Exploring the Role of Complexity, Content and Individual Differences in Aesthetic Reactions to Semi-Abstract Art Photographs

In: Art & Perception
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  • 1 Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, Department of Brain and Cognition, KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium
  • | 2 SLAC, Academy for Visual Arts, Leuven, Belgium
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Artistic photography is an interesting, but often overlooked, medium within the field of empirical aesthetics. Grounded in an art–science collaboration with art photographer Dominique Genin, this project focused on the relationship between the complexity of a photograph and its aesthetic appeal (beauty, pleasantness, interest). An artistic series of 24 semi-abstract photographs that play with multiple layers, recognisability vs unrecognizability and complexity was specifically created and selected for the project. A large-scale online study with a broad range of individuals (n = 453, varying in age, gender and art expertise) was set up. Exploratory data-driven analyses revealed two clusters of individuals, who responded differently to the photographs. Despite the semi-abstract nature of the photographs, differences seemed to be driven more consistently by the ‘content’ of the photograph than by its complexity levels. No consistent differences were found between clusters in age, gender or art expertise. Together, these results highlight the importance of exploratory, data-driven work in empirical aesthetics to complement and nuance findings from hypotheses-driven studies, as they allow to go further than a priori assumptions, to explore underlying clusters of participants with different response patterns, and to point towards new venues for future research. Data and code for the analyses reported in this article can be found at

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