HYPOTHESIS AND THEORY ARTICLE Front. Hum. Neurosci., 09 June 2015 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00295 Artworks as dichotomous objects: implications for the scientific study of aesthetic experience

Representational artworks are dichotomous in that they present us with two distinct aspects at once. In one aspect we are aware of what is represented while in the other we are aware of the material from which the representation is composed. The dichotomy arises due the incompatibility, indeed contradiction, between these aspects of awareness, both of which must be present if we are to fully appreciate the artwork.


I hypothesize that the degree of manifest dichotomy in a work determines the strength of its aesthetic effect, and propose this could be experimentally tested. I conclude that scientific studies of aesthetic experience should take the dichotomous nature of artworks into account.


Seen at closer quarters the engine hovers between appearing as solid metal and buttery paint and the poor passengers in the open-top carriages almost dissolve into gray blobs. If we focus too closely on a single patch of paint the object it forms disappears and with it the dichotomous effect.


The dichotomy between these two aspects of awareness is one that all representational works of art exploit because they appear both as an arrangement of materials such paint, ink, plaster, metal, stone, etc. and as whatever they represent. As we will see, many theorists have argued is a requirement of appreciating such artworks that we are aware of both distinct appearances simultaneously.




But I will argue there is something special about the way artists exploit this property that is an important part of how artworks function aesthetically and which any scientific explanation of aesthetic experience will need to take into account.


In particular, there is a recurring suggestion that pictures and paintings induce a kind of “dual” or “split” state of mind in which we are aware of distinct and incompatible aspects of the work simultaneously.9 Many authors characterize this state as “impossible,” “contradictory,” or “paradoxical,” in other words as irrational.  Pat: willing suspension of disbelief


there are three aspects to the dichotomous nature of representational artworks that can condition our aesthetic response: first, we are aware of the discrepancy between the matter from which the artwork is composed and what it represents; second, we are aware of discrepancies between the way things are represented in the artwork and how we would expect them to look in reality; and third, we are aware of many distinct conflicting meanings that attach to the same work at the same time.


It is not pictures in themselves that are paradoxical, contradictory, or impossible but our perceptual and cognitive responses to them.

Developmental studies

perceptual psychology


works of art are generally formed through integration of two incompatible elements, one of these being an attempted communication and the other an artistic structure that contradicts the communication.” (p. 235) It is through our experience of this incompatibility that works of art, not just visual but also theatrical and literary, have their power to move us.

Julian Bell argues that what is significant about representations is that they confront us with a contradictory sense of things that are present but also absent (Bell, 1999). He talks about the “mark” as a material object to which we assign associations, whether this is the intentional mark made by artist or the incidental mark made the skid of a tyre, or a boot print in the ground:

We see it and we see past it, or into it; it is what it is and a reminder of something else besides. It is when we see something in that double, ambivalent manner that we call it a mark. Seen another way, it might be so many grams of paint, or of rubber, or of a hole of such and such a depth in the ground.15

Church’s explanation of this double consciousness draws on a Kantian framework in which “… we experience different ways of seeing, or different appearances, as both conflicting and convergent whenever we are conscious of objects…” (p. 109). In her view, an object—the painting—can also have the appearance of something else—a landscape—because it is a requirement of conscious seeing in general that we conceive the different aspects from which it is possible to view a scene, but that these converge in our own single view. Our perception of the painting as an object conflicts with but also converges with its appearance as a landscape. In this way, Church retains the contradictory dualistic character of representations while seeking overall conceptual unity in the experience.17

we can see how these dichotomous properties have been exploited or manipulated by artists in order to condition our responses to their work.


of Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s arrangements of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and other objects that metamorphose into formally posed heads:

The overall effect is to induce a degree of perceptual dissonance that is exciting, if not somewhat disturbing.


