In the mind of the beholder

The painter Wassily Kandinski believed that art should tap into a similar feeling of delight within the beholder as music often does. However in conversations about art it seems many people are convinced of the idea that one must have knowledge of art, especially of abstract art, in order to appreciate it. This notion appears to be confirmed by museums who, in their continual search for attracting a broad audience, invest in arts education so people can understand and therefor admire art. But is knowledge and understanding really the key to appreciate art?

D kijkt naar Sugimoto
Author at Hiroshi Sugimoto – Black Box exhibition in FOAM, Amsterdam. Photograph by Veerle Pieters.

In 2016 an article appeared about this subject, where the authors Martin Tröndle and Wolfgang Tschacher wrote down the results of an experiment they had done at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland.* Together with the museum they created an exhibition with 70 artworks in different styles (from impressionism to the present) and forms (painting, sculpture, installation, etc.). The goal was to measure visitors expectations on coming in, their responses to the artworks and their experience afterward.

The research happened as follows, visitors were asked to fill out a questionnaire before the entered the exhibition spaces, this was to measure their knowledge, their expectations and their affinity with art. Then they would go into the exhibition with a tracking device and their heart rate and skin conductance level were recorded continually. These devices documented the time people spent in front of an artwork, their route, the total amount of time spent in the exhibition and the response to an artwork. Upon exiting the exhibition space the visitors were again asked to fill out a questionnaire to see what their experiences were.

Tröndle and Tschacher were able to analyse the data of 577 visitors in this way and their results are quite interesting. They found that people who came in with knowledge about art thought the esthetic qualities of the artworks and the exhibition was of little importance and their expectations before entering were slightly different from people with a less extended understanding of art. Despite these small differences the evaluations after visiting the exhibition showed that they experienced the esthetic of it and the works in the same way as their fellow visitors with less knowledge.

The authors state that the experience of art is too complex for knowledge to lead to more appreciation of art than the esthetic experience does. Based on this research, which is executed locally so might vary a little depending on the location and scale, museums and arts organizations could make other choices in the design of an exhibition. Of course it is still a good idea to provide information for those visitors who are interested.

One museum, the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston (PEM), recently started working on a better experience of its exhibitions.** They hired a neuroscientist who studies ways of improving experiences and have her help with the exhibition design. They have already experimented with smell, touch, dance, etc. They also found that more space in between artworks ensures a little break and a better impact of each piece of art on the beholder. Tröndle and Tschacher add to this their observation that talking about the art during a museum visit helps with a better experience.

Kandinski was convinced color played an important role in the esthetic experience of art, but as we have seen there are more ways to improve on this experience. Still Kandinski left us with many colorful pieces of art.

Wassily Kandinski, Composition VI, 1913.

* Tröndle and Tschacher, Art Affinity Influences Art Reception (in the Eye of the Beholder), 2016.

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