If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a painting or piece of artwork worth? A recent study delved into that question and whether the information that you receive about a piece of artwork can influence how it makes you feel. Do you need to be educated on the difference between impressionism or cubism to appreciate art, or is it an inherent quality that humans can figure out without any education or guidance?
Previous studies on have noted that contextual information can change how you perceive an experience or material good. This can be demonstrated when you believe fine foods taste better (such as wine or cheese) because they were more expensive, even if there was no difference in quality. Your impression of the experience, service, or material good can change based on outside input or information your brain receives, even if the information really isn’t true. (In an experiment I recently watched, consumers rated mugs of tea as better tasting than paper cups containing the exact same tea; this was because of the weight of the cup and the subconscious association with weight and worth).
The research team at the University of Basel measured skin conductance and heart rate while 75 volunteers viewed 6 pieces of fine art at a museum to track the emotional responses viewing art could evoke. Divided into two groups, they were either given a brief description of the artwork or very detailed interpretations of the pieces of art they viewed. The researchers were interested in whether the perception of knowledge about the artwork changed the overall experience, so the volunteers also completed a questionnaire about their subjective experience and how they felt during it.
It was surprising to learn that none of the information changed the experience of the viewers. The information, whether brief or detailed, did not change their physical reactions to artwork or their own self-perceived impressions on their questionnaires. This was contrary to what the scientists were expecting; they expected that, when given more detailed information, it would affect the overall aesthetic experience.
The actual art itself is where the changes in aesthetic experiences occurred. The physical reaction (meant to mirror the emotional state of the viewer) was different between different paintings. Paintings that evoked the biggest changes in emotional state and affected the aesthetic experience were pieces that leaned more towards the eccentric side which could be classified as strange or ridiculous. In this study, the painting which caused the biggest reaction was Les masques intrigues by James Ensor, which could be classified as edgier or more provoking.
This study points out that viewing art results in not only emotional effects, but psychophysiological effects: changing heart rate, heart rate variability, and skin conductance and variability. Humans don’t need lengthy explanations or fine art education to feel satisfied or moved after viewing paintings; it’s enough to simply be human to connect with the artist’s message.
Luisa Krauss, Celine Ott, Klaus Opwis, Andrea Meyer, Jens Gaab. Impact of contextualizing information on aesthetic experience and psychophysiological responses to art in a museum: A naturalistic randomized controlled trial.. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/aca0000280