But like all true paradoxes, The Treason of Images cheerfully resists any attempt at rationalization and stubbornly asserts the fact that the shape above the words is clearly a pipe, and yet—being confected from paint—is also not a pipe.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928/29, Oil on canvas, 62 × 81 cm, Los Angeles, County Museum. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1990, Beeswax, pigment, and human hair, 60 × 44 × 29 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photograph by the author. © Robert Gober, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Rachel Whiteread, Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, 2000, Concrete, Judenplatz, Vienna. Image source: Wikimedia Creative Commons


3 kinds of dichotomy:

  • the disparity between its material constitution and the objects it represents.
  • the disparity between how we expect an object to look and how it actually looks in the work.
  • The third way in which artworks manifest their dichotomous nature lies in their capacity to elicit a multitude of distinct and contradictory meanings in the mind of the viewer.

It is characteristic of great works of art that they cannot be narrowly or precisely defined. Some researchers have argued certain works of art are great precisely because they evoke multiple or incomplete meanings (Zeki,

The neurology of ambiguity

Semir Zeki*

University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

Received 14 April 2003


The way artworks exploit these three kinds of dichotomy may be one of the factors distinguishing them from representational objects in general. For while all pictures and representational objects engender multiple and contradictory states of perception by their dichotomous nature, works of art do this to a greater extent.


Or consider Figure Figure1111 showing a modern train crossing the same railway bridge depicted by Turner in Figure Figure2.2. Although pleasant enough, it has none of the difficulty, expressiveness, or atmosphere elicited by Turner’s painting of the same subject. We have little reason to pay attention to the fabric from which it is composed, nor does it surprise us as a depiction of how a train would look crossing a bridge.


For many people, of course, the Jansch sculpture will be aesthetically preferable to the Picasso precisely because the arrangement of matter follows more closely the expected form of a horse. In this sense it is more “realistic” or recognizable, and appears to show greater evidence of skill in its construction. It is probable that the level of expertise of the viewer will be an important factor in this judgment, with art experts being inclined to favor the Picasso because it places greater demands on imaginative resources and because it has deeper poetic resonance (the leather of the seat evokes the skin of the animal, we think of holding the handle bars and “taking the bull by the horns,” of Picasso conjuring up a potent symbol of Spanish vitality from the among the privations of wartime Paris, etc.). For all its skilful construction, the wooden horse fails to ignite as many diverse associations, and therefore ranks as a lesser work of art.


based on all of the above:

Based on these observations I offer the following hypothesis: that our aesthetic experience of artworks is determined, in part, by our awareness of their dichotomous properties. This hypothesis predicts a correlation between manifest degree of dichotomy and aesthetic effect, such that objects manifesting greater degrees of perceived dichotomy will elicit a correspondingly stronger aesthetic experience.23 The hypothesis further predicts higher levels of art expertise will be a factor in preference for greater degrees of perceived dichotomy.

there are many discussions of ambiguity in the literature (Empson)

different kinds of ambiguity:


Kaplan A. I., Kris E. (1948). Esthetic ambiguity. Philos. Phenomenol. Res. 8, 415–435. 10.2307/2103211

“disjunctive ambiguities” containing several alternative and mutually exclusive meanings, and “integrative ambiguities” where manifold meanings interact to form a complex and shifting pattern of overall sense. These different kinds of ambiguity are employed in literary works to enhance their aesthetic value.


Berlyne () discussed the way cubist paintings can present the viewer with contradictory cues, where one segment of the painting can belong at the same time to two objects. These cues can be registered simultaneously, in which case they generate incongruity or conflict, or they can suddenly alternate in meaning, with one interpretation replacing another, giving rise to an increase in arousal or surprise. Berlyne D. E. (1971). Aesthetics and Psychobiology. East Norwalk, CT: Appleton-Century-Crofts. [

Jakesch and Leder () showed that moderate levels of perceived ambiguity or dissonance in modernist works of art are preferred to those with low levels.

