How Abstract Art Can Alter Our Vision of Space and Time
Sun, April 18, 2021

How Abstract Art Can Alter Our Vision of Space and Time


Swirling shapes, cosmic flow, or pure energy. Understanding abstract art requires a big imagination and an open mind. A new study even finds that it has qualities that can alter our vision of space and time. It can also help us put aside the minutiae of our daily life.

How our mind processes abstract art

Their study, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains that art affects our mindset. It can be emotionally evocative, generative of aesthetic experience, or even therapeutic. Yet, whether abstract art evokes a different cognitive state than figurative art remains unknown. Representational art or figurative art represents events or objects in the real world, often looking easily recognizable. Paintings of buildings, fruit, people, or other objects are examples of representational art, as are statues.

Bridging cognitive research and art theory

Celia Durkin from the Department of Psychology at Columbia University and team bridged cognitive research and art theory for their study. They conducted an experiment using the construal level theory (CLT).

In social psychology, CLT proposes that more distant objects (psychologically, temporally, physically) will be perceived in more abstract terms than the items that exist in close proximity. For example, if you are thinking about taking a vacation in a year or so, your thoughts will be abstract. You begin to wonder where you would go when you will get there, or where that vacation place will be. On the other hand, if you are going on vacation next week, your thinking will be more concrete. You begin to wonder what place you will be staying in or whether there will be good restaurants there.

They measured construal level elicited by representational art vs. abstract art and asked 840 participants to play the role of an art curator. These participants looked at 21 paintings by Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Stil, and Chuck Close. The artworks ranged from semi-representational to figurative to purely abstract.

To evaluate the link between abstraction and psychological distance (space or time), Durkin and the team gave the participants the opportunity to exhibit the artwork “around the corner,” “in a year,” “tomorrow,” or “in another state". The researchers found patterns in the respondents’ responses.

Abstract art evokes psychological distance

Those who looked at abstract art tend to see the paintings as depicting “far away” or in the future. They wanted to exhibit them in “another state” or “in a year.” On the contrary, those who looked at more representational art were more likely to display the art “around the corner” or “today.” Columbia University researchers suggest that abstract art can evoke psychological distance, which means seeing things more conceptually.

Durkin and the team also emphasized that a viewer’s subjective experience is important to a work of art. Art would be incomplete without the emotional or perceptual involvement of the viewer. Subjectively, experiencing abstract art involves various cognitive processes, ranging from mnemonic to perceptual. These cognitive processes even vary, depending on the level of abstraction of the art. The more ambiguous the image, the more abstract the work is. It likewise means the more the beholder must contribute to assigning value, utility, and meaning into the art.

“This means that art has an effect on our general cognitive state that goes beyond how much we enjoy it, to change the way we perceive events and make decisions, co-author Daphna Shohamy from the Department of Psychology told Cosmos.

In 2015, Dr. Vered Aviv of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, who was not involved in the study, looked at various studies regarding abstract art. One of her fascinating findings is that our brain prefers representational art as causes more brain activity that is linked with reward systems. Many observers would also classify representational art as “more interesting.” However, abstract paintings evoke more positive emotions. Aviv said that the possible reason could be because our brain is also up to a little challenge.



The brain doesn’t quite know how to categorize abstract

In another fMRI study published by Freelancers Union, it demonstrates that portrait, landscape, and still life evoke activity at category-specific and localized brain regions. However, abstract art does not have its own special category of brain activity. Instead, it activates responses in parts of the brain that are also activated by all categories of art. It appears that the brain processes abstract painting by understanding that it doesn’t belong to any category.

When looking at representational art, the beholders tend to dwell on the details. It’s different in abstract art as it allows the brain to scan the whole surface of the painting instead of focusing on certain features. Even if abstract art is less closely associated with associations, memories, or emotions, it may provide a different kind of reward: a slight detachment from reality. Aviv believes that new emotional paths and associations may be explored by the brain when looking at abstract art. Thus, it forms new creative links in our brains.

In a survey of 1,647 people in Japan, Statista found that the most popular genres of art and culture are visual arts (45.3%). These arts include paintings, craft arts, and sculptures. Meanwhile, the global art market was valued at over US$67 billion in 2018, up from almost 64 billion in 2017.  Online sales of works of art and culture have also seen increasing growth in recent years. The region with the highest share of the global art market is North America and the Louvre in Paris is the most visited art museum worldwide.

In New York, USA, art dealers account for 1.3% of the city's creative sector employment in 2017. Those in the film and television had the highest percentage of employment in the creative sector in the same period, shares the city's chief financial offer the Comptroller.



Most famous abstract artworks in history

Meanwhile, Learnodo Retaino Newton shares the most famous abstract paintings by renowned artists. Top in the list is The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. It became one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century. Other popular abstract artworks are the Number 5 (drip painting) by Jackson Pollock, Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky, and Broadway Boogie Woogie (geometric abstraction) by Piet Mondrian.

The findings of Columbia University researchers suggest that representational and abstract art have different effects on cognition.