Does ‘Action Viewing’ Really Exist? Perceived Dynamism and Viewing Behaviour

In: Art & Perception
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  • 1 Faculty of Historical and Cultural Studies, Department of Art History, University of Vienna, Austria
  • | 2 Vienna Cognitive Science Hub, University of Vienna, Austria
  • | 3 School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, UK
  • | 4 Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

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Throughout the 20th century, there have been many different forms of abstract painting. While works by some artists, e.g., Piet Mondrian, are usually described as static, others are described as dynamic, such as Jackson Pollock’s ‘action paintings’. Art historians have assumed that beholders not only conceptualise such differences in depicted dynamics but also mirror these in their viewing behaviour. In an interdisciplinary eye-tracking study, we tested this concept through investigating both the localisation of fixations (polyfocal viewing) and the average duration of fixations as well as saccade velocity, duration and path curvature. We showed 30 different abstract paintings to 40 participants — 20 laypeople and 20 experts (art students) — and used self-reporting to investigate the perceived dynamism of each painting and its relationship with (a) the average number and duration of fixations, (b) the average number, duration and velocity of saccades as well as the amplitude and curvature area of saccade paths, and (c) pleasantness and familiarity ratings. We found that the average number of fixations and saccades, saccade velocity, and pleasantness ratings increase with an increase in perceived dynamism ratings. Meanwhile the saccade duration decreased with an increase in perceived dynamism. Additionally, the analysis showed that experts gave higher dynamic ratings compared to laypeople and were more familiar with the artworks. These results indicate that there is a correlation between perceived dynamism in abstract painting and viewing behaviour — something that has long been assumed by art historians but had never been empirically supported.

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