per second). Video presentation was implemented via the Processing Library for Visual Arts and Design (Fry and Reas, 2013) and the GStreamer library (Open-Source, 2014).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

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.

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

5.3. Procedure

Participants evaluated the movie on liking and afterwards watched it a second time evaluating it on determinacy—an inverted measure of SeIns. About half (Note 1) of the group evaluated the movie vice versa, first on determinacy and then on liking, to exclude order effects. Instead of using a single rating they evaluated each phase of the movie, continuously sliding the lever up and down while watching. Afterwards they described in a few words how it felt for them to detect something suddenly and completed an adapted version of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson et al., 1988) with five-point ratings on how well each of 19 adjectives described this Aha-experience (from not at all to extremely; see Table A1 in the Appendix for the list of adjectives). Finally, they filled a questionnaire on ambiguity (in-)tolerance with 40 items comprising the subscales of tolerance for seemingly unsolvable problems, for social conflicts, with regard to the image of the parents, for role stereotypes, and for new experiences that make up the main score of ambiguity tolerance (IMA; Reis, 1996).

As is evident from Fig. 2, the participants who were tested in the gallery context all passed and explored the first exhibition room displaying the same stop-motion movies they later evaluated in a separate room. Due to the potential disturbance of other gallery visitors by the test sessions and vice versa, as well as the necessity of setting up CEP in a safe and controlled manner, we tested in a separate room. This of course limited the ecological validity of the approach; nevertheless every participant explored the exhibition immediately before testing and the architectural specificity of the gallery (an old vaulted cellar) was present in the test room as well as in the exhibition rooms.

5.4. Results

5.4.1. Section A: Participants in the Art Gallery are More Tolerant to Ambiguity

We compared the results of the questionnaire on ambiguity (in-)tolerance (Reis, 1996) between the two contexts (gallery vs. lab) in an independent t-test and found that gallery visitors were indeed more tolerant of ambiguity (range = 118–193; M = 159.11; SD = 19.2) than participants in the lab (range = 115–188; M = 144.32; SD = 20.56): t(54) = 2.78; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 14.79; p = 0.007; Cohen’s d = 0.74.

5.4.2. Section B: Participants in the Art Gallery Rated SeIns of an Exposed Artwork Lower

As hypothesized, art gallery visitors judged the movie to be less semantically unstable or more determinate respectively (see Fig. 3). To check for significance of this difference we applied two procedures: first, we aggregated data of the movie’s determinacy for each participant by calculating the area below the curve of determinacy ratings. A t-test for independent samples revealed a significant difference concerning this area defining the strength of determinacy (or inverse SeIns, respectively) between the two contexts (gallery vs. lab). We found significantly higher evaluations of determinacy (or lower SeIns, respectively) for gallery visitors (M = 5875897.86; SD = 1271218.54) than for participants in the lab (M = 4789925.83; SD = 897537.65): t(54)=3.69; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 1085972.03; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 0.99.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

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

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

Second, we aggregated data on the strength of determinacy (operationalized via the slider position) across participants to be able to compare average estimates of liking between gallery and lab contexts for each movie frame. A paired t-test revealed significantly higher evaluations of determinacy for gallery visitors (M = 536.93) than for participants in the lab (M = 436.50): t(10779) = 162.91; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 100.43; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 1.57. Note that evaluations for each frame are strongly linked to the frames before and after so that degrees of freedom might be overestimated. We therefore applied a second type of analyses by conducting 11780 t-tests—comparing the ratings of the two groups of participants for each of the 10780 frames (a typical α-level of 5 % would coincide with 539 significant cases). Actually, we revealed that 3215 cases were significant which is almost one third of all frames and underlines the consistency of higher determinacy evaluations by gallery visitors.

As it is possible that the previous encounter with the artwork in the gallery made the movie, e.g., more familiar and lowered SeIns during the evaluation, we compared evaluations of determinacy assessed during the first presentation of the movie with the evaluations of determinacy during the second presentation. The visualization of data as provided in the Appendix (Fig. A1) shows that there is no consistent higher evaluation of determinacy depending on whether the person had seen the movie before or not. On average, participants rated determinacy significantly higher (SeIns lower) during the second presentation but the effect size is very small: t(10779) = 3.44; Δ M(first)_M(second) = 2.308; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 0.033. We therefore assume that the context effect is not strongly induced by higher familiarity on basis of a previous encounter with the movie.

