Research in the field of psychological aesthetics points to the appeal of stimuli which defy easy recognition by being “semantically unstable” but which still allow for creating meaning—in the ongoing process of elaborative perception or as an end product of the entire process. Such effects were reported for hidden images (Muth and Carbon, 2013) as well as Cubist artworks concealing detectable—although fragmented—objects (Muth et al., 2013). To test the stability of the relationship between semantic determinacy and appreciation across different episodic contexts, 30 volunteers evaluated an artistic movie continuously on visual determinacy or liking via the Continuous Evaluation Procedure (CEP, Muth et al., 2015b). The movie consisted of five episodes with emerging Gestalts. In the first between-participants condition, the hidden Gestalts in the movie episodes were of increasing determinacy, in the second condition, the episodes showed decreasing determinacies of hidden Gestalts. In the increasing-determinacy group, visual determinacy was rated higher and showed better predictive quality for liking than in the decreasing-determinacy group. Furthermore, when the movie started with low visual determinacy of hidden Gestalts, unexpectedly strong increases in visual determinacy had a bigger effect on liking than in the condition which allowed for weaker Gestalt recognition after having started with highly determinate Gestalts. The resulting pattern calls for consideration of the episodic context when examining art appreciation.
This dissertation presents research projects which investigated dynamics in the perception and appreciation of ambiguous and indeterminate art. It examines how semantical instability in art can induce pleasure in the perceiver although defying an easy consumption. The idea pursued within this thesis is that insights gained during an elaboration of such objects lead to an increase in appreciation (Aesthetic Aha effect, Muth & Carbon, 2013)—the creation of meaning itself being rewarding. The comprised research projects examine such dynamics in perception and appreciation of visual artworks which are semantically instable. A crucial quality of these objects might be that they confront the perceiver with semantical instability as well as opportunity for insight: for instance, we like Cubist artworks more the better we are able to discern identifiable objects in them—still they never dissolve into an easy recognizable interpretation (Muth, Pepperell, & Carbon, 2013a). Also the solvability of ambiguity in another set of visual artworks did not have positive effects on liking, interest, and affect. Instead, the strength of insights gained during their elaboration predicted appreciation positively (Muth, Hesslinger, & Carbon, 2015). In line with the Aesthetic Aha effect (Muth & Carbon, 2013) also the sudden emergence of Gestalt within indeterminate artistic movies elicited an increase in liking. Interest—in contrast –already increased prior to these moments of insight (Muth, Raab, & Carbon, 2015). The presented findings highlight that art perception does not equal a kind of problem solving process in which semantical instability needs to be resolved for the artwork to appeal. Instead appreciation might benefit from rewarding insights into the instable.
Research in perception and appreciation is often focused on snapshots, stills of experience. Static approaches allow for multidimensional assessment, but are unable to catch the crucial dynamics of affective and perceptual processes; for instance, aesthetic phenomena such as the ‘Aesthetic-Aha’ (the increase in liking after the sudden detection of Gestalt), effects of expectation, or Berlyne’s idea that ‘disorientation’ with a ‘promise of success’ elicits interest. We conducted empirical studies on indeterminate artistic movies depicting the evolution and metamorphosis of Gestalt and investigated (i) the effects of sudden perceptual insights on liking; that is, “Aesthetic Aha”-effects, (ii) the dynamics of interest before moments of insight, and (iii) the dynamics of complexity before and after moments of insight. Via the so-called Continuous Evaluation Procedure (CEP) enabling analogous evaluation in a continuous way, participants assessed the material on two aesthetic dimensions blockwise either in a gallery or a laboratory. The material’s inherent dynamics were described via assessments of liking, interest, determinacy and surprise along with a computational analysis on the variable complexity. We identified moments of insight as peaks in determinacy and surprise. Statistically significant changes in liking and interest demonstrated that: (i) insights increase liking, (ii) interest already increases 1,500 ms before such moments of insight, supporting the idea that it is evoked by an expectation of understanding, and (iii) insights occur during increasing complexity. We propose a preliminary model of dynamics in liking and interest with regard to complexity and perceptual insight and discuss descriptions of participants’ experiences of insight. Our results point to the importance of systematic analyses of dynamics in art perception and appreciation.
We asked whether and how people appreciate ambiguous artworks and examined the possible mechanisms underlying the appeal of perceptual challenge in art. Although experimental research has shown people’s particular appreciation for highly familiar and prototypical objects that are fluently processed, there is increasing evidence that in the arts people often prefer ambiguous materials which are processed less fluently. Here, we empirically show that modern and contemporary ambiguous artworks evoking perceptual challenge are indeed appreciated. By applying a multilevel modeling approach together with multidimensional measurement of aesthetic appreciation, we revealed that the higher the subjectively perceived degree of ambiguity within an artwork, the more participants liked it and the more interesting and affecting it was for them. These dimensions of aesthetic appreciation were also positively related to the subjectively reported strength of insights during elaboration of the artworks. The estimated solvability of the experienced ambiguity, in contrast, was not relevant for liking and even negatively linked to interest and affect. Consequently, we propose a critical view of the frequently reported idea that processing (modern) art simply equals a kind of problem solving task. We suggest the dynamic gain of insights during the elaboration of an ambiguous artwork, rather than the state of having solved a problem, to be a mechanism possibly relevant to the appeal of challenge in the perception of ambiguous art.