Art on the web: Aesthetics, innovation and audience attention

Aesthetic theory explores art objects and the relationship of art objects to human experience (Dake, 2005; Landow, 1971) based on three elements: the creator, the visual object, and the viewer. In aesthetic theory, the creator generally intends to convey meaning through the art object, while the viewer is tasked with making meaning from the visual elements of the object as developed by the creator.


Related to aesthetic theory, media aesthetics theory, as defined by Zettl (2005), examines the production of media—specifically film, video, and computer presentations—and the function and interaction of aesthetic media factors in structuring effective visual communication for audience consumption.

Art objects have long been studied on the basis of traditional aesthetic theory. Art as viewed through the medium of the web, however, creates an emerging area of inquiry. When considering art on the web, a new element is added to the traditional aesthetic model–that of the media representation of the traditional art object. In essence, art works, as viewed on the web, create a new form of the art itself though the media aesthetics of presentation. As such, the examination of art as viewed on the web lends itself to study through Zettl’s (2005) media aesthetic theory.

In a recently published journal article, I explore the web-mediated, art viewing experience in a model presented below. This model is based on the intersection of aesthetic theory, media aesthetic theory, and the understanding that like physical museum installations, museum websites influence the way we experience artworks–as I discuss in detail in a previous post.


The data collected for my research sought to understand how art museums are using media aesthetics and technology to display their works of art on their websites. The data came from a content analysis of 313 art museum websites in an effort to understand how aesthetic media factors (color, two-dimensional space, three-dimensional space, sound) and technological innovation are used to create media representations of art objects. From there, the study used eyetracking technology in an experimental research design to test for audience reactions to certain changed media aesthetic variables in the mass-mediated viewing experience.

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As a whole, art museums displayed their artworks in a large size, with generally adequate visual space on these pages. In addition, the artworks were generally presented on a white background. Based on the tenets of media aesthetics theory, these findings could be said to be a starting point with which to indicate that art museums are generally showing rigor for visual displays of their artworks on their websites. At this point, art museums are capitalizing on an opportunity to provide a legitimate visiting experience for their virtual patrons, when considering media aesthetic factors.

Considering technological innovation, art museums have a strong presence on the web; however, most art museums are not necessarily using technological capabilities afforded by the digital technologies to make their collections available in ways that are not possible through print.

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Turning to effects, this study also used eyetracking data to understand how changes in aesthetics influence audience gaze patterns. Findings show that participants were most quickly attracted to artworks displayed on a black background, but they spent the longest amount of time looking at artworks displayed on a white background. This is a valuable finding for museum curators, providing empirical evidence of the effects of certain changed variables in the viewing experience. And it could be considered a positive finding when considering the results of the content analysis in conjunction with the eyetracking results: museums predominantly display their artworks on white backgrounds; eyetracking data showed this to be the color background that held participants’ visual attention for the longest amount of time.


This research has theoretical and practical implications. From a theoretical perspective, the research proposes a model that applies media aesthetics theory to aesthetics theory in the mass-mediated presentation of artworks; the content analysis then collects data that provides evidence of this new theoretical model. To understand media effects of the proposed model, from an audience consumption approach, the eyetracking data then provides empirical evidence of the effects of certain changed variables in the viewing experience. From the practical perspective, museum curators have a prime imperative in deciding how to best represent their museum collections in both a physical and virtual space to generate public knowledge and engagement. Regarding mass-mediated artwork presentations, this study provides empirical evidence for both current trends (through the content analysis data) and effects on the viewing experience (through the experiment using eyetracking data).

Article citation

Dahmen, N. S. (2016). From the walls to the web: Media aesthetics, technological innovation, and audience attention to artwork representations. International Journal of Art, Culture and Design Technologies, 5(2), 30-48. DOI: 10.4018/IJACDT.2016070103


Dake, D. (2005). Aesthetics theory. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, & K. Kenney (Eds.), Handbook of Visual Communication (pp. 23-42). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Landow, G. P. (1971). Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin. Princeton University Press.

Zettl, H. (2005). Aesthetics theory. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, & K. Kenney (Eds.), Handbook of Visual Communication (pp. 365-384). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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