Magdalena Szubielska, Anna Szymańska, Paweł Augustynowicz The pilot study on viewing times of artworks and labels and assessment of artworks in a gallery depending on the abstractness of a piece of art*

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Rocznik: 2021


Numer: 4

Tytuł: The pilot study on viewing times of artworks and labels and assessment of artworks in a gallery depending on the abstractness of a piece of art*

Autorzy: Magdalena Szubielska, Anna Szymańska, Paweł Augustynowicz

PFP: 451–466


* Acknowledgements. The authors would like to thank the Galeria Labirynt contemporary art gallery in Lublin, and especially Agata Sztorc and Emilia Lipa for their cooperation and assisting in this study. We are grateful to Marzena Wójtowicz for her help in data collection. 

Ethical Approval. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The current study was approved in 2017 by the Ethical Committee of the Institute of Psychology of The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests. The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Artykuł jest dostępny na warunkach międzynarodowej licencji 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).


Contemporary art is perceived by people without specialised education in art as weird, difficult to comprehend and sometimes even leads them to question its worth (e.g., Leder et al. 2004; Tröndle, Kierchberg, Tschacher, 2014) – partly due to its abstract nature. The study by Furnham and Walker (2001a; 2001b) proves that naïve viewers value abstract art less than viewers with formal experience in the perception and evaluation of art. Moreover, representational art is valued higher and considered more comprehensible than abstract art by naïve viewers (Cupchik, Shereck, Spiegel, 1994; Millis, 2001; Swami, 2013; Szubielska, Niestorowicz, Bałaj, 2016; Bubić, Sušac, Palmović, 2017; Szubielska et al., 2018; Mastandrea, Wagoner, Hogg, 2021). Most recent research has shown that despite the theoretical assumption that abstract art does not represent any concrete meaning, non-expert viewers tend to give it concrete meanings (Schepman, Rodway, 2021). Due to the ambiguous nature of abstract art, giving a semantic interpretation to such artworks might be more cognitively challenging than for figurative works. Ganczarek and colleagues (2020) showed a higher cognitive challenge increases the viewing time of an artwork. Therefore, we can predict that abstract artworks will be viewed by non-expert participants longer than figurative art.

The failure of the meaning-making process and lack of understanding may cause the viewer to have negative aesthetic emotions and aesthetic judgements. On the other hand, a sense of understanding results in experiencing positive emotions (because the mechanism of assigning meaning is self-rewarding) and a higher appreciation of works of art (Leder et al., 2004; Pelowski et al., 2017). Given the higher cognitive challenges that abstract art poses to naïve viewers than figurative art, we expect that viewing figurative art will be associated with feeling more intense positive emotions and declaring more favourable aesthetic judgements than when viewing abstract art.

The knowledge that helps non-experts interpret and comprehend contemporary art, especially more challenging abstract or conceptual ones, is any information concerning the semantic meaning of artworks, such as its title or description (Russell, Milne, 1997; Russell, 2003; Swami, 2013; Szubielska, Imbir, Szymańska, 2019; Szubielska, Imbir, 2021). Any comments by artists or critics regarding the abstract artwork might increase their appreciation by non-expert viewers (Park, Yun, Jeong, 2015). Besides, the description seems to increase the artwork’s enjoyment, especially abstract ones (Gerger, Leder, 2015). Hence, we can predict that labels accompanying abstract artworks will be viewed by non-expert participants longer than figurative art’s labels. Since the cognitive challenge of assigning meaning to abstract art is higher, the naïve participants will seek interpretative hints when viewing that genre, so they will also view the labels to read information about the abstract artworks.

The majority of the studies on the perception of figurative and abstract art has been conducted in a laboratory setting. Tschacher and his colleagues (2012) pointed out that the art perception studies carried out in laboratory conditions have a low ecological relevance and a limited scope of generalisation. Some experiments proved that viewing art in a museum increases the aesthetic evaluation of artwork in comparison to viewing art in a laboratory (e.g. Brieber et al., 2014; Brieber, Nadal, Leder, 2015). In some of the research, we referenced (Furnham, Walker, 2001a; 2001b), abstract pieces of art served as examples of modern or contemporary art, while representational pieces of art originated in the previous periods of art history. However, contemporary art is not only abstract. Artists today still create representational artworks (e.g. Miecznicka, 2015; Szubielska, Niestorowicz, Bałaj, 2016; Szubielska et al., 2018). Furthermore, although more and more eyetracking studies are being carried out in museums or art galleries (e.g. Heidenreich, Turano, 2011; Brieber et al., 2014; Pelowski et al., 2018; Reitstätter et al., 2020), to our knowledge, none of them has yet been focused on the viewing of figurative vs abstract works and accompanying labels. The current study aimed to fill this knowledge gap.

The Current Study

In this study, conducted in the art gallery, we tested the viewing time of artworks and labels of figurative and abstract art pieces with a portable eye tracking device, and viewers self-reported aesthetic emotions and judgements. Building on the abovementioned body of literature, we predicted that aesthetic judgements would be more favourable (H1) and positive aesthetic emotions would be more intense (H2) for representational than abstract artworks. We also predicted that the viewing time both of artworks (H3) and labels (H4) would be longer for abstract than figurative artworks.



