The appeal of Semantic Instability: Why we can appreciate art even if we do not solve its mysteries

Many artworks defy an easy consumption; still they are able to reach high popularity. This is not only true for Cubist artworks in which “each hypothesis we assume will be knocked out by a contradiction elsewhere” (Gombrich, 1960/2002, p. 240, see Figure 1) – we are also fascinated by Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and we can be interested in modern and contemporary art even if it is ambiguous rather than “easy” to process. When participants evaluated and elaborated artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries, the solvability of their ambiguities was even negatively related to interest. Instead, appreciation was positively linked to the artworks’ ambiguity and the strength of perceptual, cognitive and reflective insights that a person gained during their elaboration (Muth, Hesslinger, & Carbon, 2015). Art might enable us to gain insights that are rewarding even if they do not resolve its mysteries. Our idea is that perception and appreciation are no static concepts but dynamically bound to such insight-driven elaboration. We suggest that the specific pleasure that we gain by semantically unstable experiences with art might be grounded partially in these dynamic processes of rewarding insight and interesting potentials for new insight and not exclusively in reward by a final “mastering” of art (Muth & Carbon, 2016).

Semantic instability

Figure 1. Cubist artwork by Juan Gris ‘Mann im Café (Man in Café)’ from the year 1914. Wikimedia Commons.

Read more:

  • Muth, C., & Carbon, C. C. (2016). SeIns: Semantic Instability in Art. Art & Perception, 4(1-2), 145–184. doi: 10.1163/22134913-00002049

  • Muth, C., Hesslinger, V., & Carbon, C. C. (2015). The appeal of challenge in the perception of art: How ambiguity, solvability of ambiguity and the opportunity for insight affect appreciation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9(3), 206-216. doi: 10.1037/a0038814


  • Gombrich, E. (1960/2002). Art & Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. London: Phaidon