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Why Certain People Respond to Cubist Art

Science helps us understand this puzzle.

Key points

  • Cubist art reduces natural forms to the abstract. Therefore it must be interpreted by the viewer.
  • Cubist art appreciation, on average, depends on whether or not the art itself can be processed into something meaningful to the viewer.
  • Two studies have shown that object recognition is an important factor in engaging viewers of cubist art.
Photo by the author.
Juan Gris, 1913: Pears and Grapes on a Table. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection.
Source: Photo by the author.

Since cubist art reduces natural forms to the abstract, it has to be interpreted. As I walked through the new cubist show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City this past Thanksgiving week, I noticed that I seemed to favor those paintings that I could decipher easily. The exhibition, entitled “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition," runs through January 22, 2023.

So, I got to thinking: Am I the only one who prefers forms I readily understand rather than those I have to work to interpret? As it turns out, it seems there are those who prefer cubist art and those who like it less, such as myself.

We have two groups of researchers to thank for this knowledge. The first (Kuchinke, et. al., 2009) examined pupillary response to cubist art of varying degrees of complexity in their laboratory. In this way, standard pupil measurements could be taken while the art was observed. The pupil dilates and constricts not only to dark and light but also when a viewer is interested in a work of art (dilates) or not (no response).

Photo by the author.
Pablo Picasso, 1913: The Cup of Coffee. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Exhibited, “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art October 20, 2022 – January 22, 2023.
Source: Photo by the author.

When the subjects (25 female and 10 male students and art novices) could not process the representations, their pupils showed little to no change. This artwork was also less favored upon questioning. For example, the painting (above) by Juan Gris would have been of more interest than the Pablo Picasso (left). It has easily identifiable forms within it. Pears are clearly in the bowl in the center of the painting and grapes are below it and slightly to the right in three clusters. On the other hand, the Picasso painting has fewer identifiable objects in it; certainly, the cup of coffee is not easily apparent.

To the researchers, these results indicated that cubist art appreciation, on average, depends on whether or not the art itself can be processed into something meaningful to the viewer. That which is understood will interest us more readily than an incomprehensible piece.

A few years later (2013) two investigators from Germany and one from Cardiff U.K. approached the same problem from a different direction. They studied 20 participants (average age 23.9 years, range 19-36 years, 13 females) in 2 blocks displaying stimuli in the form of pictures of cubist art in random order. In the first block, subjects rated the photos on how well they liked them. In the second, they were graded on their ability to distinguish objects within the photographs of the artworks.

The results indicated that those who were able to detect objects within the artworks liked cubist artwork better than those who did not. Using statistics, the Pearson correlation was R=.781, p<.0001. These findings suggest that Leonard A. Lauder, who collected cubist art for years, and others who find cubist art attractive are more likely to be able to decipher objects within these artworks than the general population. This inherent ability enhances their attraction to cubist art.

References

Kuchinke, L., Trapp, S., Jacobs, A. M., & Leder, H. (2009). “Pupillary responses in art appreciation: Effects of aesthetic emotions.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(3), 156–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014464

Muth, C., Pepperell, R., & Carbon, C.-C. (2013). “Give Me Gestalt! Preference for Cubist Artworks Revealing High Detectability of Objects.” Leonardo, 46(5), 488–489. https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_00649

Shirley M. Mueller (2014). Cubism Exposed. Medical Economics. https://www.medicaleconomics.com/view/cubism-exposed.

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