The researchers invited laypeople in the field of fine arts to take part in this study. There were 29 students who volunteered to participate in the experiment. Two of them, one male and one female, were rejected due to the fact that their answer to an open question regarding hobbies indicated their interests in visual arts and active participation in the cultural life of the city, including visits to exhibitions, art galleries, and museums. Another female participant withdrew from the study when she smelled a paint to which she was allergic. (There was an art exhibition being assembled in the adjacent room.) The participants whose results were included in the further analysis were aged 19–29 (M = 21.23; SD = 2.50) and included 21 women and five men. Nine of the 26 subjects were not included in the oculographic analysis due to technical problems, including an interrupted connection between the eye tracker and the computer; a stopped recording; or human mistakes of the oculograph technical crew; or a tracking ratio that was too low – lower than the 70% threshold assumed for both areas of interest – the artwork and the label.

The participants were treated in accordance with the declaration of Helsinki and gave written informed consent before the experiment.

Stimuli and Apparatus

The research material was composed of artworks displayed in a temporary exhibition with the title Gestures [Gesty], which was exhibited at a contemporary art gallery Galeria Labirynt in Lublin 7.03.2017 – 23.04.2017, and accompanying labels containing descriptions of artworks written by the curators.

The exhibition was composed of six works of art created by six artists. All artworks were placed in one exhibition hall. Half of the authors presented representational artwork. These were: He Chengyao’s Testimony, 2001–2002; Józef Robakowski’s Art is Power, 1984–85; and Jan Świdziński’s Natural – Supernatural, 1987. The other half contributed abstract works: Włodzimierz Pawlak’s Score for the Ballet Socrates, 2003; Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s Straining of Curtains / Story 1982, 1982; and Andrzej Lachowicz’s Involuntary Drawings, 1983.

The labels contained encyclopaedic information about the particular artwork (such as the artist’s name, the title, technique/medium, dimensions of the artowork), plainly written descriptions of the artwork (the exhibition was intended to be educational, and the descriptions were intended to help even the youngest viewers understand the works), and biographical notes about the artists. The original content of each label and the number of words of text within each label are presented in the Appendix.

The total dwell time was measured binocularly with the mobile eye tracking device (SMI Eye Tracking Glasses 1.0). The data was stored on a mobile laptop unit carried by participants in a bag with a sample rate of 60 Hz. Calibration accuracy was kept below approximately one degree of a participant’s visual angle.


The experiment was conducted in a contemporary art gallery on days when the exhibition was closed to the public. The study started with a three-point equipment calibration carried out at the entrance to the exhibition hall. A computer connected to an eye-tracker was placed in a bag that the participants carried on their shoulders. Then the participants were informed that they were allowed to spend as much time as they wished at the exhibition hall and that at the exit, they would be requested to evaluate the exhibited art. The exhibition was located in a small exhibition hall of a contemporary art gallery. The participants entered the hall individually and might freely view the exhibition behind a closed door to eliminate any distraction by third parties.

After viewing the exhibition, the participants took a short written survey where they reported their aesthetic experiences. Both the aesthetic emotions (in terms of valence and arousal) and judgements (in terms of liking, interest, understanding) were measured. Namely, the participants evaluated each artwork, in the fixed order, on a 7-grade scale of (1) arousal (“How aroused do you feel when looking at this artwork?”; 1 – very calm, 7 – very excited), (2) valence (“How does this artwork make you feel?”; 1 – very negative, 7 – very positive), (3) liking (“How much do you like this artwork?”), (4) interest (“How interesting do you find this artwork?”), and (5) understanding (“How much sense of understanding do you have in connection with this artwork?”). The last three were evaluated on a scale from 1 – very little to 7 – a lot. Similar measures of aesthetic emotions and judgements were previously used in studies in the field of empirical aesthetics (e.g. Brieber et al., 2014; Brieber, Leder, Nadal, 2015; Brieber, Nadal, Leder, 2015). To clarify which work of art has to be assessed, we provided miniature reproduction of a particular artwork above the response scales on each page of the questionnaire.


Self-reported Data: Aesthetic Judgements and Emotions

In order to ascertain whether there was an enhanced art experience in terms of emotions and judgements in the case of representational compared to abstract artworks, we performed t-tests for dependent samples with arousal, valence, liking, interest, and understanding as dependent variables and category of artwork (abstract vs representational) as the independent variable. Using a Bonferroni correction we adjusted the alpha level of .05 / 2 = .025 with regard to aesthetic emotions and .05 / 3 = .017 concerning aesthetic judgements. Table 1 presents mean ratings (M) and standard deviations (SD) for dependent variables for each category and inferential statistics.

Aesthetic judgements. The effect of category of artwork on aesthetic judgements, in terms of liking, interest, and understanding, was non-significant (see Table 1).

Aesthetic emotions. The analysis revealed a significant effect of category of artwork on arousal. Viewers declared they were more aroused watching representational than abstract artworks. Analyses did not reveal an effect of category of artwork on valence (see Table 1).

