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Split Second: Indian Paintings

DATES July 13, 2011 through January 01, 2012
  • I think the task of figuring out how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is one of the greatest challenges of our time.
    –Malcolm Gladwell,

    This installation is the result of an online experiment that engaged the Brooklyn Museum’s web community. Taking inspiration from the critically acclaimed book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, the experiment and installation explore how our reaction to a work of art is affected by how much time we have, what we’re asked, and what we’re told about the object in question. Gladwell’s primary goal was to encourage people to take rapid cognition—the decisions we make in the blink of an eye—seriously. What happens when we use this idea to explore how people look at art?

    Split Second began in early February with a three-part online activity featuring images of Indian paintings in the Museum’s permanent collection. In the first stage, participants recorded split-second preferences for one image in a pair; in the second they answered questions about images before rating their appeal; and in the third, they read about images prior to rating them. Each part of the exercise aimed to examine how differing levels of engagement might affect a person’s reaction to a work of art. Participation was open to anyone with an Internet connection; 4,617 people took part during the ten-week period, recording 176,394 responses.

    This installation presents some of the most thought-provoking findings that emerged from that data. The results clearly show that our judgments about art change under different conditions. Split Second makes provocative suggestions about the role of time, context, engagement, and image qualities in our decision-making, ultimately posing intriguing new questions to pursue.

    Split Second: Indian Paintings is organized by Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology, in consultation with Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, Brooklyn Museum.

    The Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Indian paintings ranks among the top ten in the United States, representing the artistic traditions of many different regions, with examples dating from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth. Many of the works in this project have not been on view for several years, owing to their light sensitivity. The installation offers a rare opportunity to see these paintings firsthand and consider them from a new perspective.
    In the first part of the experiment, participants had just four seconds to decide which of two paintings they preferred. From a pool of 167 images, people gave Page from an Astrological Treatise the highest number of positive responses, and Portrait of Chandhu Lal the lowest.
    In the second and third parts of the experiment, people were asked to rate paintings in several different situations (without a time limit, after interacting with the image, or after reading about it). From a pool of forty images, Krishna and Radha under a Tree in a Storm earned the highest average ranking, and A Maid’s Words to Radha earned the lowest.
    Participants were asked to rate paintings with different amounts of contextual information. Some people rated paintings with no information, while others were shown tags (simple descriptors), a caption, or a full label—as on the wall here. On average, adding any sort of contextual information raised scores by about 10 points; for these two paintings, the boost was a dramatic 16 points.
  • TIME
    When participants had unlimited time to ponder the works, there was widespread change in their responses, which can be seen in this chart. Some paintings saw dramatic gains in their relative ranking, while others saw losses. Finch, Poppies, Dragonfly, and Bee is an example of a painting whose ranking improved when there was no time limit, while the Dhanashri Ragini didn’t fare as well.
    Complex paintings consistently got higher scores, but only when shown without any accompanying text. The large Mughal painting here is an example of a highly complex image that received very high scores. By contrast, a simpler image such as Portrait of an Old Man scored much lower. “Complexity” here refers to richness of information as determined by a computer program. It is also important to note that participants based their judgments on images displayed onscreen at similar sizes—size is just one of many qualities of a work of art that can be difficult to convey online and therefore did not play a significant role in this experiment.
    When people were given unlimited time to rate an image, their ratings tended to spread across the scale. However, when a group was instructed to answer a question about a work of art, their ratings tended to be closer to those of others who did the same task. The question that resulted in the most agreement was “About how many figures are depicted in this painting?”
  • February 1, 2011 Split Second: Indian Paintings, a small exhibition of ten rarely seen works from the Brooklyn Museum collection, on view July 13 through December 31, 2011, will result from a unique online experiment that was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s critically acclaimed book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

    The project is designed to explore how a viewer’s initial reaction to an artwork is affected by what they know, what they are asked, and what they have been told about the object in question. Just launched on the Museum website at, the experiment consists of three steps.

    The first phase consists of a timed trial. To gauge a person’s split-second reaction to a work of art, participants are given four seconds on a countdown clock and asked to select which painting they prefer from a randomly generated pair of images pulled from a pool of 167 works. Next, they are asked to write about a painting in their own words and then rate its appeal on a scale. In the final step, participants are asked to rate a work of art after being given unlimited time to view it alongside a typical interpretive text. Each part of the exercise aims to examine how a different type of information—or lack thereof—affects a viewer’s reaction to a work of art.

    The resulting installation will include the Indian paintings that generated the most controversial and dynamic responses during the evaluation process. Each painting will be accompanied by an analysis of the data collected and a visualization of the data that explores the public’s response during the online evaluation. The Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Indian paintings is considered among the finest in the United States, and is rarely on public view because of the paintings’ extreme sensitivity to light. Split Second: Indian Paintings provides a rare opportunity to view these seldom seen works.

    The installation is organized by Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology, in consultation with Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, Brooklyn Museum. Bernstein was also the organizer of the landmark exhibition Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition, presented at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008.

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