Figure A1.
Figure A1.

Evaluations of determinacy during both presentations of the movie.

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

5.4.3. Section C: Participants in the Gallery Generally Appreciate the Work More

As hypothesized, gallery visitors liked the movie more than participants in the lab (see Fig. 4). To check for significance of this difference we applied two procedures analogous to the previous analyses: first, we aggregated data for each participant by calculating the area below the curve of liking ratings. A t-test for independent samples revealed a significant difference between the two contexts (gallery vs. lab) with higher evaluations of liking by gallery visitors (M = 6566083.96; SD = 1125382.82) than by participants in the lab (M = 5235463.16; SD = 1208478.89): t(54) = 4.26; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 1330620.80; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 1.14.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

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

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

Second, we aggregated strength of liking (operationalized via the slider position) across participants to be able to compare average estimates of liking between gallery and lab contexts for each movie frame. A paired t-test revealed significantly higher evaluations of liking by gallery visitors (M = 598.36) than by participants in the lab (M = 475.89): t(10779) = 194.00; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 122.46; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 1.87. When comparing the ratings of the two groups of participants for each of the 10780 frames we found 5568 cases to be significantly different. That is almost one half of all frames and underlines the consistency of higher liking evaluations by gallery visitors.

5.4.4. Section D: Gallery Visitors do Not Rely on Easy Processing as Much as Participants in the Laboratory

We correlated the strength of determinacy with that of liking per participant for each context and found a significant positive link for the lab context only (determinacy*likinglab: r = 0.60; p < 0.001; determinacy*likinggallery: r = 0.14; p = 0.495). We compared the two correlations after applying a Fisher r-to-z transformation to the correlation coefficients to guarantee normal distribution and revealed that their difference is significant (Z = 1.965; p = 0.049). In the laboratory, people who evaluated the movie to be rather determinate overall liked it more than those who evaluated the movie to be visually indeterminate overall. This link is significantly weaker (and itself non-significant) for gallery visitors.

Furthermore, we defined seven moments of insight within the movie based on previous data (peaks in derivatives of evaluations of surprise and determinacy; Muth et al., 2015b, 2016). We then created insight windows by phase shifting and averaging liking evaluations from 60 frames before to 60 frames after these moments of insight, once for gallery visitors and once for lab visitors (see Fig. 5). This resulted in seven data segments, each one representing the development of liking around the respective insight – averaged for 28 lab participants as well as 28 gallery participants. To assess this development numerically and taking the trend of changes before the moments of insight into consideration, for each insight (and in each condition) we evaluated the angle formed by the line representing the data in the 60 frames before the insight and the line representing the data in the 60 frames after the insight. This angle was transformed to a cosine measure. This kind of analysis allows us to measure relative slopes to overcome potential problems with non-constant baselines. We then compared the seven cosine measures derived this way with 1000 measures generated by randomly selecting points in the data (for a more detailed description, see Muth et al., 2015b).

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

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.

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

The Aesthetic Aha (increase in liking at moments of insight) was found to be stronger for participants in the lab—t(999) = 2.31; p = 0.021; cosMeanOverInsights = 0.063; αMeanOverInsights = 29.15; Cohen’s d = 0.80—than for gallery visitors—t(999) = 5.12; cosMeanOverInsights = 0.017; αMeanOverInsights = 14.78; p < 0.0001; Cohen’s d = 0.46. Note, however, the general difference in strength of liking again with higher evaluations in the gallery (see Fig. 5). Additionally, we compared the average strength of liking at the seven moments of insight between gallery visitors and participants in the lab via a paired t-test and revealed a significant difference between them—t(6) = 8.37; p < 0.0001; Cohen’s d = 3.16 (but cautiously note the very limited number of data points, for a visualization see Fig. A2 in the Appendix).

Figure A2.
Figure A2.

Average strength of liking at seven moments of insight.