Table 1. Mean Art Ratings and SDs for Abstract and Figurative Artworks. Inferential statistics – the effect of Category of Artworks on aesthetic Emotions and Judgements

Eye Movement Data: Viewing Time of Artworks and Labels

Viewing time (total dwell time) for artworks and labels was analysed with SMI BeGaze 3.7 software. Consecutive fixations from a moving scene recorded by an eye tracker were mapped onto a static reference frame by means of a Semantic Gaze Mapping algorithm. For each artwork, two rectangular areas of interest (AOIs) were defined: one for the artwork itself and another one for the corresponding label. An additional area of approximately one degree of visual angle was added to each side of the AOI to compensate for any inaccuracies in the eye tracker calibration. Descriptive and inferential statistics for all viewing time variables included in a study are reported in Table 2.

We calculated t-tests for dependent samples with viewing time of artworks and viewing time of labels as dependent variables and category of artwork (abstract vs representational) as the independent variable. There was no significant difference between categories of artworks on viewing time of artworks. There was a significant difference between categories of artworks on viewing time of labels. Viewing time was longer for abstract artwork labels than for representational artwork labels (see Table 2). Importantly, labels of abstract artworks were shorter (688 words in total) than labels of figurative artworks (755 words in total).

Table 2. Mean Viewing Time (measured in milliseconds) and SDs for Abstract and Figurative Artworks and Labels. Inferential statistics – the effect of Category of Artworks on Viewing Time of Artworks and Viewing Time of Labels


This research’s main objective was to test the role of the cognitive challenge associated with the abstractness of artworks on the aesthetic experience. The study was conducted in the contemporary art gallery when both abstract and figurative art was exhibited. We collected eye movement data (viewing artworks and labels) and self-reported data on emotions evoked by viewing and aesthetic judgements made.

In line with our hypothesis (H4), the viewing time of labels was longer for abstract than figurative artworks. In turn, the prediction that abstract artworks are viewing longer than figurative ones (H3) was not confirmed since the viewing time of abstract and representational artworks did not differ (the similar result was obtained by Heidenreich, Turano, 2011). It probably resulted from a much deeper analysis of labels of abstract works of art than the representational ones, which led to the increase of comprehensibility of abstract artwork. This interpretation is supported by the lack of differences in evaluating the subjective understanding and interest of abstract compared with representational works of art. Probably, as a result of a more thorough reading of labels of the representational artworks, both abstract and representational artworks became similarly comprehensible and thus gave rise to a similar interest of the participants (Silvia, 2005). Importantly, viewing times of abstract art’s labels compared to the representational artworks’ labels were not related to the length of descriptions on the labels. Descriptions of abstract works of art were not longer than descriptions of representational artworks (overall 688 words for abstract artworks vs 755 for figurative artworks, see Appendix). Previous research conducted in a museum showed that the viewing time of a label is not related to the length of its description (Smith, Smith, Tinio, 2017). Hence, it seems that non-experts read labels longer when they needed hints to interpret more challenging artworks and might have skipped some information contained on labels when help to complete the meaning-making process was not necessary, for instance, in the case of viewing figurative artworks.

The hypothesis related to aesthetic emotions was partially confirmed (H2). In line with our prediction viewing figurative artworks caused more intense emotions since the self-reported arousal was higher for figurative than abstract artworks. However, at the same time, the valence of emotions did not differe when participans view figurative and abstract art. Interestingly, the valence of aesthetic emotions was rather positive than negative in reference to both art genres. This may be related to the fact that we tested participants in the art gallery where they viewed original artworks – such a situation is conducive to experiencing more positive aesthetic emotions (e.g. Szubielska, Imbir, Szymańska, 2019; Szubielska, Imbir, 2021).

The hypothesis related to aesthetic judgements (H1) was not confirmed since assessments of figurative artworks were not more favourable than abstract artworks. In the current study, neither liking, interest, or understanding depended on whether assessed artworks were abstract or figurative. It is possible that the information about artworks provided by the labels made it easier for viewers to give meaning to abstract artworks, and the resulting sense of understanding enhanced the appreciation of abstract art (Leder et al., 2004; Pelowski et al., 2017).

The current study has some limitations. First, we used a small number of stimuli when testing participants. However, the exhibition consisted of six works of art (as an individual work of art, we considered a single object, installation or series of works), all of which were used in this study. Second, a further difficulty of conducting the study was the limited duration of the exhibition. It has lasted only around 1.5 months, so we could not test a large group of participants. That is why we consider the current study as a pilot one. It might be worthwhile to replicate the study in a larger exhibition and with a bigger sample. Third, figurative artworks used as a research material presented mainly faces (a notably important type of stimulus for humans), which may have contributed to the higher arousal when viewing figurative rather than abstract art.

To conclude, our salient finding has been that the viewing time of labels that accompanied abstract artworks was longer than labels describing figurative art. This result suggests that labels might be a valuable educational tool and help non-experts in the meaning-making process, especially when they describe cognitively challenging artworks.


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