In Brief

Some people may dislike paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollack and other abstract artists because the artworks' apparent lack of meaning frustrates their own desire for a clear meaning--an effect that magnifies when people become conscious of their own death due to terror-management concerns--according to an article in the June Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 6).

Terror-management theory suggests that some people need to maintain a basic meaningful view of reality in order to manage their concerns about their mortality.

"Open, creative engagement with art can be inspirational," says lead researcher Mark Landau, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Arizona whose collaborators Jeff Greenberg, PhD, also of Arizona, Sheldon Solomon, PhD, of Skidmore College, Tom Pyszczynski, PhD, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, pioneered terror-management theory. "But for certain people, modern art's lack of apparent meaning can cause them to miss out on the benefits and rich experience of art."

In one of the article's four studies, the researchers asked 62 students to complete a questionnaire that assessed their preferences for order, certainty and specific knowledge. The researchers then had half the participants respond to two open-ended questions about their own death and half respond to questions about dental pain. Finally, the participants rated the appeal of eight untitled, relatively unknown paintings that fit in one of four genres: Christian-themed, non-Western iconographic, impressionistic landscape and abstract modernism.

The researchers found that people with a high need for structure were far more likely to negatively rate abstract modern paintings--especially among the participants primed to think about their own mortality.

In another study, the researchers presented 95 students with the same personality measurement and mortality questions as the previous study, then asked them to examine Jackson Pollock's abstract painting "Guardians of the Secret" and Constantin Brancusi's photograph "The Beginning of the World," which depicts a marble egg atop a mirrored metal disk resting on a cruciform limestone base. Half the participants saw the titles accompanying the pieces, while the other half saw the pieces labeled with insignificant titles, such as "#12." The researchers then asked the participants to rate how much they liked the piece, how much the piece appealed to them on a "gut-level" and how interested they would be seeing similar pieces.

The researchers found that mortality-primed participants with a high need for structure disliked the Pollock piece, except when they saw its meaningful title. They also found that the mortality-induced dislike for untitled modern art was specific to visually chaotic, seemingly meaningless pieces; mortality-primed participants who favored order didn't automatically dislike pieces with recognizable elements, like the Brancusi photograph.

The studies suggest that although modern art aims to encourage people to consider the world beyond their own experiences or knowledge, it may fail to do so--for certain people--when its images are completely unrecognizable. However, when the piece is imbued with meaning--by way of a title or explanation of the piece's composition--the effect is eliminated, suggesting that artists can attach meaning to their work without altering its content.