Does Contextual Background Lead to Artistic Appreciation?

Common wisdom states that the more you know about a work of art, the more likely you are to appreciate it. A new study says that this isn’t true at all; providing context may actually be counterproductive.

Psychologist Kenneth Bordens tested 172 undergraduates who had little to knowledge art backgrounds. The students were shown works of art that were representative of four different styles: Impressionist, Renaissance, Dada and Outsider. Half the students were provided with a definition of the style, a history of its origins, and information about the artists. Half received no information, only a label of which style the work represented. All student were asked to rate how much they liked the work and how much they felt it met their personal conception of “art.”

The result? Unsurprisingly, students liked works that more closely fit their personal definitions of art. But what was particularly interesting: students who received contextual information disliked more of the works. They were more likely to feel that a work fit their own ideas about art when it was presented without context or interpretation, and thus liked the art more.

(Warning! Personal opinions coming up! I fully admit that I have little knowledge or experience in visual arts; these opinions are purely my own preferences and not an expert opinion by any means.)

I have mixed feelings about the helpfulness of context. For example, I have always loathed Yves Klein‘s painting Blue Monochrome at MoMA. Exhibit A:

"Blue Monochrome" by Yves Klein (1961)

It’s a solid blue painting. That’s it. My assumption was that Mr. Klein had a cleverly seductive way of tricking people into thinking something was great art and his audience just went along with it because they didn’t want to seem like philistines. Further exploration, however, revealed more about Klein’s intentions. The blue was not just blue, but a brand new shade of blue that Klein mixed for the first time, now called “International Klein Blue.” I grudgingly admit that this is pretty cool and maybe the work is not totally bogus. It’s still not my cup of tea, but I do acknowledge it as art now and not just a big scam.

On the other hand, context does define an artist’s point of view and such definition may emphasize the difference of opinion between them and me. Exhibit B:

"Campbell's Soup Cans" by Andy Warhol (1962)

I understand what Mr. Warhol is getting at, with his commentary on art as a commercial commodity. But I just don’t like his view. I don’t like that he mass printed works like this and that he persuaded everyone that they were worth a huge amount of money, to the point where he became one of the highest priced American artists. Seriously? For soup cans? I like other Warhol works, but these just irritate me because of their context.

It’s also worth noting that Bordens’ subjects were undergraduate students. I wonder if the results would be different with older adults. Or with arts of a different genre?

What do you think? Does context help you appreciate a work of art or does it just get in the way? And what could this mean for Art Hum?

More information: “Context May Diminish Art Appreciation,” By Tom Jacobs, Miller-McClure


Darcy Zacharias, CC ’10

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