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New study suggests that need for stable knowledge causes antipathy for abstract art

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Posted November 4, 2014

Is beauty an objective quality? Or is it a matter of subjective evaluation? Recent psychological research contributes to this old philosophical debate. Interestingly, the new study carried out by Italian scientists shows that art preferences are shaped by desire for stable knowledge. More precisely, need for clear answers reduces likeability of abstract art.

Picture: Tate Modern - The crack in the floor. Image credit: Nick Garrod via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Picture: Tate Modern – The crack in the floor. Image credit: Nick Garrod via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“If ambiguity of an abstract painting can lead to a consequent lack of understanding, museum curators should make more effort to help visitors understand abstract art, using texts, labels, captions and other kinds of explanations to make the work more compatible with viewers’ NFC and prevent them having a frustrating experience,” the scholars say.

Previous scholarship reveals that our cognition is governed by some epistemic norms. One of such norms is so called need for closure. “Need for closure represents the desire for stable, solid knowledge in order to avoid uncertainty, and the need to have a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity,” authors of the article published on PLoS ONE explain. Antonio Chirumbolo and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome explored how this implicit epistemic inclination shapes our aesthetic experiences. It is well known that people automatically prefer figurative art to abstract art. Abstract paintings are found to be complex and more difficult than figurative ones. Italian psychologists conjectured that this preference can be driven by the need for closure. “In fact, processing ambiguous and poorly defined pieces of art appears to conflict with a desire to attain a quick closure of the epistemic process,” they say.

Need for closure is personal disposition which varies across individuals. In addition, this disposition can be strengthened by some situational cues. Consequently, two different experiments were conducted.  “The studies produced convergent results, indicating need for closure, both dispositional trait and situationally induced, was negatively associated with implicit preference for abstract over figurative art,” the researchers claim. Moreover, possible confounding factors, such knowledge of art or cognitive abilities, were controlled.

Nevertheless, significant statistical relationships were observed. Chirumbolo and her associates discovered that contextual factors have more impact than personal dispositions. Negative attitudes towards abstract art are considerably increased by such factors as time pressure or noise.

Article: Chirumbolo A., Brizi A., Mastandrea S., Mannetti L., 2014, ‘Beauty Is No Quality in Things Themselves’: Epistemic Motivation Affects Implicit Preferences for Art., PLoS ONE 9(10): e110323. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110323, source link.

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