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 can be fascinated by Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and interested in modern and contemporary ambiguous art. Also, beauty might be only one of many motivations for art reception: People accept contradictory statements of pleasing but non-beautiful objects more if they refer to artworks than to everyday objects (Muth, Briesen, & Carbon, in press).

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 insights that a person gained during their elaboration (Muth, Hesslinger, & Carbon, 2015). Art might enable us to gain new experience and rewarding insights even if they do not resolve the artwork’s mysteries. Our idea is that perception and appreciation are no static concepts but dynamically bound to such experience-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 experience and not exclusively in a final “mastering” of art (Muth & Carbon, 2016, 2019).

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., Briesen, J., & Carbon, C. C. (in press). “I like how it looks but it is not beautiful”. Sensory appeal beyond beauty. Poetics. doi: 10.1016/j.poetic.2019.101376

  • 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. & Carbon, C. C. (2019). When Art Is Not Mastered but Creates Insights. Shifting In and Out of Semantic Instability. Art & Perception, 7, 123-136. doi: 10.1163/22134913-20191118

  • 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

  • Muth, C., Hesslinger, V. M., & Carbon, C. C. (2018). Variants of Semantic Instability (SeIns) in the arts. A classification study based on experiential reports. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 12(1), 11-23.


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