Finding meaning in art: Preferred levels of ambiguity in art appreciation

A further study by Jakesch et al. () not only found that ambiguous artworks were rated more positively than non-ambiguous ones but the fact they were perceived as being harder to interpret made a contribution to this positive effect. This suggests the perceptual problems posed by ambiguous or dissonant artworks are experienced as beneficial to their aesthetic value
Muth C., Hesslinger V., Carbon C. C. (in press). The appeal of challenge in the Perception of art: how ambiguity, solvability of ambiguity and the opportunity for insight affect appreciation. Psychol. Aesthetics Creativity Arts. 10.1037/a0038814
Muth et al. () reported a robust correlation between degrees of ambiguity in artworks and aesthetic preference, with greater perceived ambiguity leading to higher ratings for liking and for interest. This positive aesthetic rating was also enhanced if the viewers felt able to resolve perceptual problems and gain insights into the meanings of the works that were not obvious at the outset. The positive aesthetic effect of semantic or perceptual ambiguity may be due not just to resolving a conundrum, the authors suggest, but from the “dynamic gain” of multiple insights acquired through the struggle to reach resolution.
The perceived tension between how an object is represented and how we expect it to appear may, in part, be accounted for by the predictive coding model of visual perception (Friston and Kiebel, ). Rather
Pat: so do artist deliberately and self-consciously produce work that is ambiguous?
Van de Cruys and Wagemans () have usefully applied this paradigm to aesthetic response. They detail a number of cases where artists have more or less deliberately induced prediction errors by the way they have structured their works, leading the viewer to struggle with interpreting the image. They argue this has a generally beneficial effect as far as aesthetic experience is concerned in that expending a certain amount of effort can be pleasurable, especially if this effort is rewarded by solving a perceptual conundrum.
Another approach is to consider the way artists might subvert the brain’s object recognition processing in order to heighten aesthetic impact. In an analysis of the “visual shock” elicited by the disfigured faces and bodies in Francis Bacon’s paintings, Zeki and Ishizu () argue the artist violated the brain’s templates for face and body recognition. These templates are particularly robust, and therefore more sensitive to distortions than areas of the brain responsible for recognizing human-made artifacts, such as planes and cars. They are also less prone to long-term adaptation, which the authors suggest is why Bacon’s deformations can remain disturbing, even after long-term exposure.
On the question of the relationship between art expertise and preference for manifest dichotomy, it is recognized that experts will cognitively process artworks in significantly different ways from non-experts (Cupchik, ; Leder et al., ). More specifically, recent research found art experts were less emotionally affected by images with a negative or unpleasant valence (Leder et al., ). The authors suggest this may be because the aesthetic stance of the art expert is more detached and distanced than the non-expert. Following this line of thought, it may be more likely that art experts can tolerate, or even be aroused by, images or objects that appear difficult, distressing, or confounding to others.
Much of the preceding literature, therefore, leads to the view that dichotomous, ambiguous, or uncanny stimuli induce special states of mind associated with heightened aesthetic effect. Why should this be so? One suggestion arising from what has been discussed here is that great artworks present us with paradoxical or contradictory information that demands greater attention and requires greater effort to process than do lesser works, so inculcating a stronger sense of involvement with the work on the part of the viewer. It may also be that awareness of the inherent dichotomies embedded in certain artworks is emotionally arousing due to the co-presence of conflicting sensations. This involvement or arousal may not be straightforwardly pleasurable. Indeed, it may be partly unpleasant. But it would create a more intimate bond between viewer and work, and presumably leave a greater impression on the mind, which might be measureable in distinct patterns of neurobiological activity, behavioral response, or memory effects.

In order to leave the last word to an artist I close with a brief extract from a conversation between the painter Francis Bacon and the art critic David Sylvester:

Bacon: I want a very ordered image, but I want it to have come about by chance.

Sylvester: It’s a matter of reconciling opposites I suppose, of making the thing be contradictory things at once.

Bacon: Well, isn’t it that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive, or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation…? Isn’t that what all art is about?26

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