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Cognition and perception, Creativity, Personality and self

You might like paintings more if you stop to read the gallery labels

People high in openness, and those with limited art experience, liked paintings more after reading information about the artist and their technique.

28 March 2023

By Matthew Warren

Visitors to art galleries might enjoy the experience more if they read the artwork labels, according to a new paper in Scientific Reports. Researchers have found that reading contextual information, such as a brief biography of an artist or a description of their painting techniques, can boost people's appreciation of the art – as long as they have a curious and open-minded personality.

In the first study, Kohinoor M. Darda and Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania asked 214 American participants to view a series of abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock. Participants were initially given no contextual information, but simply indicated how much they liked each painting and how interesting and complex they found it. Then, before viewing and rating a second lot of paintings, participants either read an explanation about the techniques that Pollock used, or a brief passage about his life and career. Finally, before viewing and rating the remainder of the artworks, participants read whichever piece of information they hadn't read in the previous phase of the study (i.e. if they'd already read the technique information, they now read the brief biography).

All participants completed a questionnaire about their experience with art, indicating how much formal art training they had and how often they made art or visited galleries. They also completed a measure of "openness to experience", a personality trait associated with being curious, broad-minded and creative.

The team found that after reading both the description of Pollock's technique and his biography, people high in openness liked the paintings more and were more interested in them. Reading only one of these pieces of information, however, didn't influence their judgements. People low in openness gave the same ratings whether or not they had read the contextual information.

People with little art experience showed a very similar pattern: after reading both types of contextual information, they liked the paintings more and were more interested in them. People high in art experience didn't show this effect.

These results suggested that learning about an artist and their methods can boost certain people's aesthetic appreciation of the art. However, it was also possible that these participants simply liked Pollock's artwork more after seeing many examples of his paintings, a phenomenon known as the "mere exposure effect". So the researchers tweaked the design of the experiment in a second study to get around this limitation.

In this study, American participants viewed and rated 16 artworks from various artists, half from Europe or America, and half from India. Four of the paintings were each preceded by a brief biography of the artist, four by information about the artist's technique, four by information about the content of the artwork, and four by no information at all. Each of these sets of four paintings were presented to participants in a random order.

The team found that contextual information again influenced people's judgements, albeit in a slightly different way. This time, when people high in openness read information about the artist, they liked the paintings more and rated them as more beautiful compared to when they didn't read any information. Other contextual information didn't have an effect, and people low in openness showed no changes in their judgements.

Similarly, people with low art experience liked the paintings more after reading any of three kinds of contextual information, and they rated the works as more beautiful after reading either about the artist or their technique. Again, there was no effect for people high in art experience.

This second study bolsters the claim that contextual information can influence people's aesthetic judgements of artworks. This makes sense, the researchers write: giving the viewer additional information about an artist or their technique could make it easier for them to understand the artwork – and we already know that people tend to give more positive ratings to things that feel "fluent" to process.

However, both studies show that contextual information only seems to affect the judgements of those with little experience in art, or those high in openness to experience. The team suggests that people with lots of art experience may not benefit from additional contextual information as they already have a fluent understanding and strong appreciation of art. Similarly, people low in openness are by definition less curious and open to new ideas and experiences, so it's perhaps unsurprising that this additional information had little influence on their ratings.

The findings have implications for the curation of art galleries. The team notes that some curators favour providing historical context alongside paintings to aid visitors' understanding of the work, while others emphasise the viewer's personal connection with the art – to the extent that they will display works with no labels at all. This new research doesn't necessarily imply that one approach is generally better than the other. However, it does suggest that if the aim is to make people enjoy the art as much as possible, then contextual information may be useful – but it won't work for everyone.