Can Abstract Art Change Our Mindsets? Yes! A New Study Finds

August 16, 2020

A new abstract art study claims the human brain processes abstract art and figurative art in different ways. The study was led by four researchers from Columbia University in New York.

Participants were shown pictures of 21 different paintings by four artists, some of which are considered figurative, some of which are considered partially abstract, and some of which are considered purely abstract. Participants were then asked to play the role of curator, and to place each of the paintings in exhibitions that were either going to be held tomorrow or in one year, in galleries that were either located around the corner or in a distant geographical region.

The basis for the study was something called construal level theory, the assumption that the farther away something is, either in space or time, the more abstractly people tend to think about it.

The results of the study were published in a report titled An objective evaluation of the beholder’s response to abstract and figurative art based on construal level theory, in the scientific journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. If the report is to be believed, it would end a long-running debate in the art field about the validity of aesthetic distinctions such as abstract, concrete, realistic, or figurative, which, in the opinion of some people, are capricious and arbitrary.

However, as seductive as it is to think science is capable of measuring the human response to aesthetic phenomena, I for one remain a skeptic. In fact, in my opinion, there is reason to conclude the results of this particular study should not be given any credence at all, and the question of aesthetic differentiation and classification remains as unsettled as ever. 

Mark Rothko - Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red). Musée national d'art moderne - Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, Paris. Photo by Esther Westerveld via Flickr

A Question of Representation

Instead of using the phrase "figurative art," as the researches who conducted this study did, what if we used the phrase "representational art"? The two basically mean the same thing: art that offers viewers a recognizable image of generally agreed-upon reality.

However, the word "representational" has the added benefit of drawing attention to what I feel is the fundamental problem with this particular study: the question of representation when it comes to both the artists selected, and the participants the researchers employed.

The four artists whose works were selected for the study—Chuck Close, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still—are (or were) all white males. The individual works were selected from institutional collections that were themselves amassed according to a biased, patriarchal system well documented to have excluded women, people of color, disabled people, religious minorities, and other marginalized artists.

As for who the participants in this study were, according to researchers, the 21 paintings were shown to 840 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, or Turkers—gig workers managed by a crowdsourcing service run by Amazon. Turkers are independent contractors who earn a median hourly wage of around $2 an hour. Roughly half are believed to be located in the United States, while 35 percent are based in India. Industry data suggests U.S.-based Turkers are overwhelmingly female and white.Turkers could be private individuals, or they could be part of a click farm.

Aside from the question of why Columbia University is contracting its scientific studies out to a service known to take advantage of desperate workers, the main question I am asking is whether we should base our understanding of how humans respond to abstract art on the results of a study conducted using respondents who were economically exploited, who bear no resemblance to a representational cross-section of contemporary humanity, and who judged artworks that were non-representative of the work of the full art-making population. 

Piet Mondriaan - Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930. Oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm. Kunsthaus Zurich. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Teaching to the Test

Another reason to doubt the validity of this study is that the human response to aesthetic phenomena is fundamentally more complicated than these researchers assumed. Too many factors besides whether these paintings are considered abstract or figurative could have played a role in how participants responded to the works. Personal biases easily could have played a role, especially considering the unknown of how much access to art and art education the Turkers involved in this study had prior to participating.

Additionally, the construal level theory is itself rife with fallacies, hypotheticals, and generalizations. It postulates, for example, that all people perceive of temporal, spatial and social distances in the same way, and that all human minds perceive events that are far as vague and events that are happening soon as concrete. Tell that to the people we all know who have their meals planned out for the next two months, or who book their vacation arrangements a year in advance. Lived experience has taught me that every human ultimately perceives their personal relationship with time, space and society idiosyncratically.

So can abstract art change our mindset? Sure—I have witnessed it happen many times. But can we expect it to always? Nope—I have witnessed that, as well. I propose the possibility that the question of how people in general, or any one particular person, might be expected to react to a work of abstract or figurative art is not only unknowable, but irrelevant.

Every human being is unique. Every artwork is unique. What seems abstract to one viewer can be perceived as completely realistic to another. Meanwhile, some viewers of figurative art seem only to react to the formal aspects of the work, like the colors, the shapes, or the textures.

My assessment, therefore, of An objective evaluation of the beholder’s response to abstract and figurative art based on construal level theory, is not only that it is based on a study that was poorly constructed, but that it also misses the point. If we could predict how the human brain would react to a work of art, what would be the point of having a brain at all?

Written by Phillip Barcio.

Featured image: Clyfford Still - Untitled. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Image by Regan Vercruysse via Flickr.