February 22, 2010

Context 101

I was alerted to a new study undertaken by a university psychologist that purports to suggest that “Context May Diminish Art Appreciation.” 172 students were asked to look at selected works of art in various styles (Impressionism, Renaissance, Dada and Outsider) and then rate “how much they liked the work.” Half of the group was also given some “contextual information” consisting of a definition of the styles of art represented, along with short histories of the styles’ origins and “information on the goals of the artists who worked in that style.”(1)

Before I get to the psychologist’s findings, let me clarify a few things about context in relation to how we perceive art. Ever since Duchamp set a urinal, snow shovel, coat-rack, etc. within the confines of a gallery nearly 100 years ago, we have been wrestling with context in the visual arts. Duchamp’s actions caused us to consider how a gallery (or museum) setting affects our definition of what is or isn’t art: without this art context, his readymades are just plumbing, tools and hardware.

This contextual information referred to and used by the psychologist in his study is distinct from Duchamp's context; rather, this study concerns additional information or supplemental material about the artwork, style, history more than it does context. What I wish to emphasize here is that both the contextual (as site, i.e., museum, gallery, artist/art school studio) and the supplemental material are key components to establishing mere appreciation of the artwork but are the only access to its meaning; there is nothing without this contextual and supplemental material.

I question the intent of a study that sets up the visual engagement of art “in terms of eliciting enjoyment or appreciation” which sound better suited as gastronomic criteria. Certainly 21st Century art seeks to engage a bit more than enjoyment. Or is that all some of us expect of art?

Second, it is important to note that the “participating students had little or no knowledge about art.” Knowing this fact going in, I think it suspiciously skews the data and fairly well negates the study’s resultant findings as flawed. Is it not generally accepted logic that the more knowledge one has about a field, the more one appreciates it?

It is no surprise then that we next discover the psychologist provided all study participants with “a general definition for art” as well as “label(s) stating the style the works represented.” Regrettably, the psychologist’s “definition for art” was not shared with us but I feel that by providing the students with an “accepted” determination of art he set up a comparative and possibly negative criticality within the students; given a description of “what art is” consciously affected how they judged the artworks.

The hypothesis was that that portion of participating students that were given additional information (stylistic definitions, histories, origins, artists’ goals) are presumed to be better able to “appreciate” the artworks armed with “contextual information.” However, the psychologist found that “Providing contextual information led to participants perceiving examples of the various styles of art as matching less well with their internal standards than when no contextual information was presented.”

That is to say, students “were more likely to feel a piece conformed to their personal ideas about art — and thus more likely to enjoy or appreciate it — when it was presented without interpretation.”

On the contrary, I think this only really proves that students (people) are capable of being “likely to enjoy or appreciate” artwork that they know nothing about. This is neither news or earth-shaking research.

Finally, I find two intriguing points in the psychologist’s “explanations” that ironically reveal something unintentional about “art appreciation” and criticality. The psychologist found that “the contextual information presumably led to 'greater conscious processing' of the pieces, which may have 'led participants to be more critical.'” In my view, this means context provokes criticality, an altogether positive result from the contextual/supplemental aspects.

Further, the psychologist found “In this experiment, the contextual information was very concrete, and may have encouraged participants to think concretely.” The article concludes that after those study participants were “equipped with a clear, rigid definition of what constitutes a certain type of art, the students were perhaps more likely to judge a particular painting as falling outside of its parameters.”

In other words, knowledge about artworks enhances our critical judgment of them; knowledge provided by the indispensable context and frequently necessary supplemental information. Both are prerequisite for a critical opening to any meaning we might access. Without both the context and the supplement there can be nothing but empty aesthetic appreciation.

[My thanks to John James Anderson for bringing this article to my attention.]
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1. All quotes were taken from the on-line article at www.miller-mccune.

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