Books Meet Art @ Brooklyn Museum

Several years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s all about how our brains make snap judgments, or as he calls it, engage in “thin-slicing.” The book opens with a discussion of a sculpture, the Getty kouros. Gladwell explains how experts evaluated the sculpture and tried to decide whether it was genuine or a forgery.

Gladwell argues that the experts who had no expectations about the statue, and no vested interest, looked at it and instinctively felt that something about it was “wrong.” He posits that their brains are subconsciously recognizing something that their conscious minds can’t express.

Getty kouros


Well, this idea of snap judgments and art inspired some folks over at the Brooklyn Museum to see how art patrons would react to thin-slicing. They created the project Split Second: Indian Paintings.


Shelly Bernstein writes:
“This project’s main source of inspiration is Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  The book explores the power and pitfalls of initial reactions. After reading it, I started to wonder how the same theories might apply to a visitor’s reaction to a work of art. How does a person’s split-second reaction to a work of art change with the addition of typical museum interpretive text? As visitors walk through our galleries, what kind of work are they drawn to? And if they stop, look, read, or respond, how does their opinion of that work change?”

The project began online, asking web visitors to evaluate pieces of art. Some were given unlimited time, and others were given just a few seconds to rate their impressions. The team then analyzed the data and came to some interesting conclusions. For one, “complex” paintings did fairly well in the short time period, but they did much better when people were given an unlimited amount of time.

This cool handy chart shows how the rankings changed depending on the variables.

I admit, I didn’t learn about this project until it had been completed. I was interested in it, though, so when I saw the museum had put its findings on display, I went to go check it out.

Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum

Out of all the pieces on display, the one that really stood out to me was King Solomon and His Court. I had viewed the piece online, and hadn’t been that impressed. It was a highly detailed painting, with a large frame that took up a good portion of the viewing window. However, in person, it was amazing. It was much bigger that I thought it would be (roughly 20 inches by 12 inches), and the figures no longer looked smooshed together. The frame was exactly right, proportionally. It was a great painting, and if I had just viewed in online, with either a four second window or unlimited time, I would have never appreciated it as much as I did in person.

King Solomon and His Court

I love the idea of adapting ideas in books to other applications. Have you seen any other examples of this? If so, please share!

If you’re interested in reading more about this project, the series of blog posts from the Brooklyn Museum is here: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/tag/splitsecond/
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