Do you interact with art in a meaningful way?

Art show in Arts Center gallery
Boticelli’s Madonna del Magnificat

Take a minute to consider this painting. Now, consider some of the thoughts you had as you pondered it. Were you wondering if you could ever paint something like that? Did the subject remind you of someone you know? Did you wonder why the artist chose this subject? Or maybe you just want to know where you might find a bit of lace as fine as the one she is wearing.

What you just experienced in this exercise is a phenomenon known as personal connoisseurship, or the ability to find personal meaningfulness, depth and enjoyment in one’s interaction with aesthetic objects, according to Jeff Smith, PhD, professor of education at the University of Otago, New Zealand, who spoke at an APA convention symposium sponsored by APA Div. 10 (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts).

Smith and his colleagues examined how people with different levels of training and exposure interact with art. They categorized 400 participants into three groups: Those who visited art museums rarely, those with little art training who visited the museum often and those with art training (e.g., a PhD in art history) who visited the museum often. (They wanted a fourth group — those with art training who rarely visited the museum – but found them impossible to find, said Smith).

The researchers found all three groups interacted with the art in different ways. The low frequency group was more likely to be attracted to pieces they found visually appealing or appeared to relate to some aspect of their lives, but had somewhat distant emotional reactions to the art. People in both high frequency groups tended to focus on the technical quality of the work, but the untrained group was more likely to focus on the meaning or message of the artist’s work, while the trained group seemed more focused on the challenge and creativity of the work of art.

What does this all mean?

“It’s hard to say,” said Smith. But one thing is certain. The untrained, high-visitation group appears to bring a disposition towards “interacting with the work in a more personally meaningful fashion, dare we say a fashion more typically intended by the artist?”

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