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University of Basel

20 January 2020

Art speaks for itself and makes hearts beat faster

Information about an artwork has no effect on the aesthetic experience of museum visitors. The characteristics of the artwork itself have a much stronger impact on observers. Psychologists from the University of Basel reached these conclusions in a new study.

“Les masques intrigues” (1930) by the Belgian painter James Ensor. Of the six paintings in the experiment, this painting provoked the strongest aesthetic experience. (© Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler)
“Les masques intrigues” (1930) by the Belgian painter James Ensor. Of the six paintings in the experiment, this painting provoked the strongest aesthetic experience. (© Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler)

Aesthetic experiences involve a complex interaction of modes of perception and cognitive processes: the artworks’ properties such as coloring and the content depicted play a role, and so do the individual characteristics of the viewer, their knowledge, and contextual factors such as an artwork’s title.

Researchers from the University of Basel led by the psychologists Professor Jens Gaab and Professor Klaus Opwis examined the extent to which an artwork’s contextual information influences aesthetic experience in a real exhibition situation. They particularly focused on the question of whether and how various kinds of information affect the aesthetic experience of museum visitors.

Previous research has shown that contextual information can significantly shape perception and experience – for example, wine tastes better to consumers when the price is higher.

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