Citation: Art & Perception 5, 2 (2017) ; 10.1163/22134913-00002062

To reveal potential differences in the experiences of insight between the two contexts, we furthermore compared the results with regard to five items of the adapted PANAS (original by Watson et al., 1988) that we assume to be connected to positive arousal. We conducted an independent t-test on differences between the five-point ratings of gallery visitors versus those of participants in the lab; this was done for each of the five adjectives. We revealed that gallery visitors reported to have felt more ‘active’ (original adjective was ‘aktiv’ in German) after the Aha moments than participants in the lab: t(54) = 2.38; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 0.68; p = 0.021; Cohen’s d = 0.64. Trends in the same direction were found for ‘interested’ (original adjective was ‘interessiert’ in German)—t(54) = 1.68; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 0.43; p = 0.100; Cohen’s d = 0.45—as well as ‘elated’ (original adjective was ‘freudig erregt’ in German)—t(54) = 1.72; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 0.50; p = 0.09; Cohen’s d = 0.46. There was no significant difference regarding the adjectives ‘animated’ and ‘enthusiastic’ (for all comparisons see Table A1 in the Appendix).

5.4.5. Section E: How Do Factors of Context and Person Contribute to Differences in SeIns and Liking?

To disentangle context effects from person effects, we applied two different strategies of analysis: first, we conducted an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) on evaluations of determinacy (inverted SeIns) per participant with context as independent factor and tolerance to ambiguity as covariate. Furthermore, we included the covariate of age, as the two groups of participants differed strongly and significantly in this regard: t(54) = 3.776; Δ M(Gal)_M(Lab) = 14.893; p < 0.001; Cohen’s d = 1.009. The ANOVA revealed that the covariate of age indeed significantly moderated the difference in determinacy: F age(1, 52) = 10.186; p = 0.002; ηp 2 = 0.164. Context no longer affects determinacy significantly if we consider the factors of age and ambiguity (in-)tolerance: F context (1, 52) = 2.525; p = 0.118; ηp 2 = 0.046. If we exclude the—non-effective—covariate of ambiguity (in-)tolerance from the ANOVA, we do find a significant but weak effect of context, however: F(1, 53) = 4.38; p = 0.041; ηp 2 = 0.076 and again a significant effect of age: F age(1, 53) = 10.223; p = 0.002; ηp 2 = 0.162.

An analogous analysis on strength of liking revealed in contrast that the difference in liking between the two contexts is stable and not significantly affected by either tolerance to ambiguity or age: F context(1, 52) = 11.932; p < 0.001; ηp 2 = 0.187.

To take a closer look at the relevance of all three factors (age, tolerance to ambiguity and context) on the two dependent variables, we calculated a multiple stepwise regression for determinacy and liking respectively with data averaged per participant. The best model for predicting evaluations of determinacy (with R 2 adj = 0.305; p < 0.001) included context (β = 0.264) and age (β = 0.404), and age alone already significantly predicted determinacy evaluations (β = 0.525; R 2 adj = 0.262; p < 0.001). Ambiguity tolerance was excluded as it proved not to increase predictability. Differences in liking—in contrast—can be explained via context (β = 0.502; R 2 adj = 0.238; p < 0.001) alone rather than via ambiguity tolerance or age.

As the two groups furthermore greatly differed in their ratios between male and female participants, we checked for possible biases by applying an ANOVA on liking and determinacy with gender and context as factors. Neither the main effect of gender on determinacy nor the interaction between gender and context were significant: F gender(1,52) = 0.523; p = 0.473; ηp 2 = 0.010; F gender*context(1,52) = 0.329; p = 0.569; ηp 2 = 0.006. Liking was also not significantly affected by gender or the interaction between gender and context: F gender(1,52) = 0.062; p = 0.804; ηp 2 = 0.001; F gender*context(1,52) = 1.501; p = 0.226; ηp 2 = 0.028.

6. Discussion

Artworks often defy simple matches to perceptual hypotheses; they can nevertheless still be appreciated. We provide evidence that the appeal of semantically unstable art is influenced by person- and context-related factors and that these are strongly intertwined: our findings on the perception and appreciation of artistic stop-motion movies reveal that visitors to a contemporary art gallery were more tolerant to SeIns than another sample tested in the laboratory; gallery visitors generally rated SeIns lower (or determinacy higher, respectively) and appreciated the work more. Furthermore, their liking evaluations relied less on the strength of SeIns (or determinacy, respectively) than those of the participants in the lab. The higher appreciation of the movie in the gallery therefore seems to be independent of the (lower) evaluations of SeIns.

