Miller McCune online magazine has an article up right now that summarizes and comments on a study done for the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts on the influence of context on measures of how much subjects liked different works of art. The headline bluntly puts it, "In Art, Context is Counterproductive." Well, that's one way of looking at it, but it's really necessary to read at least Miller McCune's full article to see how the experiment was conducted, which, as expected, shows the results to be applicable only in a well-defined area. Psychologist Kenneth Bordens had a pool of 172 students "look at photos of two paintings and two sculptures in one of four styles: Impressionist, Renaissance, Dada and Outsider."
All participants were given a general definition of art, and a label stating the style the works represented. But half were also provided with a definition of that style, a brief history of its origins and information on the goals of the artists who worked in that style.So it's not as though he was throwing half his subjects into a room with Felix Gonzalez-Torres's "Untitled (Public Opinion)" (or any of the artist's other conceptual works) and asking them to respond aesthetically on the rating scale, then giving the other half information on the artist's intentions before having them do the same. Context doesn't hurt with a lot of more traditional representational art, and it's less necessary with some Abstract Expressionist pieces, which can be more intended for gut reactions from the viewer, but with a lot of contemporary conceptual art, the ideas at play can be the most important part of the work. Failing to acknowledge this variety of possibilities when it comes to the relationship between art and education is simplistic, and it's no doubt exactly what will happen in any subsequent articles that pick up on the study. Admittedly, this sort of response is what you'd expect from us, as an institution that takes education as one of the key components of its mission, and there's certainly room for interaction with art on a less intellectual level, but saying contextual knowledge actively harms one's appreciation of art seems pretty harsh!
They were then asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, not only how much they liked the work in question, but how closely it matched their personal conception of a work of art.
. . . This notion was largely supported by Bordens’ findings. “As ratings of the degree to which an artwork matched one’s internal prototype of art increased, liking ratings increased as well,” he writes. “Dada and Outsider art were rated as matching less well with internal concepts of art, and were liked less than Impressionism and Renaissance art.”
. . . “Providing contextual information led to participants perceiving examples of the various styles of art as matching less well with their internal standards than when no contextual information was presented,” Bordens writes. In other words, they were more likely to feel a piece conformed to their personal ideas about art — and thus more likely to enjoy or appreciate it — when it was presented without interpretation.
Bordens presents several possible explanations for this finding, which somewhat contradict a 2005 study by University of Vienna psychologist Helmut Leder. He writes that the contextual information presumably led to “greater conscious processing” of the pieces, which may have “led participants to be more critical.”
“In this experiment, the contextual information was very concrete, and may have encouraged participants to think concretely,” he notes. Newly equipped with a clear, rigid definition of what constitutes a certain type of art, the students were perhaps more likely to judge a particular painting as falling outside of its parameters.