Does abstract art truly evoke different cognitive states than figurative art? This was the driving question behind a new study. Across three experiments, researchers showed that abstract paintings evoke more abstract, “far away” feelings.
Generally speaking, art can be split into two broad categories: representational and abstract. Representational art is art that, well, represents something clear — it depicts subjects that can be clearly identified by the viewer. Whether it’s a bowl of fruit, animals, or a starry landscape, when you look at a piece of representational art, you understand what’s going on. Meanwhile, abstract art doesn’t attempt to represent an accurate depiction of visual reality. Instead, abstract art uses colors, forms, and all sorts of effects without representing clear objects.
Some people frown upon abstract art, but for brain researchers, abstract art has stirred a lot of interest in recent times, with a 2014 essay suggesting that abstract art enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain. Neuroscience and abstract art can go together surprisingly well, and the science behind how we perceive abstract art (and art in general) might help us better understand how our brains work in general.
In a recent 2020 study, researchers sought to learn more about the ways the two types of art impact the brain — particularly, how abstract and representational art evoke different mental patterns.
“Subjectively experiencing a work of art may involve a myriad of cognitive processes,” the researchers write in the new study. “The more abstract the work of art, the more ambiguous the image, and the ‘more the beholder must contribute to assign the work of art meaning, utility, and value’. It follows, then, that the subjective experiences of abstract and representational art are different, but empirically characterizing these differences is challenging.”
The study was carried out entirely online, with 840 participants being asked to look at paintings by four abstract artists (Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, Chuck Close, and Clyfford Still). All four artists had a somewhat similar artistic path, developing a more and more abstract style as the years passed.
The paintings could be divided into three categories: clearly defined objects, somewhat abstract, and abstract. The participants were asked to imagine an exhibition with the given paintings. The choices included the timing of the exhibition, which could be “today” or “in a year”, as well as the location of the exhibition (which could be around the corner, or far away, in another state).
Previous fMRI studies have suggested that abstract art elicits different mental processes than representational art: representational art elicits
more local and object-focused brain paths, whereas abstract art activates areas thought to be tuned to features of intermediate complexity.
The results suggest that abstract art is associated with increased spatial and temporal distance. Subjects were more likely to place abstract art in a temporally distant situation and in a faraway location, indicating that they associate it with a more abstract future. Meanwhile, participants looking at more representational art were more likely to see the art in a “today” exhibit “around the corner.”
The results weren’t always clear-cut, but overall, abstract art was more likely to evoke “far away” feelings in participants, both in time and in space.
Describing their findings, researchers say that abstract art can evoke what they call psychological distance — seeing things more conceptually, as opposed to realistically. In other words, an abstract painting evokes an abstract reality around it, which is in line with previous work.
The researchers also quote the ideas of art historian Alois Riegl, one of the major figures in the establishment of art history as a self-sufficient academic discipline in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to Riegl, the viewer is an integral part of art. This new study helps us narrow down and quantify the effect that different types of art can have on the viewer.
“In three different decision making tasks, we found that abstract art evokes a more abstract mindset than representational art. Our data
suggest that abstract and representational art have differential
effects on cognition,” the authors note.
“Overall, our findings suggest that abstract art is represented as
context-invariant, affording a traversal of mental time and space
and resulting in a distal spatiotemporal placement in the world.
In contrast, representational art is more limited and narrower in
its spatiotemporal reach.”
Journal Reference: Celia Durkin et al. “An objective evaluation of the beholder’s response to abstract and figurative art based on construal level theory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001772117