The appeal of Semantic Instability: Why we can appreciate art even if we do not solve its mysteries

Many artworks defy an easy consumption; still they are able to reach high popularity. This is not only true for Cubist artworks in which “each hypothesis we assume will be knocked out by a contradiction elsewhere” (Gombrich, 1960/2002, p. 240).


When participants evaluated and elaborated artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries in a recent study, the solvablility of their ambiguities was even negatively related to interest and affect. Instead, appreciation was positively linked to the artworks’ ambiguity and the strength of perceptual, cognitive and reflective insights that a person gained during their elaboration (for examples see Table below). The crucial point is that art might enable us to gain insights that are rewarding even if they do not resolve its mysteries. Think of the various identifications of the murderer when reading Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”; you might be misled several times to identify the wrong suspects before you gain final insight into the fact that the story's narrator himself is the murderer. Our idea is that, analogously, perception and appreciation are no static concepts but dynamically bound to insight-driven elaboration; these insights are beneficial to appreciation even if the final insight—catching the murderer so to say—fails to appear.

Participant’s description of his or her insight Elaborated artwork
The strangely floating form seems to be a result of a massive mechanical brutal shaping, which makes the object all the more interesting. Cragg, T. (2000). Can-Can.
The insight is that I cannot fully solve the picture. Magritte, R. (1928). Les Jours Gigantèsques
Tea heats from within and the fur from outside. Oppenheim, M. (1936). Frühstück in Pelz

Note: Descriptions are translated from German by Muth, Hesslinger & Carbon (2015)


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