Our study does not allow for a clear distinction of object-, person- and context-related factors inducing these differences: e.g., gallery visitors might have found themselves in a promotion mode rather than a prevention mode (Armstrong and Detweiler-Bedell, 2008) either due to the context-inducing expectations of challenge or due to a general higher tolerance to ambiguity or other person-related factors, or a combination of both. All these options might have led to the finding that they did not rely so much on easy processing as did participants in the laboratory, as is evident from the non-significant correlation between SeIns (inversed determinacy) and liking as well as from the weaker (but significant) Aesthetic Aha effect for art gallery visitors. Also, gallery visitors rated their feeling after an Aha moment as more active than participants in the lab did; this might again be a sign of different modes induced by the differences in context and personality: a more active mode following goals of self-extension and promotion versus a—supposedly more passive—mode of seeking familiarity and security.

Our analyses provide only hints as to the respective relevance of either person- or context-related factors for these differences. This is firstly due to the issue that they are not clearly separable even at a theoretical level (e.g., a gallery context might change expectations of SeIns based on individual strength of ambiguity (in-)tolerance, and ambiguity (in-)tolerance itself might reflect not only characteristics of a trait but of context-dependent states as well). Secondly, if we test effects of context ‘in the field’, we have to tolerate differences between the persons visiting these contexts. For instance, SeIns of the movie might have been evaluated lower in the gallery because of both expectations of SeIns evoked by the context as well as due to differences in expertise, social status, age, etc. Age might be a factor because it suggests greater experience with art; it could also be influential due to socialization factors, different attitudes or a different function played by art in life. Inviting a random set of people to the art gallery would have made an interpretation easier in this regard, but it would not have provided us with a valid picture of how gallery visitors differ from the random set and therefore likewise no valid picture of how they perceive and evaluate art. Despite the required caution taken to deal with these methodological challenges, it seems worthwhile to point to a few more or less person- and context-specific findings of our study: Although ambiguity tolerance was found to be higher among gallery visitors, this factor did not seem to influence either evaluation of SeIns or appreciation to a great degree. Appreciation, in contrast, seems to benefit from the context of an art gallery. Most laboratory studies use reproductions and size-adjusted copies of the originals but not the originals themselves. Locher and colleagues have repeatedly shown that such changes have a clear effect on art perception and experience (Locher et al., 1999, 2001). As we used a digital artwork, we would like to rule out that this general increase of liking was influenced in this specific case mainly by experiencing the originality and authenticity of the perceived artwork (as was shown in another study; Wolz and Carbon, 2014). Instead, we would like to propose that the specific play with SeIns evoked by the movies could be enjoyed more because of the activation of person-related processes by the very nature of the context. Future research might present a clearer picture of the various factors involved; did art gallery visitors ‘expect the unexpected’—were they prepared to be perceptually challenged, and had they set themselves in a mode of self-extension rather than seeking semantic stability as soon as they passed the gates of the art exhibition? And how are such context-induced expectations moderated by person-related effects?

7. Conclusion

We hardly—if ever—experience a determinate meaning when perceiving artworks. In contrast to findings for other perceptual domains, especially in the whole area of object recognition, SeIns in artworks has a different effect. In the arts SeIns not only has the capability of increasing interest and appreciation, but it allows one to reflect upon one’s own perceptual processes. Such effects of SeIns might be even greater beyond the sphere of the laboratory as encounters with artworks are often deliberate exposures to challenging experiences situated in specific physical, sociocultural, and episodic contexts. In our study, art gallery visitors evaluated virtually all phases of an artistic movie as less indeterminate—and liked it more—than participants in a laboratory. While art seems less indeterminate in, and more pleasing to, the eyes of gallery visitors, it is yet to be clarified whether the art gallery context alone induces expectations of perceptual challenge, thus decreasing estimation and heightening the appreciation of indeterminacy: do we even explicitly seek challenging experiences when visiting art exhibitions? And how do contextual and personal factors contribute to these differences?

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Griesbadgalerie Ulm for their permission and great support for on-site testing, Lisa Aufleger for her great help with assessing data on-site, and Alun Brown for proofreading. Last but not least we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for assisting us in improving our manuscript.

Note

1. Actually, the exact numbers were: 16:12 (gallery visitors) and 13:15 (lab).

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