Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art

In his book Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that Americans don’t like ambiguous endings on their movies. And he’s right. A number of Americans (and probably people of other nationalities as well) dislike ambiguity, particularly at the end of movies. Talk to any three people about the ending of the movie Inception. Indeed, if you plug “Inception ending” into Google, you get 36,000,000 hits, so something must be of interest there.

This is one of the reasons that many audience members are troubled by the endings of Edward Albee’s plays or what are perhaps the most ambiguous of the arts, abstract painting, sculpture, photography.

None of this is new and interesting; we all know that some people don’t like ambiguity, and some people don’t like abstract art, and many of us have formed opinions as to why that is, often citing lack of sufficient education. However, there is a new and interesting development in this area; it is two related studies done by Antonio Chirumbolo, Ambra Brizi, Stefano Mastandrea, and Lucia Mannetti. This psychological research team reports that that “people with a strong need for cognitive closure—that is to have quick, definitive answers to vexing questions—are less likely to appreciate abstract art.”

Even more interesting is that one of the studies suggested that the “desire for certainty is a constant for some people, it can be induced in others,” which means that “if environmental cues are unwittingly prompting this mindset, they are effectively making people less open to abstract art.”

And what does all that mean to us? If we are artists who produce abstract art or who produce art that leans ambiguous, we need to be worried about how that art is presented to our audiences. We can probably do nothing about those who have an inherent need for closure, but we need to be concerned about the state of mind of everyone else in our potential audience, and that means the environment in which our art is shown.

The study showed that if and when there are too many distractions, tolerance for ambiguity is reduced, so ambiguous art becomes “unpleasant and displeasing.” Pacific Standard Magazine reports “’Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers’ implicit evaluation of the artworks,’ the researchers write. Anything that reduces viewers’ cognitive load, from simple-to-navigate galleries to clear, understandable explanatory labels accompanying the works, will help.”

Except for the in-gallery or lobby bar dispensing alcoholic calmness, there is little to be done if audience brings their distractions with them in the form of long to-do lists, or emotional turmoil. But if our ambiguous, abstract work is to appeal, it would be well to find a way to reduce those internal distractions.

Practically speaking, if we are in the business of trying to have our work seen and perhaps purchased, in the business of tribe-building, then this information is invaluable; potential patrons may not be able to like our work simply because of the environment. Solutions may not be readily apparent or easy to implement, but just knowing what is going on in the minds of some of our potential audience can lead us to explore new paths and find new venues for our work.

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Date: Monday, 17. November 2014 0:52
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1 Comment

  1. 1

    Very interesting. Also, as someone who does struggle with the need for certainty, and who is not a huge fan of abstract art, I find the notion those qualities might be connected to be fascinating.

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